Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Asylum Seekers in Albuquerque

Cared For By Jewish Volunteers: When it comes to facing the immigration crises - there's more than one - emanating from our southern border, we Jews are getting involved.

After all, it's our issue - as groups like Never Again Action make clear.

Led by Jewish activist group Never Again Action, hundreds marched down
Market Street to the San Francisco Federal Building to protest conditions
in migrant detention camps, July 5, 2019. Photo / Gabe Stutman

We Jews especially remember the SS St Louis, which entered American waters - and was turned away - 80 years ago last month. As Catherine Rampell writes in The Washington Post:
It’s hard not to think about such shameful episodes of U.S. history amid our current treatment of the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Our rejection of innocents seeking refuge from persecution, based on excuses that they might become an economic burden or national security threat. Our disingenuous claims that people need only to follow the rules and get in line.
But what we are doing today, Ms Rampell says, may be worse.
Today, we know exactly what we’re doing when we turn refugees away. Today, we know what happens when the “doors [are] closed” to a persecuted people, as White House senior adviser Jared Kushner’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, put it in her own oral history
Today, we know the drive such people have to succeed in the United States despite their persecution, as evidenced by the ancestors of Trump’s de facto immigration czar, Stephen Miller, who came here fleeing pogroms
U.S. policy toward displaced or persecuted peoples has never exactly been generous. But adjusted for the lessons that history now affords us, rarely has it been so deliberately stingy.

Here in New Mexico, we Jews are also getting involved. This is not new, but our concern and awareness of what is transpiring - in our name - at our border has been greatly heightened.

To help us better understand just what is going on, photojournalist Diane Joy Schmidt (see Our Prayers Are Heard, et al) investigated the situation.

Ms Schmidt reported the results in this summer's issue of The New Mexico Jewish Link. Her article is reprinted here with her permission.

Asylum Seekers in Albuquerque
Cared For By Jewish Volunteers
A Humanitarian Crisis Driven By Climate Change

Article & Photos by Diane Joy Schmidt

In the first week of June, border policy suddenly shifted and the stream of asylum seekers with children that were being released by ICE and the border patrol in El Paso and arriving on buses in El Paso, Deming and Albuquerque suddenly turned to a trickle.

On June 12th, faith groups in Albuquerque were told that the number of refugees that ICE and BP are releasing had suddenly decreased significantly, and that for now, many hospitality sites will not be receiving refugees. They have no way of knowing if this will continue and for how long.

As of the last week of May, parents with children arriving from Central and South America who crossed the U.S. border from Mexico and were detained by the U.S. Border Patrol surrendered and requested asylum.

They were given an alien number. 

If they had a credible fear of persecution and a sponsor who is willing to accept responsibility for them, after being fitted with ankle monitors, those with children were being released within a few days into nearby towns along the border, to find their way to their sponsors.

Once they reach their destinations, they check in with ICE and their ankle monitors are reset to within a 75-mile radius of their sponsors’ home. They are then given a date, sometimes months hence due to court backlogs, to return for a hearing to determine if they will be deported or can provisionally remain.

Abby, a 76-year-old volunteer and grandmother, carried a basket of toys around
that she had bought at discount stores to give the children. “I love children,” she said.

With detention centers dangerously overcrowded, in March, April and May, bus loads of asylum seekers wearing ankle monitors were suddenly being released into border towns in New Mexico, as well as in Texas, Arizona, and California. Annunciation House, the principal faith group that has been assisting asylum seekers in El Paso, a major detention point, became completely overwhelmed.

In the last few months, the cities of Deming and Las Cruces in New Mexico suddenly began to receive busloads of asylum seekers. After first declaring a state of emergency, the city council of the small city of Deming voted to allocate one million dollars to shelter the asylum seekers and help them on their way.

Five faith groups in Albuquerque answered a call for help from Mayor Tim Keller (see Urgent! Asylum Seekers Crisis!), and chose to take a lead in handling the busloads that began arriving here.

