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“Their feet were so wrecked—blisters and just bloody.”
Galen Rodes-Acar had one little pink tub at her disposal. She’d fill it with warm water and a few drops of bleach, and welcome a traveler to soak their feet for 20 minutes. Then she’d empty the tub, refill it, and call the next person in line.
One by one, the migrants gently washed the dirt out of their own wounds until Rodes-Acar could check their cuts, hand them Neosporin and a pair of clean socks, and invite them to repeat the ritual the next day.
“I mean, the foot bath was brown by the end,” she says. “And, like, sand would come out of it.”
For a week this past May, Rodes-Acar washed people’s feet at a Salvation Army in Yuma, Arizona. Immigrants who have walked from Central America through Mexico, made it through U.S. Customs and Border Protection and detention centers, and subsequently been released into the United States can get meals at the Salvation Army, along with a safe place to sleep and help contacting their U.S.-based sponsors who will book them bus or plane tickets to their ultimate destinations.
Rodes-Acar is a staffer at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington—one of 18 the organization has sent to the border this year to help ease the immigrants’ entry into a country that is actively developing and testing a full suite of policies designed to keep them out.
These Catholic Charities staffers are not alone in their journey from D.C. to the border.
In the town that largely created today’s immigration crisis—the Washington that wrote poor foreign policy, poor immigration policy, and is driving a white nationalism revival—regular people are scrambling to find ways to help incoming immigrants, who they see as fellow regular people deserving of a good life.
Over the past few years, attorneys, faith leaders, activists, and people so jarred by immigration news that has included, in turns, separating children from their parents, filthy and overcrowded detention centers, and aggressive deportation efforts, have been traveling south to see the border for themselves. Their goals: to help immigrants in whatever capacity they can, to pray, and to simply understand what’s actually happening where Mexico meets Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
When Rodes-Acar got home this spring, she talked to her kids about what she saw on her trip. “I showed them the map of Guatemala and I was like, ‘Look, they walked through from this little place and they came all the way up, hiding from border patrols, hiding from all of that. And they’ve come with just what they have on their backs.’ I mean, imagine that. They’re on the road for like three weeks, four weeks, not eating,” she says. “And I was like, ‘Think about that, you guys. Think about it when you’re complaining that you only have one kind of cereal to eat for breakfast.’”
D.C. resident Heather Cronk went down to San Diego in the spring of 2018. She was working as co-director of an organization called Showing Up for Racial Justice at the time, and in that capacity had gotten in touch with a friend who was accompanying a caravan of migrants walking north toward the U.S. border. Cronk asked if she could help in any way.
“The response back was, ‘We actually have a lot of people on the caravan who had to drop everything and make a really quick decision to flee political violence, personal violence, gangs threats,’” remembers Cronk. “And they had not lined up a sponsor for when they get to the border.”
Migrants eligible for release into the U.S. need to show that they have a sponsor who will initially provide them food and shelter, a mailing address to receive court-date papers, and often buy them a one-way ticket to wherever in the U.S. the sponsor lives.
Many migrants come to the United States with contact information for a relative or close friend who can fill out the paperwork necessary to become a sponsor. Cronk went about organizing plans for those who didn’t. SURJ partnered with immigrant justice organizations like Innovation Law Lab and Al Otro Lado, which had been offering legal clinics to people in the caravan along the way to ensure that they knew their rights when they arrived at the border. These groups knew people who needed sponsors.
Cronk put out a call to SURJ’s networks asking, more or less, for anyone willing to open their home to a stranger in need. “I thought, you know, maybe we’ll get five or 10 folks who would say yes to that, right? Like that’s a really high-bar ask,” she remembers. “One by one, I started getting pings on my phone saying one person signed up, and then five people signed up, and then 20 people signed up. And within about 48 hours, we had 200 people who were willing to open their homes to a stranger,” says Cronk.
