Dispatches From the Border: Hot as Hell

It’s as hot as hell and you can’t see the light.

I’m in McAllen, Texas with a group of women clergy leaders organized by Faith in Public Life. After meeting each other—some of us for the first time—at the McAllen airport, we set out to visit a Customs and Border Protection detention center very near the Mexico border. Our plan was to go in and ask if we could visit with some of the families being held in detention.

It’s one thing to hear about detention centers where children are kept in cages and another thing altogether to stand outside of one. This detention center is masquerading as a warehouse painted a muddy brown, the same color as the flat land surrounding it. Around its perimeter is a tall chain link fence blocking the view of the facility. The building is meant to be unnoticed, under the radar, allowing inhumane containment of human beings by the U.S. government to happen without much notice. It’s our government violating the rights of human beings, children of God, but the antiseptic facility makes it seem almost benign, not really worth a second look…until you start to think about the people inside and look again.

There are no windows at all; no light. And outside it’s hot as hell.

They wouldn’t let us in the building, of course. The officer stationed out front began talking with us, but as soon as his supervisor noticed, he came out and led him away, back to the car where he was stationed. It was clear that no one is allowed to say anything to anybody about what is happening inside. When we ask how we can get more information, the officer politely recites the number for the public affairs office, a number we’ve called repeatedly with no response.

Is this America?

And so we prayed and sang, a few voices in the baking heat, next to a monument to empire and power and privilege and pure American hubris. I wonder if the people inside even know there are folks outside who care.

How could they? There are no windows and no light, and it’s hot as hell.

Next we stopped in downtown McAllen at the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center. Let me say that again: “Humanitarian Respite Center”. In other words, Sister Norma is pretty much running a one-woman show to provide humanitarian respite…FROM THE UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT.

Families who are held in detention centers are released—sometimes they are wearing ankle bracelets, sometimes they have directions to show up in court to pursue their claims for asylum. Whatever their situation, they are dropped off at the bus station in McAllen with only the possessions they are carrying. This happens after weeks, or months, of being held, often without adequate medical care of hygiene, very often separated from their families. They’re invited to find their way to relatives in the United States with no English skills, no resources, and no understanding about how to proceed. That’s when Sister Norma and her volunteers step in.

At the humanitarian respite center families rest in the air conditioned waiting room. They sit down with a volunteer who asks them first of all, “How are you?” Sister Norma says that it’s this question that helps begin process of helping people feel human again, after they’ve survived an experience that is deeply dehumanizing. Volunteers then help them place the first telephone call they’ve made to family since setting out for the border; it’s a cacophony of tears and relieved exclamations. Then, the essentials. A shower—a luxury that feels like a distant memory to most. Medical attention for babies who are dehydrated, sick with the flu, nursing skin rashes from inability to wash. After clean clothes, it’s food: a warm bowl of soup for the grown ups, along with flour tortillas donated by a local business. Babies are swaddled and fed with formula. And if the family cannot get on a bus to, say, Baltimore, that night, the center will make a space on the floor for the family to sleep in safety. Families are eventually sent off on buses with sandwiches and water bottles, enough to last until they reach their destinations.

As we leave the humanitarian respite center in the early evening, it’s still hot as hell, the sun beating down with no relief. This is the time of day when families are generally dropped at the bus station, so Sister Norma and her volunteers gear up between 150-400 people in their tiny, two-room respite center.

As the sun sets it’s still hot as hell, but now the light is gone. In the pitch dark of downtown McAllen the lights of the humanitarian respite shelter shine. From the darkness of the bus stop, off in the distance, there’s a small glimmer of light.

Pastor Amy is joining a delegation of of 11  women faith leaders who will travel to the Texas/Mexico border to confront the Trump Administration’s cruel and immoral family separation and family detention policies which treat people seeking safety from violence as criminals and incarcerates entire families. Click here to see the complete collection of Dispatches from the Border.