Update from the Border after a long day in the field

By Kat Kelley  – Kat Kelley is the Catholic Charities Director of Strategic Initiatives and Director of Operations for the Pope Francis Center.  Her areas of practice and expertise include trauma, mental health, domestic and sexual violence, immigration, race equity and community organizing.  

Monday, July 30, 2018

We arrived on Friday afternoon, the day after the reunification deadline.  We met  up  with  colleagues  from Tennessee,  Connecticut, and Illinois at their temporary headquarters in the lobby of the Basillica Hotel, which is located on a huge campus owned and operated by the Archdiocese of Brownville.  Also on this campus, is Catholic Social Services and a warehouse stuffed with literally tons of donations for the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center, as well as the auditorium that has been converted into an overflow shelter for families.  The Catholic Charities HRC is located near downtown  McAllen, about 15 minutes away. 

The process was this: ICE was scrambling to meet the reunification deadline after massive political pressure. They were not able to match families immediately because they had not created a tracking system, which delayed some of the reunifications.  After matching families, they flew children in from all over the country where they had been placed in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) Unaccompanied Minor (UAR) shelters. 

Upon arrival, the families were reunified inside of ICE detention facilities.  Immediately following that, families are sent into the migrant respite system, including the one in McAllen, TX.  

The shelter was completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of people pouring in, practically overnight.  In response to this system saturation, the auditorium on the Archdiocese campus was converted into the  overfill shelter, and can fit, I would estimate, about 150 folks. There are two public bathrooms 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 clothes and shoes. There is a small, temporary structure with two coffin-sized showers behind that. 

Transportation and Shelter situation
People coming through are sorted according to when they are grabbing their bus, train or plane. After resting (time varies, between a couple of 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 have at times, stuffed 25 people into a 15-person  van.  There are no car seats for kids, so they sit on their parents’ laps.  We spend the early mornings doing runs between the intake center, the respite center and the various transportation stations.

In between, we work with folks to see that they are eating and getting access to medications while also rotating sanitization assignments,  trying to entertain kids, distributing clothing and other donated necessities, and just spending time talking to folks and trying to provide emotional, mental and moral support.  The Oregon team works very well with but somewhat independently of the larger CC team.  We have one person permanently stationed at the bus station (the vast majority of folks are traveling by bus).  She greets families when we drop them off, helps them to navigate the check-in process, advocates on families’ behalf, and acts as a kind of coordinator between survivors of zero tolerance policy and the transportation systems.

Left, Catholic Charities van to transport families to destinations.

Right, sign from a family looking for assistance for the travel to their destination.

Volunteering: Transporting Families
We have a team member who spends much of her time transporting families between the various destinations.  When coming from  the  overflow shelter with a full van, we send two members.  This is due to the fact that when coming from the respite center, we have to stop at the intake center (the regular HRC shelter) to grab pre-made food bags for folks traveling.  These bags are filled to brim with  various snacks—tacquies, pretzels, peanuts, hot Cheetos, two bottles of water and four balogna sandwiches.  Each person gets two bags for the 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 provided with a bag or small mochila (backpack) to carry their food,  a Red Cross blanket to stave off the cold from  the constant air conditioning and a manila envelope with the documents given to them by la Migra (Immigration), as well as the documents we provide and various materials from consulates of their nation of origin. Folks wait anywhere from an hour to twelve hours for their trips, depending on departure time.  It’s especially hard on folks with small kiddos, who get bored after  about  3  minutes when the novelty of the Greyhound buses wears off.  

Left, a volunteer sanitizes the mats after a lice outbreak in the overflow shelter.

Right, two Catholic Charities staff member volunteers – Bertha and Kat – at work in the field.

Overflow Shelter: Food and Conditions
Folks who are not immediately taken to their transportation option stay in  the overflow shelter.  It has been pretty chaotic  there.   he  CC organization here  is not structured for this level of crisis response and it lends to some confusion. That said, there is air conditioning, clean(ish) bathrooms, three meals that consist of different foods (in detention, you  get the same food every meal) and  lots of fresh fruit.   We are also able to  provide  some  toys, books, puzzles and  things  for  the  kiddos, but of course, they  get bored really quickly, as do the adults.  Every time we clean something, hand out food,  fold donated clothes, or what have  you, people  offer to help–partly because most people are inherently awesome and want to lend a hand, and partly because folks are bored to the point of madness.  It’s a lot of hurry up and wait.