She flew down to the border, crossed into Mexico, and set about matchmaking, which took place on the third floor of a coffee shop in Tijuana. Migrants’ children played soccer in the hallway. “Everyone from the caravan, each night they did collective meetings where they were making decisions together about, you know, here’s the atmosphere right now, here are the choices that we need to make. So I went into a room and they were deciding when they were going to go to border patrol and turn themselves in,” she says.
“I literally gave everyone a piece of paper that had a person’s name, a phone number, and a city and state, and said, ‘Commit this to memory. This is the person who’s going to be championing you, who is ready to open their home when you get out.’”
The program—called Asylum-Seekers Sponsorship Project—still accepts volunteer sponsors, who are asked to support the people they welcome with food, shelter, medical care, and legal help for six months to a year. Cronk says that some of the immigrants have already gotten work permits and moved from their sponsors’ homes into their own apartments.
M. Lucero Ortiz traveled the same route at around the same time. She is a D.C.-based immigration attorney—one of several who went to work inside various border detention centers in the spring and summer of 2018. For Ortiz, the border was familiar ground.
She went to Texas on her own in 2014 to offer pro bono services to unaccompanied minors and migrants seeking asylum. She volunteered for RAICES (The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services), as well as the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in the Rio Grande Valley, where immigrants just released into the U.S. can get a shower, a good meal, and a place to sleep.
Ortiz spent her trip sorting used clothes, and she loved the work. “That was the best task because I felt like I was a personal stylist, figuring out people’s measurements and then trying to bring them very fashionable outfits,” she says.
Subsequent trips have been less joyful, as the situation at the border has grown more desperate and the outcomes have become increasingly devastating.
Attorneys Caroline Solís and Jennifer Bibby-Gerth, both of whom work at Catholic Charities DC, witnessed child separation last August as they met with immigrants in detention and asked them for their stories in an effort to connect them with pro bono representation. (The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc., or CLINIC, sent 40 legal practitioners to the border in this period, six of whom were from the D.C. area.)
Solís and Bibby-Gerth worked at the El Paso Processing Center in Texas and the Otero County Processing Center in New Mexico doing about five intakes a day at 45 minutes each for a week and a half. They both met parents in detention who were separated from their children. Solís says of one man: “His voice had no affectation, he was just completely dejected. He was looking down. You can’t imagine what he’s going through, being separated from his son. But you could certainly see it in his face when he’s talking.”
In Mexico City last November, where Ortiz met migrants who were making their way to the border, she gave presentations on asylum law in a sporting complex where a section of a playing field was chock-a-block with tents housing migrants who were on their way north. Her presentations covered how difficult it is to win an asylum case, and what situations are covered under the law. The message was not always well received.
“They thought that we were working with the administration, that we were trying to dissuade them,” she says. “They called us all sorts of names. They were like, ‘No, that’s not what I’ve heard. That’s not what I know.’ Like you’re literally telling me the sky is not blue. Like I’ve been told my entire life, the sky is blue. The United States is going to give me protection if I am fleeing from my country. And you’re telling me that’s not true. I don’t believe you.”
“And so there’s desperation, there’s so much desperation.”
She saw more desperation, and worse, when she went to Harlingen, Texas, in June 2018 to work with the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project (ProBAR) and return to the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center. An anonymous donor—she doesn’t know who—was sponsoring flights and accommodations for D.C.-area attorneys who could go into detention centers and try to help migrants get out and reunite with their children. She did legal intakes in the Port Isabel Detention Center, and tried to match parents and children who had been separated.
Some of the children were so young, she says, they didn’t know their parents’ names beyond “mommy” or “daddy.” Some children spoke indigenous languages, not Spanish. “For us, it was just trying to figure out as the adults, who are you? Who did you come with? What do they look like? ” She remembers thinking that the average coat check was more thoughtfully executed than this system, where human lives were at stake. “We kept saying, like, they didn’t even give them bracelets,” she says.
