Maria Palacios will be sending us daily updates (as appropriate) from her mission trip to McAllen, Texas where she is volunteering at Catholic Charities RGV and helping Sister Norma Pimentel with her work at the border aiding refugees just released from detention centers. Please follow her journey here and on all of our Social Media outlets.
While there are toys to play with, some of the children at the Center are just looking for some quiet time. They are simply happy to be reunited with their parents. One little boy was in a room full of children playing with all sorts of toys. There were cars and trucks, blocks and legos. But this child simply wanted to sit with his father and have him read books to him. They sat there for hours simply spending time together. There were a few children that grew comfortable with me. On a few occasions, they would ask me to spend time reading to them. Being quiet and simply sitting and reading a book seemed to offer comfort.
The voyage continues. May God protect and guide their path. This father and son are on their way to the bus station. From there they will travel to Florida where they will stay with family until the pending court date.
July 31, 2018 – Our days here are long and exhausting. There is always something that needs to get done and someone that needs to be assisted. Sometimes it’s impossible to simply find time to eat. As the number of families at the center started to decrease, or so we think, today I had the opportunity to sit down and have a meal with the families for the very first time. I had witnessed the process of mealtime on numerous occasions, but never actually sat down and ate alongside the guests. All the meals are donated by different community groups. They bring the food to the center and meal time is organized by the infamous Consuelo who has her own established processed for getting things done. Consuelo usually sets everything up with help from some of the mothers who will serve the meals and the fathers who will set up the tables and chairs. Everything at the Center is a group effort. Consuelo always makes sure that the meal does not start until either she or a guest says a prayer or gives thanks. At the Center, our prayer ends with “ lo que viene de ariba, para la barriga” (what comes from above goes in the belly), in Spanish this phrase rhymes.
Today was a very special day. We only had 6 families left at the Center that were awaiting travel plans. For mealtime, we changed things up. We set up two long tables side by side so that we could all see each other. Since we were in a small group, we went around the table and one-by- each person stated why they were thankful for. All of the families that gave thanks stated they were thankful for all of the volunteers at the Center. They thanked us for all the help we have provided them, for all the love we had shown them, and the respect we treated them with. They were grateful for the food, the shelter, the clothes and most of all for treating them like human beings.
I sat next to a father and a son that fled gang violence in Honduras. He mentioned how he never had plans to come to America. In Honduras, he had a nice home on a big plot of land and a good job. However, he had to leave everything behind to save his boy. Gang violence had taken over their town in Honduras. He stated even though deaths were reported on the news every day, it had become a norm for everyone. Then one day it happened in front of him. He worked for a water company delivering water to different businesses. As he was delivering to one of the businesses, it was attacked by MS-13 gang members. Since the business did not pay their “dues” to the gang, 13 people were shot inside. A few weeks later the gang tried to force his 15 year old son to join the gang so that he could become a hit man just like the members who shot up that business. The father could not bear the idea of having his son forced into killing innocent people nor could he risk his son’s life. His only option was to flee his homeland and leave everything he built behind. When I asked why they didn’t report it to the police, he said that reporting it to the police would only put a larger target on their backs. They decided to take the long trip from Honduras to the United States to save their lives. Although they had a rough time when they handed themselves over to border patrol in an attempt to seek refugee status, they still believe in the safety and freedom of this land.
While there is so much work going on down here in McAllen, Texas, there are moments that are fun and full of joy. I met a little boy staying at the Center with his father. At first, when I tried to approach him, he would hide behind his father. After a few days of seeing me on a consistent basis, he was more comfortable with me and he opened up. Before he left, we had a fun game of tag while waiting for the van to pick up him and his father to take them to the bus station. One of my colleagues was able to capture the moment I caught him. This is the only picture I have with him and I will explain why. His father wanted to take a picture of the three of us to send to the boy’s mother so she can see the person who helped them here in the United States, but the boy refused because he was concerned that his mother would think that maybe his father got married while they were here. We all had a good laugh over that. I am happy to report that they made it safely to their next destination where family members were waiting to receive them.
Sometimes the clients do not have family members in the United States that can afford to pay for their travel arrangements. When that happens, how do we get them from Texas to their family in another state where they will wait for their court date? Well, as I have been saying, this is a complex process that relies on the help of many people and many agencies. Sometimes, other agencies will pick up the cost of travel for those families. I have had to help families in those circumstances. Making travel arrangements involves lots of coordination.
As stated previously, monetary donations are needed. This is helpful for the Center to purchase clothing, food, and to assist with transportation (as needed). Donations can be made on the established Go Fund Me Pages listed below.
All of the clients that we help are very appreciative of the work that we are doing, even the children. I have spent some of my time interacting with the kids at the center trying to get to know them. As I have said, many of them are fearful and connected to their parents. Some open up after awhile, but others will not. The other day, a group of the older kids shyly approached me and handed me this picture. I thought they were just showing it to me. As I handed back to them, one of the girls said, “No, it’s for you.” It was their way of thanking me for helping them.