The conditions in the overflow shelter are a little rough.  Folks are sleeping on plastic mats on the ground with only one Red Cross blanket apiece. It was very crowded on the days leading up to and right after the reunification deadline. Like I said, there are lots of snack options, which is important for folks who have not had access to food choice or variation.  It’s interesting  though, the way food can  potentially trigger someone.  A  bunch of  littles were hungry yesterday and I grabbed a stack of those square, orange crackers with  peanut butter in them for them to  eat, and a bunch of them kind of stepped away of from it and told me that was the  only thing la Migra gave them. I found them a Costco-sized box of rainbow Goldfish crackers instead.

Reality of the Situation
An important  note.  Not  all  the  families that we are seeing here are  “reunified  families”. La Migra has mixed the reunified families and  families who crossed in the last few days together, making service organization pretty tough.  Because la Migra dropped a whole bunch of families into an already saturated system overnight, recently arrived families are caught in a bottleneck, and are in stuck in detention longer than is usual (or acceptable).

After getting picked up by la Migra,  folks are fitted with an ankle bracelet before they are  released.  The bracelets have to be charged every 12 hours and folks are only provided two batteries and a charger.  The charger – of  course – has to be plugged in to maintain the bracelet’s power.  In a medium-size auditorium with 150 people, wall plugs become a bit of a hot commodity. There are about 12 in there. The math isn’t hard to put to paper.  Folks literally panic when the blinking green light on their bracelet starts to fade and shift to red. La Migra sent folks out with a ticking time bomb, knowing full well they would be spending  an undetermined amount of time in the shelters and on buses to their destinations.  I can’t even fathom how much it is costing tax payers to maintain this farce of a tracking system. If your battery dies, ICE comes to get you.  They will roll up on a full room of traumatized families to check the whereabouts of someone who just hasn’t worked their way through the line for a wall socket. Watching people’s level of panic and stress around this is horrendous—I am genuinely surprised that we haven’t had anyone have a heart attack yet.  Seeing the clutter of chargers and cords crisscrossing over each other is uniquely disturbing.

Everyone knows that this situation is a thing of nightmares.  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 folks survived. The very first family I worked with was a father and daughter from Honduras.  They had been separated during the first few days of “zero tolerance”.  They didn’t know where the other was for months. Both were witty and charismatic and both deeply traumatized.  They hopped a bus to the Midwest, sponsored to stay until their court date by Dad’s brother.


Another family l worked with, also from Honduras, was a mother and teenage daughter duo who, if not for their obvious decades of age difference, could have passed for twins. When I first encountered them, they were both very quiet.  Some families are quiet, some labor  through just the right amount of small talk to be polite and others are just ready to be talking  to someone who speaks their language  and  treats them as human beings and share their experience  in depth.  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 afternoon,  the  mother approached me after lunch and asked for antibiotics as her daughter had an earache and a high fever. I let her know that 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 told me sure,  but that 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 the young woman  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 a bit as well.  Over the course of conversation her  mother informed me a little more as to what might have contributed to this catatonic state.  They had left Honduras after a local cartel attempted extorting money from them and when they couldn’t pay, they gang raped the child.  They 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, a beefy officer held a pistol to the girl’s head after she didn’t  understand a command he gave her in English.  After calling the doctor, we found out the high fever and severe pain was due to an insect impacted in the ear. The child wasn’t able to tell her mom that she heard the critter scrambling around in her head. She couldn’t tell her anything at all.

A father walks back to the shelter with his son. 

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 winded 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 their skin away. And their biggest crime will always only have been, wanting to have their children alive.

You Can Help

While in the field, our volunteers said that the donations like blankets, teddy bears, and crackers are great and help soothe and comfort families temporarily, but what they really need is attorneys who can help change the system.

Catholic Charities’ Center for Immigration Defense provides legal protections for immigrants who are unable to afford attorneys and will ensure safeguards for vulnerable mixed-status families when detainment and deportation are a real threat as well as when families have been separated from each other. 

Your donation makes a direct impact in the lives of these families – providing them with legal services they otherwise cannot afford or access. Make a difference in the lives of these families and give today.