News from the border: First, care for the children

My husband Steve, friend Kathleen and I arrived in El Paso on Saturday to volunteer at a refuge for immigrants for two weeks. Yesterday, as Kathleen and I cleaned rooms in the vast converted warehouse and outfitted refugee families with used clothing, I thought how little is required to make children happy: Clean clothes, full bellies, a chance to play, a warm bed, the love and security of their family. All the things we lavish on our own grandchildren – skating lessons and gaming systems, LOL dolls and LEGO blocks – are wanted and delighted in. But they are not required.

And yet we have as a nation repeatedly denied these most basic needs to immigrant children who crossed the border with their families over the past three years. Seven hundred families have been separated; seven children have died while in government custody. Last summer in Clint, Texas, less than 30 miles from El Paso, immigrant children taken from their families were held in conditions that Elora Mukherjee, a professor at Columbia Law School, described asappalling”:  “In 12 years representing immigrant children in detention, I have never seen such degradation and inhumanity. Children were dirty, they were scared, and they were hungry.”

All this has been done in the name of deterrence. In other words, if we can make coming to America more horrible than the violence and poverty that drive people to leave Guatemala, Venezuela and Mexico, we’ll stop what President Trump likes to call the “invasion” at our southern border.

No surprise there: The first step to hardening the heart is always to dehumanize the other, to make the weary father from Morales and smiling baby from Cuba alien and dangerous, part of an invading horde that will displace our workers and overwhelm our resources. Hardening the heart can lead to far more dangerous acts. Last August, a young white supremacist targeting Latino immigrants drove 600 miles from Dallas to El Paso, entered a Walmart, killed 22 people and injured 24 injured more. Because of that, our refuge has security cameras and no exterior signage. The tall fence is topped with razor wire.

As regular readers of this blog know, I support neither walls nor open borders. This year, I want to explore the vast territory in between. What principles should guide us? What policies can best implement those principles? Coming to El Paso and serving immigrants through Annunciation House, which has been doing this work for more than 40 years, is a place to begin.

At the Annunciation House shelter, the process of welcoming families newly released from ICE custody follows a routine. An ICE bus pulls up to a back gate of the warehouse and exhausted families step off. They are welcomed warmly, then interviewed and asked to call family or friends in the U.S. who will buy their bus or air tickets. A day or two later, families leave us and travel to Houston or Chicago, Miami or Boston. There they will wait for a chance to make their case for asylum before an immigration judge.

At the shelter, after the interview and phone call, there is a simple routine: Collect bedding and toiletries, choose a set of used clothes and take a shower, often their first in days.

Yesterday afternoon, the job of finding clothes fell to Kathleen and me. First, we brushed up on vocabulary: Socks are calcetines, underwear ropa interior. One by one, the families arrived: The tiny 19-year-old Guatemalan woman – exhausted, pregnant and dressed in grey ICE sweatpants. Her husband was turned back to wait in Mexico; her face looked as shattered as her spirit must be. The best we could do was find pants that fit, a pretty blouse, a warm wool jacket and soft, pretty scarf that coaxed a small smile. In a day or two, she will leave on her lonely trip to New York.

I think too of the seven-year-old boy, bound for Chicago, who came with his exhausted parents and six-month-old brother. He delighted in finding himself a forest green jacket, lime green gloves and kelly green hat and a hooded Christmas outfit for his baby brother.

The small kindness of clean clothing is made possible by the people who donated it, Sr. Edith and others who spent months giving it order and the volunteers who come daily to help guests find something fit for their journey, maybe even a little stylish.

The shelter’s numbers are down significantly because of President Trump’s remain-in-Mexico policy. It opened last year with room for 500 people. Last night there were fewer than 30. One mother, traveling from Guatemala with three boys, spent three months waiting in Juarez before being allowed to cross into the U.S. Yesterday, freshly showered and dressed, the boys wore their new gloves as they careened down a ramp riding a toy car.

Regardless of what happens in Iowa next week or at the polls next November, the issue of immigration will remain: Who will we allow to come? How will we welcome them? And do we have the collective will to make good on the pledge we learned as children – to be “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all”?

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