Among those present that day, including Catholic Charities and Lutheran Family Services, was Jessica, from the Jewish community, whose daughter Emily had gotten her involved. She noticed she was the only Jewish person present. She stepped up and since that day, she has taken a lead role in organizing a humanitarian relief effort within the close-knit Jewish community in Albuquerque.

ICE takes everything from people, including their shoelaces. These ten-year-old twins
from Honduras spent four nights in the ‘icebox’ a concrete cell, with just a mylar
‘space’ blanket. They tore off strips of it to make shoe laces for their shoes.

Beginning in March, with family and friends, she put together a coordinated team effort of volunteers from the Jewish community, and beyond, that has been funded completely by donations. So far they have assisted over 300 asylum seekers in traveling to their sponsor destinations around the country.

It costs between five and six thousand dollars for her group to assist one busload of fifty asylum seekers over a period of two to three days. 

Since March, the five faith groups have now helped thousands of adults with children that have come through Albuquerque. In May, the Albuquerque city council, despite considerable hullabaloo, finally voted to spend $250,000 to help out the faith groups.

Meanwhile some 60,000 men, women and children wait in wholly inadequate detention facilities at the border. The Office of the Inspector General of Homeland Security released a scathing report on May 28 about the El Paso Bridge site, demanding immediate action after their spot inspections revealed inhumanely crowded conditions.

On Friday before the Memorial Day weekend, while preparing for their fifth busload, Jessica received an urgent call from Rueben García at Annunciation House in El Paso. Could they take an extra busload? They scrambled and got as ready as they could.

On Sunday, two busloads of legally processed asylum seekers pulled up to a nondescript motel in Albuquerque after a five-hour drive from El Paso. One hundred parents with small children slowly got off the buses under the watchful eye of an armed guard, and with dazed expressions, were welcomed with clapping, smiles and greetings by volunteers from the Jewish community and friends who stood ready to receive them.

As they gathered under the shade of a tree, they stared with a dark intensity at the speaker who addressed them in Spanish.

They heard, “We are here to help you. You are safe,” repeatedly. By the third time, eyes began to soften and, among the women, some to redden. 

Jessica’s daughter Emily, a 21-year-old recent UNM graduate with a double major in Chicano(a) Studies and Spanish, explained to the group in fluent Spanish that they would each be checked by a doctor, stay in hotel rooms in groups of four, receive hot meals, clean shoes and clothes, have travel arrangements with their sponsors made, and be sent on their way.

An eerie silence pervaded as they shuffled into the building. When they had first surrendered at the border requesting asylum and were brought into detention, their shoes had been stripped of shoelaces, from parents and children alike, their belongings taken from them, and their alien numbers affixed to paper bracelets around their wrists.

In an orderly, if seemingly chaotic, frenzy, within two hours, everyone was checked in by the intake team, among them social workers who checked the children for signs of traumatic stress. They were handed toothbrush kits and toys, brought in groups of four to their rooms by the hospitality team, visited in their rooms and given a checkup by a medical team of a doctor or nurse practitioner and translator, and then brought to the ‘store’ where they were able to pick out clean underwear, shoes and clothing. There were supposed to be four doctors there that day, however three had suddenly rushed off to Deming when they got a call that a busload of 400 had unexpectedly arrived there.

A tee shirt worn by a Congregation Albert volunteer coordinator. 

A volunteer ran up to Jessica to report that one woman, who was still nursing but whose baby was already in Houston, urgently needed a breast pump. The volunteer was immediately dispatched to Walgreens with a handful of gift cards to buy one.

A woman from Honduras with two small children, whose husband had been murdered in the streets there, suddenly discovered that her cousin in Houston was refusing to sponsor her. After she contacted another friend in Virginia who agreed to be her new sponsor, Jessica worked the phones to get ICE to establish her new destination. Her two children showed me how they had made shoelaces by tearing off strips from the thin mylar blanket they were given while in the cold “icebox” detention cell in El Paso.

