BY ELAINE KLAASSEN
When people come into the U.S., through various entry points at the southern border, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) considers them a danger until proved otherwise. Once an asylum seeker has passed the “credible fear” interview and can show they have a family member or sponsor somewhere in the U.S. who will take them in, they are given a court date and loaded into buses and often dropped off at some kind of charitable volunteer facility that will help prepare them for the next leg of their journey.
Ten miles from the border, in McAllen, Texas, that charitable facility is the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center, which is staffed by Catholic Charities and assisted by thousands of volunteers, most of them from McAllen and others from across the country. Since 2014, when the center opened, roughly 100,000 people from south of the border have passed through its doors, receiving food, clothing, showers, respect and kindness.
My friend Andi Kuenning, who lives in the Powderhorn neighborhood, went there as a volunteer for two weeks in November 2018. She went through Children’s Disaster Services (CDS), a mission of the Church of the Brethren. Her task was to care for the children of migrants as they transitioned from ICE detention to a completely new culture.
Volunteers from CDS are “Specially trained to respond to traumatized children, and provide a calm, safe and reassuring presence in the midst of the chaos created by tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and natural or human-caused disaster,” according to the CDS website.
Andi speaks Spanish and was a teacher of young children with special needs before retiring last year. After completing the rigorous CDS training she was then assigned to a team with three other CDS-trained women.
When the team arrived, the Humanitarian Respite Center was extremely busy, and there was no one available to give them any orientation. Somebody had them sign in and gave them a parking permit to put on their rental car and then they went straight to the area designated as Children’s Play Area and got set up. (They never did meet their contact person, nor did they meet the famous nun, Sister Norma Pimentel, who directs the Rio Grande Catholic Charities and founded the center.)
In Andi’s report, she wrote, “We ask the children, ‘Do you want to play?’ and most come in to play with us. Only a few stay away.
“We brought with us a large suitcase full of toys and materials, but used mostly crayons and colored pencils, paper and coloring books, playdough, puzzles, playing cards, and dominoes. We got adult coloring books and colored pencils and asked the teenagers if they want to color. They mostly do. Some of them play cards together. When we give out blank paper to color on, we get lots of pictures of butterflies, flowers, houses, trees, suns, and rainbows. The little girls start giving them to me, and sometimes write on them, ‘yo te quiero Andrea.’ Occasionally we read stories; one day a young boy asked me to read him a book, by the time we got going, several other boys were listening too, some of them older. At times the kids asked for a book to read, other children said they didn’t know how to read. There were some children who did not speak Spanish, but an Indigenous language.”
Buses coming from the detention center arrived every afternoon, dropping off about 300 exhausted people. Most had been in ICE detention for two to five days. Many were sick and throwing up. They had been kept in the infamous “freezers” or “hieleras.”
When people arrive, they are always given new shoelaces right away, since all shoelaces are taken away in detention. Children are given stuffed animals and many women request hair ties.
It is very difficult to maintain hygiene in such a crowded area as the center. The CDS team did what they could by bleaching down the tables in the children’s area. Hand sanitizer is always available and the floor in the main area is swept regularly. There are showers in the building and also in a truck (trailer) in the parking lot. People are given clean clothing. But for sleeping, people have to use the sleeping mats, pillows and blankets piled off to one side of the large, main room. Everyone sleeps wherever there is room. There is an overflow space that holds about 90 people. Andi was told that as many men as possible sleep in the smaller back room, leaving mostly women and children in the larger area.
Most stay one night and then leave as soon as their relatives/sponsors send them a bus ticket, and in some cases a plane ticket.
Andi describes what lies ahead for the weary travelers: “Each adult is given a red bag (a reusable grocery store bag) filled with supplies—snacks for the bus ride, hygiene products, etc. Each family has a large manila envelope. On one side it says in large letters: ‘Please help me. I don’t speak English. What bus do I need to take?’ The other side has their bus schedule written on it. Most are taking three or four buses to get to their final destination.”
The number of children in the play area varied throughout the day—there were fewer after buses left in the morning and more in the afternoon after buses arrived, sometimes up to almost 50.
“The children are glad to play, to have something to do,” Andi writes. “I am amazed at how so many of the children just settle in and play happily, despite all they have been through on their journey to us. Sometimes when new kids come in, other kids recognize them from the detention center, and they reunite excitedly and with hugs, so happy to see their friends.
“Sometimes the littlest ones would want their parents … We would just go to the front and hold them up to see if someone claimed them. We always found them. But one day a somewhat older boy, maybe 7 or 8, was looking for his mother, crying hysterically. He was so upset he couldn’t talk. A staff person finally took him and was able to help him look for his mother and reunite them.”
Andi will never forget “the mother who had been separated from her adult son at the border because he was sick—She had no way to find him because she happened to be carrying his phone when they were separated; the father traveling with a daughter (maybe 12 or 13 years old) because he needs to get her away from the gangs in Honduras; the man who talked about how they treated them ‘like animals’ in the hielera; the many parents who were with just one child, and had left others back in Honduras or Guatemala.”
Andi wrote, “Each night we went back to our motel totally exhausted. It was intense work but gratifying. Many parents thanked us (I felt like we did so little for them, but after their experience in detention, having people who showed them respect and compassion meant a lot). Much of what we did seemed to be handing out coloring pages, sharpening pencils, and helping kids do puzzles, but it was providing a safe and nurturing space for the children to be, as they waited for the next step of their journey.”
Andi is on the list to be called again by Children’s Disaster Services.