Ortiz returned to the border in August 2018 with CARECEN, the Central American Resource Center in Columbia Heights, where she is the director of legal services. She is going back yet again in mid-August, this time to San Diego and Tijuana.
She remembers talking to the press after one of the 2018 trips. “We talked about how these are starting to look like concentration camps. Like why are the conditions so bad?” she says. “And I remember we got a lot of pushback, right? Like, you shouldn’t be using those words. Like, there are very historical connotations behind those words. And while we were sensitive to that, we also wanted to sound the alarm. This is bad. I mean literally it’s like the United States declared war against Central America and we didn’t officially declare it. I mean to separate children from their mothers is an act of aggression, an act of war.”
These sorts of comparisons came up again and again among locals who have volunteered at the border. Rabbi Charles Arian of Kehilat Shalom in Gaithersburg, who took a delegation of rabbis and Jewish educators to the border last December, says: “If ‘never again’ means just Jews, then it’s a meaningless phrase. ‘Never again’ has to be never again anybody, OK? And I’m not saying it’s the Holocaust, but the Holocaust wasn’t the Holocaust until it was. And so we have to step in to make sure that things that aren’t the Holocaust don’t become the Holocaust.”
Arian and his group made a faith-based trip in collaboration with a Catholic organization, Kino Border Initiative. He started planning the trip after news of the child separation policy broke. At first, Arian had trouble booking his trip. “Most of the organizations that I contacted emailed back saying, you know, ‘We are so in crisis, you would just be in the way,’” he recalls. He wanted to be useful, to make a religious response to the crisis, and to learn. A short trip or a publicity moment wouldn’t do.
The partner he found, Kino Border Initiative, is a Catholic organization that offers direct humanitarian assistance to migrants in Mexico and “immersion experiences” for visitors, who often meet with law enforcement officers and migrants alike.
Georgetown University, for example, has been sending students to Kino Border Initiative on alternative spring breaks for eight years. Grace Laria went down as a freshman, and now as a recent graduate she’s a legal assistant at the Santa Fe Dreamers Project through Jesuit Volunteer Corps. “This trip kinda sealed the deal in terms of what I want to do in my life,” she says. One of her lingering memories is of a moment in their tour of the Eloy Detention Center when she walked up to a fence and saw detainees on the other side, and a woman said, in Spanish, something along the lines of “We love having visitors.” Laria took her to mean that she loved having witnesses—people to see what they were going through.
Sofia Carratala, who also just graduated Georgetown, went on the trip last spring and the spring before, and that enabled her to see a massive change in the volume of immigrants. “The first year we served one meal to everyone seeking the services of Kino Border Initiative. And then this year we served three rounds of lunch,” she says.
When Arian contacted Kino, he says, they told him that they usually only accept Catholic groups, but that if he could organize a group of no fewer than five or more than 10 rabbis, they could welcome them. Arian is an active Georgetown University alum and appreciates the Jesuit way of education.
He reached out to rabbis and synagogues across the country and filled the 10 slots in short order, ultimately turning several people away. Father Peter Neeley, the associate director of education at Kino, hosted the rabbis. A picture from the trip shows Arian and Neeley with their arms slung around each other, smiling, and with nearly matching gray-white beards.
Neeley says his organization welcomed 142 groups last year and is currently booked through the end of 2019 and beyond. One of his favorite regular visitors is an accountant in Philadelphia who uses his annual summer vacation to come down and volunteer with Kino.
The rabbis and Jewish educators visited a courtroom in Tucson, Arizona, where they witnessed Operation Streamline, a federal effort to prosecute people who enter the U.S. without authorization. The court tries dozens of people at once.
“The image,” says Neeley, “a bunch of people dressed in their clothes that they just walked across the border with or they got picked up at work with—you know, some little old Guatemalan indigenous woman, at 65 years old, chained at the waist, chained at the hands, chained at the feet, shuffling into court and [the judge] just saying, ‘Are you guilty?’ And they all say, ‘Yes, we’re guilty.’ OK. You’re all being deported or sent to prison or detention centers, or serving.”