A third family would remain distraught; they had been forced to board the bus for Albuquerque without their grandmother, who was mute. She had never been left alone before. They were advised to continue to their destination. A week later, Jessica would finally locate her—she was still in the makeshift detention camp under a bridge in El Paso surrounded with razor wire that was supposed to be only a temporary holding area, an outside area that the Inspector General had not even been shown on his spot checks.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General used this photo
in a report to show crowded holding cells at an immigration facility in El Paso.
The government shielded the faces of detainees.
Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General

On May 31st, The New York Times reported El Paso Immigration Center Is Dangerously Overcrowded, Inspector General Warns, with a DHS photo showing inhumane conditions and a report released by Homeland Security’s own Office of the Inspector General that revealed, among other horrors, a holding cell designed for 35 that held 155, where people had been kept for weeks in standing room only conditions.

At six that evening, volunteers from a congregation brought in hot meals they had prepared: baked ziti, steamed vegetables, salad and rolls. The second night they brought baked chicken. The travel team worked non-stop through the night, contacting the sponsors to arrange for them to send money to pay for bus and plane tickets where needed, and then arranging a pool of drivers who would be taking them to the airport or bus station.

The travel team pitched in their own money together and bought car seats and booster seats for the children to use in this next short trip. At the airport, they would be greeted by a team member of a different ad hoc group who would assist them with TSA processing.

Within two days, the hotel would fall silent as almost all were now on their way out of New Mexico. The rooms were paid for and the housekeeping staff of the hotel received monetary compensation for their work. But of course, there would be snafus.

Climate change is the greatest driver of this humanitarian crisis, as one story shows. 

Leaving behind his wife and other children, Miguel, 32,from the western highlands of Guatemala,walked two days carrying his four-year-old son until he reached a paved road where he was able to catch a ride north. He said that after they crossed the U.S. border in a truck, they were apprehended and they surrendered to the border patrol.

We sat down in a meeting room at the hotel on Monday. Speaking with him through a student translator who spoke rudimentary Spanish, we didn’t recognize that Miguel himself only spoke and understood very limited Spanish. His simple answers were barely adequate to articulate the sorrows that had brought him down from the cloud rainforests to a strange land.

Miguel said he was not able to go to school and so he cannot read and write. These communication barriers would cause an almost tragicomic mixup later that day.

Miguel’s native tongue is Chuj, one of the Mayan languages. It is spoken by the Chuj people, who number about 50,000, and who live at an altitude of about 7,700 feet in the high mountain range of Guatemala that borders Mexico.

One of the oldest proto-Mayan language groups, the Chuj have inhabited Guatemala going back at least 4,000 years. When asked why he had left home and family, Miguel explained simply, “When we go to ask the people with the money for work, they beat us.”

The Mayan people have been the most vulnerable victims of racism, and most persecuted of all inhabitants of Central America. Systematically denied rights, their land and water taken from them, 70% suffer from malnutrition and stunted growth, a rate that is the sixth worst in the world.

Over the last three years, sudden early frosts and drought have caused their subsistence crops of maize and beans to fail. There is no longer wage work to be found in the coffee plantations because the plants have shriveled. With no produce to eat or sell, the fragile remaining woodlands are being chopped down to sell for firewood. Denuded, the mountains are further destroyed by mudslides.

For fifty years renowned Guatemalan climate scientist and former environmental minister Luis Ferraté has been sounding the alarm that this trend would become irreversible.

And now, because of climate change, their cloud rainforest is drying up. It is estimated that within the next fifty years, all the high mountain cloud rainforests in the world will be gone, a study funded by the USDA Forest Service International Institute of Tropical Forestry shows.

New York Times columnist Roger Cohen traveled to Guatemala to see for himself: “I have never been anywhere that conveyed such a palpable sense of the earth dying. President Trump thinks climate change is a joke. He should come here. He would understand another big migration driver.”

