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Kat Kelley

Dispatch from McAllen, Texas

Posted by | Kat Kelley, Director of Strategic Initiatives

In April of 2018, the Administration announced a new policy intended to increase criminal prosecution of people entering the United States. The so-called “zero-tolerance” policy was set into motion based on a manipulated interpretation of the long standing “Flores Agreement,” an agreement established in the 90s to set up rules governing the treatment of children in immigration detention, including how long a child can be held in detention.

Historically, the Flores Agreement as allowed for families to be released of their own recognizance to enter the interior of the United States to prepare for their immigration court hearing (over 90% of people released this way attend their hearings). Under the Trump administration, interpretation of the Flores Agreement permitted the federal government to separate children and parents in order to adhere to the 20-day limit on detaining children. Children separated from their parents were then sent into the Unaccompanied Alien Minor (UAM) shelter system in the interior of the United States while their parents were held in detention on the border. Families did not know the whereabouts of one another, sometimes for months. In July 2018, under national and international pressure, the Administration scrambled to “reunite” families. They flew thousands of children from around the country back to the border to meet their parents. The federal government had not kept adequate tracking on families, and in some cases, did not know what parent belonged to which child and vs. versa.

Families coming out of detention are typically released to respite centers. These respite center provide food, clothing, showers, basic health care and other support services. The majority of the respite centers on the border are run by a Catholic Charities USA affiliate. When the administration attempted a rapid reunification effort, the respite centers were immediately swamped. They were beyond their capacity, and unable to respond to the large numbers of people leaving the detention centers with their children. CCUSA sent out a request to national affiliates to send staff support, namely bilingual staff and staff with expertise around trauma. Catholic Charities of Oregon sent a team of three bilingual social workers with trauma experience to the respite center in McAllen, Texas, in 2018 to support reunification work.


We arrived on a Friday afternoon, the day after the reunification deadline [citation] and met up with colleagues from Tennessee, Connecticut, and Illinois at their temporary headquarters at the Basillica Hotel, which is on a huge campus owned by the Archdiocese of Brownville. Catholic Social Services is also on this campus as well as a warehouse stuffed with tons of donations for the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respire Center (HRC). The auditorium nearby had been converted into an overflow shelter for families.

The Catholic Charities HRC is close to downtown McAllen, about 15 minutes away. The process of unification was chaotic: ICE was scrambling to meet the reunification deadline after intense political pressure. They were unable to match families immediately because they had not created a tracking system, which delayed many of the reunifications.

After matching families, they flew children in from all over the country, where they had been placed in ORR UAM shelters. Upon arrival, the families were reunited outside ICE detention facilities. After that, they were sent into the migrant respite system, including the one in McAllen.

[block quote] “The shelter was completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of people pouring in practically overnight.”

The auditorium on the Archdiocese campus, converted into an overfill shelter, could fit, I’d estimate, about 150 people. There were only two public restrooms with four stalls and two sinks apiece, as well as an outside bank of sorts with two low-power water fountains on opposite ends where folks wash their clothes and shoes. Behind that, there’s a small temporary structure with two very small showers.

People coming through are sorted according to when they are leaving. After resting for a while (anywhere from a couple hours to ten days), getting access to showers, food, hygiene kits, and clothes, folks are taken in gigantic vans to their destination. There are only two vans for the entire operation, so we had, at times, 25 people stuffed into 15-person vans. There are no car seats, so kids sit in their parents’ laps.

We spend the early mornings doing runs between the intake center, respite center, and various transportation stations. In between shuttle rides, we work with folks to se that they are eating and getting access to medications while also rotating sanitation assignments, trying to entertain kids, distributing clothing and other donated necessities, and just spending time talking to people. We tried our best to provide emotional, mental, and moral support.

The Oregon team worked very well with – but somewhat independently of – the larger Catholic Charities team. We had one person permanently stationed at the bus station, the method by which the vast majority of folks were traveling; her job was to greet families when we drop them off, help them navigate the check-in process, advocate on families’ behalf, and act as a kind of coordinator for people. We also had a team member who spent much of her time transporting families between their various destinations.

When we came from the overflow shelter with a full van, we sent two team members. This is because when coming from the respite center we stopped at the intake center (the regular HRC shelter) for pre-made food bags to give to people traveling. These bags are filled with snacks – Takis, pretzels, peanuts, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, two bottles of water, and four bologna sandwiches. Each person gets two bags per trip.

The two bags together are pretty heavy, so folks with smaller kids have a hard time lugging them around. Some people have bags or backpacks, but most don’t. Depending on what comes in for donations on a given day, folks are given a bag or small mochila to carry their food, a Red Cross blanket to stave off the cold from the constant air conditioning, and a manila envelope with documents given to them by La Migra, as well as documents we provide and various materials from consulates of their nations of origin.

