Julia’s Journal – Day 11

When people arrive to our residence of Annunciation House – from Mexico or various detention centers locally or in the wider Rio Grande Valley – one of the first things we tell them is “están libres” (You are free). Many people don’t realize at first that we are not affiliated with immigration or the U.S. government, so this note is especially important in building rapport and enhancing their own understanding of where they are in the immigration process. But I’ve wondered more and more lately, is this true? Are our immigrants and refugees really free? 

Does freedom mean checking in regularly with ICE and wearing an electronic ankle monitor for tracking purposes? 

Does freedom look like being unloaded at an unknown destination with little money and a sick child? 

Does freedom sound like a woman, 7-meces pregnant, crying because her husband is still in detention with an unknown fate? 

Does freedom feel like having your clothes and shoes taken from you while in detention; left with ill-fitting t-shirts, sweatpants, and flip flops upon a fortunate release? 

I wouldn’t say so. 

Sure, serving the day-to-day needs of the hundreds of immigrants that pass through our doors is doing something. But it has been disheartening lately when I think more about the complexities that these families are sure to face down the road. For example, after sending a father and young daughter off to their final destination in the U.S. today, I was reflecting on what may come on their journey. Will they find (and be able to afford) a good lawyer in their city to handle their deportation case? Will the judge find them worthy of staying in the U.S.? Will the father apply for a work permit to work legally, or will he be forced to work “debajo de la mesa” (under the table) or “fuera de los libros” (outside of the books)? Will his work permit be accepted; will he even have enough money for the application? What kind of area does his family live in? Will there be a good school for his daughter to attend, supported by government funding and taxpayer dollars? Will she have equal access to reproductive health care? What will happen if they are seriously ill; will they even have health insurance? Perhaps the saddest part is that they are surely not alone – how many immigrants are in a similar situation? Undocumented migrants living in the shadows? U.S. citizens with marginalized identities and/or living in poverty? Are any of these groups truly free? 

What are we doing if we can’t ensure this principle so deeply enshrined in our Constitution to all among us? And why can’t all of us agree that this is a problem, that really affects us all? 

An idea that I especially love and try to live by is that my liberation is inherently connected to that of those around me. When I was trying to search for the full quote that inspired this idea online, I found the following from Lilla Watson, which resonates: 

“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mind, then let us work together.” 

This idea has kept me grounded in this work lately. I really believe that working day in and day out with the immigrants among me equates the wider betterment of my own society and world. Together, we are co-creating a world in which diversity is celebrated, languages are patched together, and smiles abound. I respond with compassion to our guests, knowing that they will continue to respond with compassion when I need it, too. Collectively, we use our own skills to support the house, and community, in which we live (for the time being). I think that’s something beautiful! 

And truthfully, it’s always beautiful when I am getting to celebrate the tender moments – waving people on their way to see their families, playing futbol or basketball with kiddos in between work shifts, and seeing smiles on faces when I am able to understand and meet needs. I have been putting off processing and reflecting upon the past few days, however, because the broken has really been shining through lately. I’ve told more families than I’d ever like to that they’ll have to stay here in El Paso and wait for 14 days to travel to see their families because they’re COVID positive. I’ve witnessed the heartbreaking realities of family separations and medical negligence in U.S. detention centers. I’ve seen and heard the cries of grown men and grown women, of babies and small children, of young parents my age entering a broken country, victims of a broken system. Lives literally hang in the balance. 

Until late last week, I hadn’t had much direct experience with ICE or our local ICE-released immigrants, but I’ve recently been put in charge of welcoming, caring for, organizing, and intaking these families on a few instances. For me, there is nothing else in the world more rewarding or heartbreaking. Usually, ICE unloads a bus load of people at our door. Oftentimes hungry, usually sick, and never with much information. I’ve seen groups now in which various toddlers are vomiting and haven’t received prior care. Most families arrive with nothing beside the ICE-produced identification papers in their hands. These families look so exhausted. These families are also always the most grateful to learn that they’re free from immigration custody – hope runs electric in the air. Some ask about friends who they’ve made part of their journey with – and we can never answer with any level of confidence because ICE release and organization is so arbitrary. Most don’t have working cell phones and are anxious to call their families. 

As if these realities aren’t challenging enough, living in a pandemic makes our protocols and responsibilities that much more difficult. For some reason absolutely incomprehensible to me (this isn’t entirely true; it’s probably because of their private prison system ties and lack of accountability), ICE is getting away with housing families in detention without testing for COVID during this global pandemic. Therefore, when these families arrive, we must isolate and test them all for COVID before they interact with our other guests. The El Paso Fire Department’s Office of Emergency Management is partnering with Annunciation House to test all of these immigrant arrivals, and we do fairly often get positive cases. In these instances, families are further isolated and moved to quarantine in a separate hotel run by the city. It is heartbreaking to explain to people that they must quarantine and further stall travel to their families and friends. 

ICE, Immigration Customs and Enforcement, doesn’t make this any easier. Their release schedule varies day-to-day and is not always communicated to us in advance, which places undue burden on NGO organizations such as Annunciation House to organize volunteers and prepare for new arrivals. If 4 people test positive for COVID on a bus of 40, there are 36 individuals who have been unnecessarily exposed because they were not tested at an ICE facility. ICE apparently sometimes screens its prisoners for COVID without testing but doesn’t share this screening information with receiving organizations. For example, I was informed by an ICE driver that one family in a drop-off was “medically isolated”, but they did not know why. How helpful. One family member did, in fact, turn out to be COVID positive. We have also received, on two separate instances now, women released from ICE custody while several months pregnant while their husbands remained in custody, unlikely to be released any time soon (more likely to be expelled back to Mexico). Is this not still a form of family separation? 

Where are our legislators, our educators, our parents, our healthcare workers, our so-called “Christians” combatting these injustices? Speaking of these groups, I had the opportunity to sit in on a press conference with a delegation of eight House Representatives visiting El Paso this weekend, led by U.S. Rep. Veronic Escobar, D-Texas. It was interesting to sit behind the scenes and hear of their experiences visiting the El Paso Border Patrol Central Processing Center, a federally contracted facility for unaccompanied minors, and the Paso del Norte port of entry. I did sense some veracidad (truthfulness) in their voices and stories, but I couldn’t help but sense the irony as I watched from the background, surrounding by some fellow volunteers (many longer-term than me) with our own immigrants in rooms nearby. Perhaps instead of talking about grand concepts of treating people with dignity, we could pass the microphone and hear stories from the front lines. It’s exhausting to see and feel and live the effects of this broken system. Nothing they said impressed me much. In the space I occupy these days, it’s up to the people to do that. 

Take care of one another!

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