“I’ve had kids just turn around and walk out,” says Neeley. “They said it’s just too painful to watch.”
The rabbis walked desert trails that migrants often use to cross on foot, and worked in Kino’s soup kitchen on the Mexico side.
“There’s no doubt that these are people who are fleeing for their lives,” says Arian. “It’s quite obvious.”
“We were in the cycle of Torah readings at that time—this was in December—we were starting to read the book of Exodus,” recalls Arian. “And you hear people say, ‘What kind of parents put their kids through that?’ And one of the people in our group said, ‘Well, what kind of parents put their kid in a basket and float it on the Nile?’ Moses’ parents did in the Bible. It’s exactly the same thing. When your choices are stay and be killed or undertake a risky journey, you undertake a risky journey.”
Jaleesa Hall saw many of the same things on her trip—the walk in the desert, the Operation Streamline courtroom visit. She went as a masters of divinity student at Wesley Theological Seminary, and stayed with the Tucson-based BorderLinks, which has been hosting delegations since 1987.
The memory she can’t get out of her head is the objects she saw on the walk in the desert. “We can tell where people hide at night. Just how the grass is wilted, it seems like someone was sitting there, or a brush left, or a diaper left, or we saw a little girl’s hair brush. Or we would see water that was empty, empty bottles.” She and her group members left full jugs of water for future travelers who might need a drink.
Her theological conclusion was this: “We think of neighbors like, love the person next door to me, or love the person that I know. But our neighbor is across the border. … And for me, I’m thinking also as an African American woman, who has a jaded history as well in this country. If we’re not careful with this issue, if we are denying people the right to be seen and to be heard, we can go back to a place that had people in chains, that had people—and that’s happening, with the detention of children. So we have to be careful of not having history repeat itself. And one of the ways to do that is to say, ‘I love my neighbor. You are me. I am you. We are human.’”
Rodes-Acar and the Catholic Charities DC employees who went down this spring—staffers from all different departments in the organization—met the migrants who made it through, who were tired travelers but filled with the enthusiasm of people who see a new chance before them.
Rodes-Acar tells the story of a woman who came to her dehydrated and with a fever. She encouraged the woman to eat, gave her a pill, and made plans to check in the following day. “I came back the next day,” says Rodes-Acar, “and she’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, whatever you gave me, that was a miracle! I feel so good.” The pill was a single Tylenol.
Carmen Joya also worked at the Salvation Army in Yuma. She’s the director of special events at Catholic Charities DC. “The first couple of days, I cried, because I had never experienced—I mean, I do galas and golf tournaments,” she says. But she ultimately saw her own parents in the migrants she helped. “I was born in this country,” she says, “but my parents came in the ’70s, and I was like, my dad went through this. He definitely walked over the border. And I can’t even imagine walking over to the border. He was a man and walking over the border with a child.”
Father Jacek Orzechowski, who worked at the same location last April, says that migrant after migrant told him they fled because their crops failed, and they couldn’t get access to water. He remembers one young Guatemalan woman in particular who told him what it was like to cross the Rio Grande: “She said that she had her daughter, her 2- or 3-year-old daughter, on her shoulders. And sometimes even she would have to be submerged in the water to cross it. At one point, she said that she slipped, and fortunately someone just grabbed her by the arm, and she showed me the mark area on her arm that prevented her from going down and possibly drowning with herself and her daughter.” He says she was filled with gratitude.
Many of the migrants make their way to the D.C. area. Ortiz sees them walk through the doors at CARECEN in Columbia Heights regularly, and some of them have been through the same places she’s worked down on the border. In the same neighborhood, volunteers from All Souls Church, which sent a delegation to the border last November, distribute information on how to protect yourself from an ICE raid. Solís and Bibby-Gerth at Catholic Charities DC meet immigrants at the open legal intakes they offer one day a week, picking up what cases they can. They’re working to see that newcomers can stay, survive, and thrive.