Julia’s Journal – Day Seven

Cultural concepts of time have always been interesting to me; likely because we (in the United States) place so much emphasis on our promptness. When I was in South Africa, I learned the concept of “African time” in which now, just now, and now now represent very different urgencies of happening. I learned about another framing of time this week – the Mexican saying “Mañana, mañana” – which basically sums up most of the Hispanic understanding of time as much more fluid that ours in the U.S. “Mañana, mañana” (tomorrow, tomorrow; or tomorrow morning) really means that what doesn’t get done today will be left for tomorrow. What a wonderful concept – one that I, no doubt, need to hear so often!

Setting boundaries and taking time to rest can be difficult in public service sectors (and in many other sectors as well), and I have really been feeling this reality over the past few days. I actually moved from my first location (a motel) to a different location with Annunciation House earlier this week, and the pace of work and work culture have been dramatically different. We work with nearly triple the number of families that I worked with before, so it has been more difficult to get to know individuals personally. However, there are more volunteers in my current location, so I have been added to a shift rotation and have been able to enjoy some much-needed rest. What another wonderful concept!

The other day, when taking a break from the strenuous work of the day, I was able to accompany some other volunteers and a local pastor who has been working with us to Scenic Drive in El Paso. Winding roads climb up the Franklin Mountains in El Paso leading to this incredible park that overlooks the city and neighboring Juarez, Mexico. Seeing the beauty of the breathtaking mountains, feeling the powerful winds of the evening, and overlooking the cities’ lights at night was such an incomparable experience. While there, overlooking El Paso and Juarez, my compañeras and I were trying to find the border. It was much more difficult than you’d think, for though we were close enough to Juarez to make out its city streets and mountain art, both cities shined under la misma luna – the same moon. Seeing that contiguous sea of night lights led me to reflect upon the reality of fronteras – borders – and what truly separates us.

Am I truly that different from my hermano or hermana waiting in Mexico to enter the U.S. for a better future for themselves and their children?

Am I truly that different from my tía or tío serving community members in Juarez?

Am I truly that different from a señorita in Juarez coming home from a night out?

Of course not. The power of fronteras lies in the abstract concept of having papers that ensure your “belonging” to one side or the other; or in the black, tall, chain-link fence that separates the railyards in El Paso from the urban streets of Juarez – Trump’s border “wall” that has garnered such anger, hatred, and passion from so many on all sides of the spectrum. Perhaps a government does have the right to control their borders, but is there not a way to do so humanely and justly? Do religious organizations (like Annunciation House) even have to be involved when it comes to treating people with dignity and respect? I shouldn’t think so. It’s so sad that our nation has come to represent what we so abhor on an international level.

The past few days have witnessed a pivoting of my exposure to this work, as I am now working at a location where we have been processing new immigrant intakes. As I may have explained, individuals that Annunciation House is seeing now represent one of two groups:

(1) local ICE releases, or those who come to ports of entry to cross the border and are likely detained for aa period of time; or

(2) migrants in the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program (or “Remain in Mexico”), who have tried to cross the border years ago – since the Trump administration instituted the policy in late 2018. Migrants in this program have been waiting, on average, roughly two years to enter the U.S. and are housed in shelters in Mexico until their court dates are processed and they are given a date to cross.

To complicate matters a bit more, the Trump administration put into place Title 42, an expansionary rule where DHS/ICE could expel migrants at the border who were coming from countries with communicable diseases, such as COVID-19. Effectively, that administration was able to block (and/or defer) nearly all legal/authorized entry into the country through this rule.

As a policy update (as I understand it), when President Biden took office, he was faced with a harrowing migration back-up, and an increasing number of MORE immigrants passing through Mexico to gain entry to the U.S. I can appreciate how difficult that must be. President Biden decided to lift Title 42 first for minors, as a result of the surge of unaccompanied minors approaching the border (and perhaps contributing to it). Biden is also slowly lifting this policy for families with small children and is moving forward with the processing of MPP families who have been staying in Mexico since they first came to the border. Therefore, we are now seeing mostly families with small children who are either local ICE releases or MPP immigrants at Annunciation House.

Since the location where I was previously working mostly handled overflow numbers of migrants and was downsizing around the time of my arrival, it has been a new experience to process these incoming individuals at my new location. Each day we see two scheduled busloads of MPP migrants – that a company chartered by ICE brings from the nearest port of entry to our doorstep – and various, more impromptu loads of local releases. These groups are different and have different needs, but our goal is to secure everyone’s passage to their new home in the U.S. This is no easy task at times! During the past few days, I have been working alongside other volunteers to prepare meals for our guests, call and follow up with sponsors and families in the U.S. to secure travel, organize and guide families leaving our residence for their travels to various places throughout the country, and prepare and print CBP Form I-94 to provide migrants another proof of legal entry while travelling from our facilities.

