Welcome to the United States

Glenn O. Brown

Like most people, my wife and I have been following the news from the border with a mix of worry, outrage, and helplessness. Separated families. Human beings corralled behind fences and under bridges. Children dying. And no doubt, innumerable tragedies that never even make it into the news.

We’re fairly stereotypical New York professionals. I grew up in Texas, often work there, have close family and friends there, and I’ve held on to a sense of loyalty to the state and its residents. We both speak Spanish, and we were both born overseas -- but with American (or dual) citizenship and under radically different circumstances than the people we read about in the news. We are not particularly experienced or regular charity volunteers. Beyond making donations, how could we help? How could we learn more about the situation, up close, without interfering or just breezily salving our own bleeding hearts?

From friends and news sources, we learned of Annunciation House in El Paso. Led by Ruben Garcia, whose work has been covered extensively by The Texas TribuneThe Washington Post, and The New York Times, Annunciation House is a Catholic charity that has been operating for over four decades, “accompanying the migrant, homeless, and economically vulnerable people of the Border,” according to their website. We reached out. 

Our first morning in town, we learned that Annunciation House’s shelters were full, and a staff volunteer needed help setting up a pop-up shelter at a motel on El Paso’s east side. She was on her own, awaiting a bus full of asylees, just released by ICE, due to arrive in less than an hour. Could we pick up supplies on our way over? Paper plates, utensils, napkins, tape, bottled water, hand sanitizer, chapstick, tote bags. “We have zero fruit, so if you see any deals on bulk fruit, we’d welcome that.”

The bus pulled up to the motel around 1 p.m. About 80 people, over half of them children and infants, lined up in the parking lot outside our makeshift office. Chapped lips, weary eyes, layers of dust on their clothes, hands and hair. No visible possessions beyond their asylum papers and maybe a ziploc bag of odds and ends — notes, a pencil, a medication bottle. A few had fashioned items from strips of the distinctive, silver-mylar shelter blankets you see in the news: shoelaces and belts (which get confiscated in custody), or a bow in a young girl’s hair.

The group had been released of their own recognizance, the staff volunteer told us, free to stay in the U.S. until their first court hearing, provided they stayed in touch with a designated immigration official — standard operating procedure for asylum-seekers who make it through the screening process. Others might stay in custody longer, some might get deported on the spot, and some might make it this far only to be deported after their next hearing. The process and criteria for those decisions were not clear from our position, or from what the staff volunteers knew. What we did know, from the local news and the people standing on the curb, was that we were to help in their days between detention and wherever they were going next.

The staff volunteer in charge welcomed and briefed them in Spanish. They would be at the motel only long enough to get clean, get fed, and get in touch with relatives or others to make plans to stay with them until their first court hearing. We would be interviewing them, calling their relatives on Annunciation House cell phones, telling them where to buy bus and plane tickets, and assigning two families per room. Other volunteers would drive them to the bus station or airport as soon as their arrangements were set. They were to keep their asylum papers on them at all times, and not to leave children unaccompanied for even a moment. There would be hot food at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Any bottled water or supplies they might see in the “office” were reserved for the care packages for their next trip. The motel room faucet water was potable.

For the next few hours, families took turns summarizing their stories into the 3x5 intake card format: where they’d come from, where they were headed, children’s names, birthdates and who we’d be calling on their behalf. All but a handful — a few Cubans and Brazilians — were from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Some had left their homes over a month earlier. Some had been in detention for days. They were bound for a range of cities across the U.S., each carrying papers showing contact information for their family, and the local immigration officer with whom they were legally required to check in. We called their relatives, left messages or had them say hello briefly, then relayed phone numbers for buses and airlines. We assigned roommates by gender and age of the kids.

Through the night, return calls rolled in with questions or confirmation numbers. The staff volunteer built a schedule on the wall with paper notes and thumb tacks. Asylees would drop by, ask for diapers, napkins, cough drops, aspirin, shoe laces and other supplies that were brought in by new waves of volunteers — a combination of El Paso locals and nuns from Annunciation House, who like the staff volunteers seem to work nearly 24/7 and often sleep on-site. Some kids played hide-and-seek from behind their parents’ legs; others had thousand-yard stares; some were groggy from a cold or flu. Everyone lined up for dinner, brought in by another new volunteer, served in the motel lobby.

The next two days were similar. New busloads arrived on Saturday and Sunday. Each day saw a slight increase in the number of migrants arriving. Their situations and well-being varied in some respects, but the mix of adults and children, ages and backgrounds, was roughly the same. Some stayed less than 24 hours; others were still awaiting return calls from their U.S. contacts three days after arriving. Sunday night, with our shift over, we took a family to the bus station on our way back to our hotel in downtown El Paso — a stark contrast, needless to say.

The next day, we headed to the airport and talked about when we’d return, how we could contribute more than just three days next time, how we’d try to get the word out. Our flights had been canceled — a fast return to the mundane inconveniences of privilege — and we changed airlines. At our gate were five of the families we’d worked with at the motel. They all had on their shelter-provided shoelaces and carried plastic bags with a bottle of water and a snack. We boarded and sat a row ahead of one young mother and three-year-old boy from Guatemala. The flight attendants had pinned plastic pilot’s wings on his shirt front. His eyes widened when we took off. When we leveled out, he stood up and looked through the window, out at the desert.

How to help: The Texas Tribune has compiled a list of organizations helping migrant families and separated children. Annunciation House and the associated Migrant Families Relief Fund are the El Paso-based organizations responsible for the work described in this post. In the last week, Annunciation House staff volunteers told me that the need for help has multiplied. If you’re a Spanish speaker, can spare a week to ten days (their preferred minimum), or live near El Paso, consider reaching out.  

Disclosure: Glenn O. Brown has been a financial supporter and a board director of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Glenn O. Brown

Non-profit and start-up consultant