The land is dying. Cohen linked his May 10th column, ‘Here There is Nothing’, to another in-depth report, by The New Yorker staff writer Jonathan Blitzer, How Climate Change Is Fueling the U.S. Border Crisis.

Climate change has tipped the scales. Climate change is happening too fast for humans to adapt, if they stay in place. A U.S. agricultural aid program working with the highland farmers to try different methods to deal with climate change was showing some results after three years. Trump has cut all such programs.

A volunteer receives a goodbye hug from a child seeking asylum.
When the families arrived, they shed tears.
When they left, the volunteers cried.

While we spoke, Abby, a 76-year-old volunteer and grandmother, jumped up to bring Miguel’s small son a box of crayons and a coloring book. She carried a basket of toys around that she had bought at discount stores to give the children.

“I love children,” she said. When asked about some members of her congregation who do not agree with helping the asylum seekers, she sagely replied,

“I don’t know about that. I surround myself
with people of like mind.”

The boy quietly colored during the half-hour that we talked, using only one color, a light blue crayon, on a page of the book. Perhaps it was only the color, but his lines seemed more tentative, lighter than those made by other children that colorfully filled other pages.

In the early 1980’s the Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt announced that to be poor was a sin, and sent the army to kill some 300,000 indigenous men, women and children. Miguel said that yes, he knew about this, because his uncle was killed then. Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide in 2013 for trying to exterminate an entire Mayan ethnic group.

Steven Speilberg’s [USC] Shoah Foundation has documented the testimony of survivors of the Guatemalan genocide, the only project they have pursued in the Western Hemisphere.

The current Guatemalan president, Jimmy Morales, has not provided much in the way of aid to the drought-stricken areas. However, he welcomes the new plan Trump offered this week after shutting down aid programs—advisors to stop the flow of migrants.

Miguel hopes his son will have the opportunity to go to school. He would do any kind of hard work to earn money to send to his wife, who is sick, and to some day to build a house for her.

I felt devastated by his story, knowing it was something of a miracle for him to have reached this first safe harbor, and the challenges he will face from here. Rhonda, one of the lead organizers, insisted, “You must return tomorrow and see the change in people. After a good night’s sleep, some kindness, a meal, and a plan to reach where they are going, they are smiling, they are laughing.”

When I returned Tuesday after a sleepless night worrying about him, Miguel and his son had already been put on a bus late the night before, headed, they thought, for Alabama.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches being made to take on the long bus ride journeys
across the country to their sponsors. 

With the best of intentions

Tuesday night Jessica got a call from Miguel with the one-hour phone he had been provided with that was preprogrammed with her number and that of his cousin, his sponsor. He was waiting at the bus station in Alabama for his cousin to pick him up, and now the bus station was about to close. He wanted to know how far it was from the station to the town where his cousin lived.

Jessica asked to speak to the bus station attendant. The reply, “What?! This is Santa Ana, California!” Somehow his tickets had accidentally gotten switched with a fellow traveler’s before they left Albuquerque.

Frantic phone calls located the other traveler and his son, who thought they were in California. They got off their bus in Shreveport, Louisiana and three hours later were re-ticketed onto another bus headed back west. Meanwhile, Miguel and his son were ferried by an Uber driver forty-five minutes to LAX, where a police sergeant met and escorted them to a plane.

When they changed planes in Houston, through another congregant’s contacts, a Southwest airline employee made sure they got on the right flight.

After the core teams had handled emergencies nonstop for days, did Jessica have any regrets that she had taken on this project? 

“None whatsoever,” she answered without hesitation. 

And there has been a ripple effect. She added, “We are now reaching out to other Jewish organizations who will be able to further assist the asylum seekers once they leave our site and continue their journeys .”

Right now, there are no asylum seekers coming through Albuquerque.
Donations are not needed at this time. Click here to sign up for the 
JASI (Jewish Asylum Seekers Initiative) email list and stay in the loop.

No comments: