What I Saw: A Volunteer’s Experience at the US/Mexican Border

By: Jeanne Barnes

The views and opinions expressed in this reflection are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Just Neighbors. 

Write what you see; this is often the instruction given to writers.  I am basically an optimistic person, so I want to write what I saw within a perimeter of hope and kindness.  And therein lies the problem.  I find that what I saw causes bitterness and despair to bubble to the surface and eventually cloud everything I experienced.  Nevertheless, I will try to record what I saw in a recent trip with Just Neighbors at the US/Mexican border.

The first day we arrived was taken up with all the usual border town sights, sounds and smells.  Nothing that I hadn’t seen before:  the trash, the dirt, the bland gray of concrete interrupted with dashes of colored decorations hanging above the streets and the displays of street merchants.  I heard the sounds of those merchants hawking their wares and music overflowing the cafe boundaries.  The usual smells of corn tortillas, beans cooking over open -air pots, and of course, the awful, in-your-face odors of dog feces and human urine.  All of these were a combination of beauty and ugliness in a way that was typical.  But what was not typical was the combination of beauty and ugliness I found in our very first meeting with Al Otro Lado (AOL), an organization that helps migrants at the border.

The beauty of AOL is in its people, both the workers and the migrants they serve.  The group has very few paid workers and relies on volunteers who show up anywhere from a couple months to one day.  The staff never knows how many will be there each day, but they are unfazed in their determination to make it work.  And work it does.  The mostly 20-somethings are helping to inform migrants of what they will be facing when they cross the border.   Since these migrants are requesting asylum from officials at the border, the wait is long and hard.   Many families will spend months in Tijuana before their number comes up and they are able to cross.  (For information on this process go NPR’s  https://www.thisamericanlife.org/656/let-me-count-the-ways).

The volunteer staff of AOL is composed primarily of immigration attorneys who take time off from their jobs to come down and educate those asylum seekers.  My husband and I were accompanying attorneys and staff from Just Neighbors. After seeing them at work, I was impressed not only by their knowledge of various languages and laws, but also by their determination to follow that law as well as their genuine kindness and compassion. Over and over throughout the course of a typical day, the attorneys would explain to the seekers that they would face one of three situations after they reached US soil (be sent back to Mexico to await their trial, released with an ankle bracelet to family in the U.S. or remain in a detention center until their trial).  Regardless of which of those three things would happen and even though they had committed no crime, they could be handcuffed and housed in a very cold facility with only one layer of clothing for 3 to 5 days before being given their assignment.

After that education process, the volunteers would meet individually with each person or family and review their case.  One lawyer told me that she never tells anyone that their case would be denied, but she explains that the chances were very slim.  Only about 10 to 20% of asylum cases are approved.  The final stage is organizing and uploading their documents to the cloud since many are lost or stolen along the way.  That way the migrants can access them at anytime they are needed to prove legality. 

The volunteers must also tell the families that even though they signed a form stating that they were not consenting to be separated from their children, there are no guarantees.  And even though all their personal belonging will be stored in a locker, there are no guarantees that they will get them back.  This means that the families must write their names and numbers on their children’s back with permanent marker and the names and numbers of their US contacts on their own arms.  Among all the information they are given, these are the most difficult for the migrants.  The mothers can’t believe that some US border workers have been known to actually tear up the non-consent forms in front of the parents.  The fathers are shocked that what little money they have may never be returned to them.  And the compassionate attorneys must admit, that yes, these types of things go on in the USA. The job of the volunteers to educate about the dark side of America and, at the same time, be the embodiment of hospitality and love that is America is both difficult and rewarding.

Our day would begin at 7:00am at the border.  Our job was to pass out fliers that informed the migrants about our organization and how to get help.  We were told not to interact or escalate any interaction initiated by the government officials.  I saw their official presence in our midst, but I was never approached by them.  And truthfully since my Spanish is meager to say the least, my job was mainly to pass out avena (a drinkable oatmeal). It was a blessing for me to be able to hand mothers cups of the warm “food” on that cold, rainy morning and to see their appreciation for any kindness, no matter how small the gesture. 

I was also blessed in a special way that morning.  The day before at the center I had taken care of a family’s children while they listened to the group talk and then met with the lawyer – a process that involves much waiting.  In the area designated as “playtime,” I was with the children for 4 hours.  And even with my limited Spanish, we managed to put puzzles together, color, play on the floor with various toys, cry a little and laugh a lot.  I felt a connection to those children and to their mother who signed them in and periodically checked on them.  So when the family’s number was called to board the bus and cross over, I spotted the mother among the crowds of people and ran up to her. No words were spoken, but our hug said it all.  We were not a dark-haired migrant with a few meager belongs and a gray-haired volunteer with more than enough.  We were two mothers who knew that whatever the situation, we would risk everything to keep our children safe.  I still cannot think about that moment without having tears well up. “Write what you see” can be both a burden and a blessing.

Yes, the morning was rainy, cold and a bit scary, but it did have its comical moments, too.  I can’t help but chuckle when I think about the soft-spoken older man who approached me in the plaza.  I must tell you that I am not an overly emotional person.  Having been a teacher my whole life, I’ve seen many sad situations and have trained myself to buck up and quell the tears.  But amid that scene that morning, I could not stop the tears from overflowing and running down my cheeks.  I had taken a break from the avena duty and was watching the migrants pass before me.   I just kept thinking is this the way God meant for us to treat one another?  To see the face of despair, hunger, and hardship and just say get a number and wait a couple months?  It was in this moment that the English-speaking man approached me and said, “You are a very kind person.”  I wanted to tell him that I was not special; that there were many people in America like me, but I couldn’t answer without a high, tear-choked squeak.  So he continued on, telling me that these migrants were seen as throw-away people that neither America or Mexico wanted.  All the things I wanted to tell him were left unsaid so I hope someday he will read something like this and know that we are a country of good people.  We are often misguided and misled, but basically we do not see “others” as throw-away people.

And now, I must come to the part where I talk about what I saw in the people we served.  Helping with the children everyday meant that I saw the oldest in the family not being allowed to be a kid.  Most of the older children were 8, 9 or 10.  I was saddened by the way each of them felt responsible for the younger ones.  He or she would get toys for them, sit beside them and offer encouragement and protection.  While it was a nice change from sometimes seeing my grandchildren fighting over who gets the iPad, it made me so sad to see that a childhood was taken away.  Even when I told the oldest to feel free to color or do something else, or even when I sat on the floor to play with the little ones, there was always a watchful eye and an aura of “parentalness” present. 

In the mothers, I saw worry and a deep fear of doing something wrong.  When I asked them to list their children on the sign-in sheet, I even saw panic in some of them.  I explained that I would tag each child with the name she wrote down and note the time of arrival and again when they left.  No one would be left unattended, she could get them whenever she finished and if she felt uncomfortable, all she had to do was walk over and take a peak. (The play area was nothing more than 2 plastic tables marking a boundary for a corner that consisted of a child’s table and four chairs and shelves of donated, well-used toys. It was visible from the entire room of waiting people.) When signing the rest of the sheet that included the parent’s name and a space labeled “age” some were visibly reluctant.  I sure some were leery of signing anything that involved a child who might be taken away or in danger.  Often the age category was filled in with the parent’s age, not the child’s.  I found out later that one of the young girls sitting in the front of the room was the target of a gang.  So I understood why the mothers were hesitant to give out any information about their children.  In their situation, I too, would hold the pen for a few seconds while I looked at a woman whom I’ve never met and who was asking me to give up a tiny bit of the most valuable information I carried with me:  information about my children.

A staff member from Just Neighbors told me that the fathers were the hardest for her to see.  Knowing how important it was for those men to be the protectors and providers, it broke her heart to see their eyes.  The eyes that reflected a feeling of hopeless, of desperateness and even of extreme exhaustion.  These were the men who were fleeing violence, poverty and oppression and, like the mothers, are willing to risk everything to make a better life for their family.  To them the nobility of fatherhood was stolen by a burden often too heavy to carry.

As the saying goes, “everyone has a story,” but for most of us our stories can be written with hope.  For the people that we saw, their stories are written in fear. The stories that we heard have no room for love and hope.  They are riddled with violence, hatred and terror.  The young girl I mentioned earlier looked like my granddaughter and her friends.  She was dressed in a bright pink sweatsuit and sported a cute, polar bear headband.  She waited patiently for the three hours that her parents were getting help, only to leave her chair occasionally to look out the window at the people below.  But underneath this cuteness was the story her father told.  A family member refused to date a gang member and was eventually murdered and decapitated.  The family went to the police and soon after began receiving death threats posted to his door.  The ones that finally prompted him to give up everything and leave his country were the ones that said they were coming for his daughter.  That sweet little girl was the weapon the gang was using to drive those who believed in the law to abandon the only life they knew. 

The stories of the judge who was fleeing his homeland because of the gang members he had sentenced, of the mother whose husband was killed in front of her children, of  the unaccompanied minors whose parents risked sending them alone to a strange land continued until as workers we became a bit desensitized to the horror.  The people who I saw seeking asylum made me think of Dante’s  “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”  They had abandoned all hope of safety, of stability, of life itself.  They saw the threats carried out, the bodies lain in the streets of their neighborhoods and the devastation of pure hatred. 

I have purposely not noted names, countries of origin or specific details about the people we saw, because many are still under threats from gangs, drug cartels, white nationalists, or political enemies.  And as inadequate as it is, I can only write a little of what I saw and will have to leave the rest to history.  But I do want to leave you with a bit of hope, hope for these people, for us as Americans and for the world in general.  We are made angry and broken by the ugly side of humanity.  But we are also healed and made whole by the good that we see in human beings who are willing to step out and help.  I saw the face of Jesus in the attorneys who got up at 5:30 in the morning to Uber to a dirty, crowded space in the midst of a steady rain and a chilling wind.  I saw the face of Jesus in the AOL staff who show up every day to work in a run-down building sometimes papered with death threats and who try to keep the darkness at bay by passing around a toy helicopter. 

I saw the face of Jesus in the Dr. from Canada who volunteered her time to help the child with chicken pox and who maxed out her own credit card to buy medicine for the center. I saw it in the young man from Sacramento who knew nothing about meal planning but volunteered to heat up the beans and rice on a two- burner hot plate in order to feed 40 or 50 people.  And I saw the face of Jesus in my husband who spent his days entering data and uploading documents on an antiquated system and who can’t even now talk about the children because it embarrasses him that a 6’2″ ex-military officer can’t do it without crying. 

 But most of all, I saw the face of Jesus in the migrants:  the hungry, the well-to-do, the people from Central and South America, Cameroon, Belarus, Afghanistan and various other places.  The people who are trying to enter our country legally. Once I’ve seen those faces, I can’t look away. And neither should any of us.

So what do we do now?  We can vote and lobby for a better immigration system, but those are long term fixes.  In the meantime, mercy is needed; charity required.   Mercy in the form of loving those who don’t look like us or speak our language; charity in the form of supporting non-profit organizations like Just Neighbors or churches that are providing shelters for those waiting to cross or seeking asylum in our area.  We can dispel the lies that are being spread daily and pray for the people that need our help.   But most of all, what we can do is work to change attitudes.  We can speak up when people disparage migrants; we can tell our Facebook friends who post “America first” slogans that there is more to the story.  We can act with a motive of love and speak out against those who are driven by hatred.  Yes, we are Americans and we love and want our country to prosper and be great, but we are human beings first of all and we need our world to prosper and be great.  And lastly, we can only hope that history will not judge us harshly and pray that God has not already done so.

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The mission of Just Neighbors is to provide immigration legal services to low-income immigrants and refugees in Virginia, especially those who are most vulnerable. We also seek to foster enriching experiences that enhance awareness and mutual understanding among our clients, volunteers, staff and community.

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