This long post is worth your time.
Randy Newman sang:
You’ve got a friend in me / When the road looks rough ahead / And you’re miles and miles from your nice warm bed / You just remember what your old pal said / Yeah you’ve got a friend in me.
Today, before we tell our tales from Oregon, listen to Michelle from Texas.
• • •
The other day I was visiting with a friend who is highly educated, well versed in current events, and attentive to the plight of immigrants. Her grandparents were immigrants from Mexico who started from scratch here in Texas, paving her way to being a successful college professor. Our shared immigrant roots prompted me to tell her about my weekly volunteer work at the San Antonio bus station. In a few minutes her jaw dropped, her eyes widened. I realized that basic information about asylum seekers and their journeys is far from common knowledge among Americans.
So here is a simplified story typical of the hundreds of immigrants who cross the Rio Grande border—la frontera—each week and whose journey passes through the downtown San Antonio bus station.
The majority of recent immigrants come from the three most violent and murderous countries in our hemisphere: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Those countries have been transformed into awful places due to political corruption, gangs, ineffective police, poverty, and basic disregard for people. A typical refugee family was targeted by a gang for extortion: give me X amount of money by next week or we will kill one of your children, or your husband, or your mother, or YOU. This extortion may go on for a time, but at some point it becomes impossible to appease the gangs and someone is hurt or a decision to flee is made. Oftentimes a mother will gather basic belongings and her child and flee without much planning. Sometimes money is borrowed to pay a “coyote”, oftentimes leaving the remaining family members in even greater debt.
No one wants to leave home and extended family. The ones who flee are typically young, healthy, brave and desperate. The goal is to save a family member’s life, and to give their children a chance at a normal childhood and a future.
The journey from these Central American countries to the U.S. border is long and difficult. By the time we see them in San Antonio, they have been traveling for at least one month. Mexico is a hostile environment, particularly on the southern side of the border. I have heard women tell me of horrible attacks and rapes occurring there. These women are traumatized by their treatment in Mexico, and do not want to stay there. Their lack of options and dedication to caring for their kids push them onward. (I also work with fathers, but have never found it comfortable to talk to a male about his journey. I have talked to men who also seem traumatized, but I don’t know their stories as well as I do from the mothers).
Crossing the border at a legal point of entry, which is their goal, in increasingly difficult due to U.S government policies. So the refugee families may be forced to suffer in extreme weather (heat or storms) in the desert or in the poor villages along the border. Usually by this time any money or valuables have been stolen. A cell phone is a rare luxury.
Once they manage to cross the border, their immediate intent is to turn themselves in to a border patrol agent to ask for asylum. As we all know, the US immigration system is so broken that there are bits and pieces of policies that are followed and managed in inconsistent ways. There are wide discrepancies in behavior by the people who work at the border, influenced by their own opinion of immigrants and their particular agency. Availability of detention beds also impacts decisions. Oftentimes, if a mother and father are traveling together with their children, the father may be separated or father and son be separated from mother and young child. I have seen many a desperate parent at the bus station devastated, not knowing where to find their spouse and other child.
But in almost all cases, the next step after crossing the border is to be placed in the heilera, the ice house. Literally, cruelly, ICE has an ice house so named because of the low temperatures they set in the facility, while taking away the immigrant’s coat. Only a mylar blanket is allowed. Children over age 10 are separated from their parent, each placed in separate inhumane concrete floor rooms with 24 hour a day lighting. I have been told that the female guards are often the meanest, going so far as to kick the immigrants and call them a plague on our nation. Showers are not allowed. Shoelaces and hair ribbons are taken away. The stay here is typically for 2- 5 days. The goal of the treatment is for the immigrants to self-deport. I have yet to hear of one who does self-deport at this point, so close to the imagined finish line and so afraid of what awaits them at home. I even met a mom last week who was transferred from one hielera to another—there are several along the border.
Next step, the perrera. Literally, the dog house. The only step up here is that it is not set at freezing temperatures, but again, it’s another attempt to push the asylum seekers to self deport. Again, several more days here. A “credible fear” interview is conducted to determine whether there is the basis for an asylum claim.
Then the immigrants are taken to a detention center. The refugees we end up seeing at the bus station have been taken to Dilley (women and children) or Karnes (men and sons). Sometimes we have others coming through from other processing centers in El Paso or Pearsall. Dilley and Karnes are both for-profit private centers with federal government contracts to care for these refugees. I hear that in general they are well treated here, where they stay until a family member from somewhere in the US pays for a bus or plane ticket for them to be united with that sponsoring family. They are told they are not allowed to work while under this temporary status, and typically given a court date to check in with immigration offices near where they will live.
My experience with this population is that these are caring dedicated young parents, certainly not criminals. They are in fact running from criminals. Their behavior is lawful: they have followed the system in place and have authorization to be here. They have traveled long and hard to do the best they can for their kids.
• • •
Randy Newman would sing that in Michelle, these refugees have a friend indeed.
Click here to enable Michelle and her IWC Travel Benevolence Fund colleagues to help refugees in Texas. Click here to enable Human Rights First to help refugees nationwide, and to improve conditions abroad so people are able safely to stay home. Nancy and Jeffrey absorb the costs of the Ride; your gifts go 100% to the IWC and Human Rights First. Donate any amount to Human Rights First and you’ll get a free Beatles postcard from the Joel Glazier collection, autographed by Jeffrey and me 🦘.
Now for a quick look at our travel today.
Aside from heavy rain, the only sour notes were two trucks together, one pulling a travel trailer and the other pulling a boat, blasting their horns at us near a “Share the Road” (with bicycles) sign.
Jeffrey forgives the drivers, whom he assumes are sad and angry people who blow horns to deal with their “issues”.
But I am not Jeffrey. I would have flipped them the bird. (For our foreign readers: that is slang for making a gesture of contempt.)
Lucky for the drivers, I was in a plastic bag, and I have no fingers. I’m a kangaroo puppet, remember.
It rained, often hard, for 20 of the 31 miles we biked between Gold Beach and Sisters Rock State Park.
At day’s end in Coos Bay, we met Keyshtah, who is half Lakota Sioux. She was at work, and her boss would not allow Jeffrey to take a photo.
Keyshtah was interested in the Ride and astonished at our government’s violation of asylum applicants’ human rights. Like many people, sending children to court without a lawyer especially upsets her. And like First Nations people we’ve talked to from coast to coast—whose views should count more than anyone’s, because their peoples were here first—she would offer refuge to anyone who needs it.
Good for Keyshtah.
(Keyshtah is so kind that, even though she has fingers, I don’t think she’d’ve flipped the drivers the bird either.)