July 27, 2018 – My first full day as a volunteer was Wednesday, July 25th and the deadline for Family Reunification was set for July 26th. Needless to say the rush was unbelievable. It is fair to assume that since the local detention centers were cutting it close to meeting the deadline for Family Reunification, that they released as many people as they possible could within those two days. Groups were being dropped off constantly at the center and this time children ranged from a few months old to teenagers.
My main job has been to help the clients fill out the forms for change of venue and change of address. Most, if not all them, are going to different states to stay with friends or family members, but they are to appear in court in Texas. If they don’t appear to an immigration court on the date they are given, they cannot continue their refugee case. Completing change of venue and change of address forms allows them, if approved, to get their immigration court moved to the state where they will be located. Those two days I filled out, by hand, over 350 changes of address forms between 8am to 10pm. Though most of the clients I have interacted with speak Spanish, a good number of them spoke Romanian, Portuguese, and many indigenous languages. Communicating can be a challenge, but we always manage to find a way to get things done. The clients are extremely grateful for the service we are providing because there would be no way they could file those forms on their own. Most of them wouldn’t even be able to sign the forms let alone understand how complete them. They are set to fail.
The clients that arrive at the center go through the following process:
- Intake – they fill out an intake form for the Center’s records
- Phone registration – Metro PCS donated boxes full of cell phones for the families so they can communicate with relatives in other states. They get free service for the first 6 months.
- Filing Change of Address – This is the job that I am responsible for which I described above.
- Filing Change of Venue – Again, I described this above.
- Arrange travel for families. With their new phones they can now call their family members to ask for help to buy them plane tickets or bus tickets to their destination.
Another HUGE part of project is transportation. All of the clients get airfare or buses booked throughout the day. We drop them off at the airport or bus terminal at 4:30am the earliest and 11pm the latest. I was once scheduled to drive a family to the airport at 4:30am for a 5:45am flight and then drove a family to the bus terminal for a 6am departure. Unfortunately, my alarm clock did not go off. But, I was able to reschedule all of their tickets and get them to their destinations after a thousand apologies.
Since we are so short staffed, this mission requires an enormous amount of team work not only from the deployed team but from all the agencies we are interacting with and the client’s themselves. Refugees pitch in taking out the garbage, washing the towels and sheets, and just helping out with any little task that pops up.
I’ve noticed the children around the center reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. They are also pointing to objects and attempting to learn their names in English. The same is true for colors and numbers. Most are terrified to leave their parents. I was filling out the change of address with one father that had a five year old child with him. The father had to step away about 6 feet away from where I was while his daughter was writing on a notebook. When she looked up and saw he was gone, she started crying asking “Y mi papa? Donde esta my papa?” / “and my dad, where is my dad?”. My heart broke and as I held back the tears I calmed her down and pointed to her dad.
I’ve seen Mothers breastfeeding their babies that were separated as well. Even though the time frame was shorter, they too were taken from the arms of their mothers. One mother told me she had been separated from her 9 year old daughter for 2 months. She said that she cried for weeks non-stop in the detention center and the officers would tell her to stop crying and “man-up”. She had left her country after losing hope due to the gangs in her hometown, but she just wanted to be with her daughter.
Even though the days are long and the work is constant, I know that God is giving me strength to continue to do this service. I also do this with the love and strength from everyone back home that has been sending me endless support. I find satisfaction in the smiles of the clients when they finally understand what they are supposed to do with the documents immigration gave them. I am overjoyed by the goodbye waves and hugs I get as they board their buses and flights to be reunited with family in the United States.
The work of God continues.
July 25, 2018 – To say that the situation at the border is overwhelming is an understatement. Everything is extremely fast moving because the center is receiving 100 to 200 families each day. Families that have recently been released from ICE custody are left at a bus station where Sister Norma Pimentel and her team pick them up and bring them to the center. There they are housed, assisted with their immigration paperwork, fed, clothed, and helped with arrangements to reconnect with their families members who may be located all over the country. I am the only volunteer who is fluent in Spanish in my group, as well as the only one with a legal immigration case management background. Though there are about 10 different jobs that need to be done by a limited amount of people, my main focus will be helping the families organize their documentation for their upcoming court dates where they will present their refugee cases. As a result of the court order to reunite children with their parents, most of the children here are between the ages of 2 and 10. It is easy to understand why they remain glued to their parents. I attempted to speak to a few of the children gathered in the cafeteria and although I speak fluent Spanish and have the same skin complexion as them, they were very hesitant to respond to me. Another group of volunteers informed us it takes a few days for them to get comfortable with people who are there to help them since they had just been released. A great deal of time is spent driving to the airport and bus station as the families receives confirmation of getting their fares paid for by family members. All meals are donated by the local community. Our group is comprised of three members from Catholic Charities Tennessee, one from Michigan and me. We are not helping at the warehouse sorting donations since the center is understaffed and all attention is needed there. The center is at full capacity.
They are in great need of monetary donations because it’s easier to manage. They are receiving clothes donations but the guests are mostly very skinny and they are swimming in the clothes that are donated. All they want is a t-shirt and a pair of jeans to change out of the ICE detention uniforms as soon as possible. Donations can be made on the established Go Fund Me Pages listed below.