People wait anywhere from one to twelve hours to leave, which is especially hard on families with small kiddos, who get bored after the novelty of the Greyhound buses wear off. People who were not immediately taken to their transportation option have to stay in the overflow shelter. It was chaos in there. The Catholic Charities here is not structured for this level of crisis response. Which caused mass confusion.

That said, there was air conditioning, clean(ish) bathrooms, three meals that consist of different foods (in detention, you get the same food for every meal) and lots of fresh fruit. We were able to provide some toys, books, puzzles, and things for the kiddos, but of course they got bored quickly. Everyone did.

Every time we cleaned something, handed out food, folded donated clothes, or whatever, people offered to help – partly because people were kind and genuinely wanted to help, but a lot of it was because people were bored to the point of madness. It’s a lot of “hurry up and wait.”

The conditions in the overflow shelter were rough. People slept on plastic mats on the ground with only one Red Cross blanket apiece. It was especially crowded leading up to and right after the reunification deadline.

Like I said, there are lots of snack options, which is important to folks who have not had access to food choice or variation. It’s interesting though, the way food can trigger someone. A bunch of littles were hungry one day, and I grabbed a stack of those orange crackers with peanut butter for them to eat, and a bunch of these kids stepped away, saying that was all la Migra gave them. We instead found some a Costco box of rainbow goldfish crackers instead.

Something to note: not all the families that we saw were “reunified families.” La Migra mixed the reunified families and families who had just crossed together, making service organization pretty rough. Because la Migra dropped a bunch of families into an already saturated system overnight, recently arrived families were caught in a bottleneck, and ended up in detention much longer than is typical (or acceptable).

After getting picked up by la Migra, folks are fitted with an ankle bracelet. The bracelets have to be charged every 12 hours, and people are only given two batteries and a charger. If your battery dies, ICE comes to get you.

The charger, of course, had to be plugged in to maintain power. In a medium-size auditorium with 150 people crammed inside, wall plugs become a hot commodity. There are only about 12 in there. The math isn’t hard to figure out. People literally panic when the blinking green light on their ankle fades and shifts to red.

La Migra sent people out with ticking time bombs on them, knowing full-well they would be spending an undetermined amount of time in the shelters and on buses before getting to their destinations. I can’t even fathom how much it is costing taxpayers to maintain this farce of a tracking system. When someone’s battery dies, ICE rolls up on traumatized families to check the whereabouts of someone who was usually just waiting in line for a wall socket. Watching their panic and stress around this charade is horrific. Seeing the clutter of chargers and cords crisscrossing over each other is uniquely disturbing.

Everyone knows this situation is a nightmare. I have seen seasoned domestic violence experts flinch speaking with families over what they experienced. I don’t usually like telling social work war stories, but I think it is important to hear what these people have survived. The very first family I worked with was a father and daughter from Honduras. They had been separated right as “no tolerance” was getting started and didn’t know where each other was for months. They got on a bus to the Midwest, where they were sponsored by the dad’s brother until they could have their day in court.

Another family I worked with, also from Honduras, was a mother and teenage daughter duo who could have been twins. When I first encountered them, they were both pretty quiet. Some families are quiet; some labor through just the right amount of small talk to be polite; and others are ready to talk to someone who speaks their language an treats them like human beings. Because of this scale of interaction, I did not think too much of their silence and quietly took them to the respite center.

The next day, the mother approached me after lunch and asked for antibiotics for her daughter, who had an earache and a high fever. I let her know we didn’t have any but that I could call the on-call doctor. I asked her permission to speak to her daughter, so I could report her symptoms to the doctor. The mother said yes but said her daughter wouldn’t talk to me.

Thinking it had to do more with teenage angst than anything else, I asked her mother to join me to chat with her, so I could better understand what to report to the doctor. At that, the mother informed me that her daughter hadn’t spoken in three days. Not a word. Not to her. Not to anyone.

I requested to see her briefly and very informally determined she was experiencing catatonia. Her mother was extremely scared, and, I’ll admit, I was too. Her mother gave me more information about what might have contributed to this catatonic state. They had left Honduras after a local cartel attempted to extort money from them. When they couldn’t pay, they gang-raped the child.

She and her mother spent ten days crossing multiple international borders under the brutal charge of an El Salvadorian coyote and had the terrible misfortune of arriving just in time for zero tolerance. After la Migra grabbed them and prepared to split them up, a beefy officer held a pistol to the girl’s head after she didn’t understand a command he had given her in English. When the doctor arrived, we discovered the source of the earache and fever: There was an insect impacted in her ear. The child wasn’t able to tell her mom that she heard the bug scrambling around in her head. She couldn’t tell her anything at all.

There are a million stories like these. More than a million. And it isn’t going to stop. Though the historical shame that is “zero tolerance” has more or less wound down, families will continue to be forced to cross a border they don’t want to cross to keep their children safe. People seeking refuge here will continue to be snatched up, beaten, kicked, and starved in detention and then humiliated while waiting for a hopeless court date with a chunky, plastic ankle bracelet rubbing at their bare skin. And their biggest crime will always only have been wanting their children to live.

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