Working on the intake process and supporting our migrants by accessing their I-94 immigration forms has been a very educational process. I have done much research in undergrad on the legal processes for immigrants (especially asylees – those fleeing violence or harm in their countries of origin). I learned in those studies, and continue to learn these days, how messy legal entry into this country is.

First, individuals must present themselves at a port of entry, describe their case to immigration officials and be deemed “worthy” of entry, and oftentimes wait in detention for an unspecified amount of time. I was able to drive by a detention facility the other day with our pastor friend and was struck by its environment – so similar to that of a maximum-security prison, with high watchtowers, electric fences, and no greenspaces. What a welcome to the U.S.! Our pastor amiga described that detention center as one of the better ones because it provided nearly half of the recommended daily caloric intake to individuals staying there – high nutrition and care for a detention facility. Following detention, folks are often dropped off at organizations like ours, where they must reach out to their connections in the U.S. and organize next to next-day travel. The travel process is not easy either, as oftentimes immigrants are hassled by TSA at airports and struggle to navigate travel in a new country with a new language. This is why Annunciation House sometimes helps immigrants with the I-94 forms I have been accessing, because though it is not necessary, it is another record of an individual’s processing through ICE that can potentially help them to travel easier. We are in the business of removing any potential barriers by streamlining individual’s knowledge of the system and giving them access to as many resources as we can.

All the while, as soon as an individual enters the country legally (except in very rare cases), (s)he is in removal proceedings (the deportation process). In the immigration system, the traditional U.S. judicial model of “innocent until proven guilty” is thrown out the window in favor of “guilty until proven worthy”. Therefore, we encourage individuals to find lawyers in their destinations, because an individual’s whole case can be destroyed if they make one mistake in terms of reporting to ICE in their new city or missing a court date. There is no forgiveness in a system this backlogged and disorganized. Legal processes can also cost up to $400 per form (such as requesting a work permit).

Finally, the emotional trauma and toil of migrants is an all too often invisible suffering of this community. Resources to process trauma and emotional distress are few are far between for people oftentimes without insurance and established community. Yesterday, when I was accessing the I-94 forms, a middle-aged woman from Central America started crying as she told me her story. Her journey to the U.S., to be reunited with her teenage son, had been two years in the making. There had been many hardships along the way, but she was so happy to have arrived. I struggled to understand todo (all) of what she was saying, but felt called to provide a listening ear while most of this organization’s focus is on meeting the physical and material needs of our guests. We cannot forget the emotional and mental costs that legal immigration places upon our hermanos y hermanas.

Do you think that that explanation of policy and realities here have been a lot? Imagine how my daily interactions over the past week have been! I do feel so fortunate to be sharing space with these communities during this paramount time in our nation’s history. The experiences that I’ve been having here have challenged my beliefs, my worldview, my understanding of policy, and my humanity. Offering space for others to rest in safety and taking space myself to rest in rejuvenation have been important to preserve these transformations.

That’s why I set off yesterday, on my day off for the week, to visit White Sands National Park in New Mexico. I have felt a bit distanced from nature lately, as living in the desert climate of El Paso is so unlike my recalled experiences of nature. There are more rocks, cacti, and drought-resistant trees here than I have ever experienced. I have loved learning about the climate of the area – and I do LOVE seeing the Franklin Mountains day in and day out – but I do miss my haven at Nazareth. Experiencing the calm life of the white, gypsum sands in the shadow of the San Andres Mountains at White Sands was such an incredible experience to rejuvenate. I am discovering more and more how much I love wide, open natural places. Being surrounded by majestic natural beauty; whether it is field of crops or forests in Kentucky, or sand dunes and mountains in New Mexico; is often where I feel most calm and at peace. I like to feel small in this way. It eases the weight I carry by reassuring me that my problems are mere milliseconds in the scheme of geological time (thanks to Carolyn for this idea ).

Again, as we were driving back from such an incredible and rejuvenating outing, I noticed the border that we drove along as we came into El Paso. Juarez was so close that I could read the street art and road signs. I couldn’t imagine waiting for years alongside a border so close. What really separates us? I’d say it’s up to you and I to decide.

Con amor,
Julia Gerwe
AmeriCorps Volunteer | Ecological Sustainability Team
Sisters of Charity of Nazareth