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Scenes From the Front Lines of America’s Immigration Crisis

In this 2014 photo, officers wait for new arrivals in the intake area at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center in Nogales, Ariz., where hundreds of mostly Central American migrant children were being processed and held. (Ross D. Franklin, File-Pool / AP)

The Tucson Greyhound bus station sits in an expansive parking lot in what could generously be called the edge of downtown. It once shared a historic building with the train station but is now in what amounts to a double-wide trailer, propped up five feet off the ground with a sheet-metal skirt. The building shimmers in the heat radiating from the asphalt. This unremarkable trailer played a key role in the reunification and separation of migrant families back in 2013 to 2014—which, in turn, laid some of the groundwork for the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy.

In 2013, I came to this bus station three or more times a week. I lived in a volunteer intentional community whose members would load the back seat of our shared car with a dozen homemade care packages: small cloth bags filled with bottles of water, cups of ramen soup, a fistful of granola bars and a mishmash of whichever portable snacks were on the food shelf that week.

In the parking lot of the Greyhound station, an unmarked white passenger van would drive up. The passengers were short, well-dressed Central American mothers with their children in tow, everyone’s shoes still dusty from the trek across the border. They’d get out of the van wearing what looked like new T-shirts and jeans with bedazzled pockets. The jeans sagged because the migrants’ belts had been taken away during Border Patrol (BP) detention. It appeared as if they were trying to balance looking good for their trip to America while also dressing practically in case they had to walk a long way in the desert.

I’d wait for a fellow volunteer, preferably a woman who spoke better Spanish than I, to arrive and help me carry in the bags of food, extra clothes, diapers and stuffed animals. We would approach the migrants, tell them where they were, and let them use our phones to call their families. I would talk to family members on the other end of the line, as the migrants puzzled over how to buy a Greyhound ticket, which was not as easy as you would think. We took money orders so families had cash for the three-day trip from the border to their families living in the vast interior of the U.S.

We knew the Greyhound staffers by name and knew which nights the friendly ones worked. We memorized the routes that were easy to navigate, and which cities were problematic. We explained migrants’ tickets using highlighters to emphasize stations at which they had to change buses. If they got a ticket for that night, we got on the bus with them to help them find a seat close to the driver. If it was a driver we knew, he or she would give a knowing nod.

If it was a new driver, we would explain that these were asylum applicants with a stay of deportation notice that allowed them to travel in the U.S. We would tell the mothers where BP would pull the bus over, and we tipped them off about which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) documents they needed to show. Often, we would watch the last bus of the night drive into the hot, dry Tucson night—the migrants’ small silhouettes speeding away under a lone streetlight overlooking the backside of the Greyhound station.

Our intentional community consisted of a single-story brick house I shared with four other people. We hosted weekly meals, letter-writing nights and sign-making events, and provided a space for folks transitioning out of the for-profit immigration detention centers to the north of us in Florence, Ariz.

This phase of our work began on Labor Day weekend 2013, when a Greyhound employee called our house because our number was written on a two-year-old note that read, “If someone needs a free place to stay.”

That note was placed there because two years prior, ICE had been dumping recently released migrants from the detention centers in Florence at the Tucson Greyhound station. Volunteers from our community would bring them food and blankets. That work stopped when ICE began unloading migrants at the Phoenix bus station, which is larger and open 24 hours a day.

After Labor Day, we started getting phone calls every night from the bus station. We reached out to friends and neighbors to ask for help assisting the hundreds of Central American asylum seekers who were left stranded at the station. Shifts were delegated, chores were made, and for a little under a year we assisted mothers reuniting with their husbands and other relatives in the U.S. It begs the question how a single-family residence occupied by five part-time volunteers could provide more humane care than ICE, a multibillion-dollar agency with thousands of employees.

On some nights, ICE would drop off the asylum seekers at midnight, an hour before the station closed. Other nights, bus routes were closed due to poor weather or a sick driver. About half the time families had to buy tickets for the following day because the buses leaving that night were full. In those situations, we drove them to our home, a half-mile away from the bus station.

They came in through our side door with babies strapped to their backs, holding the hands of their children. Their serious faces concentrated not on what they had been through but what lay ahead. Our small home suddenly become a way station for Guatemalan families fleeing violence, drug cartels and economic devastation. In our Tucson living room, we saw refugees from the international forces of global capitalism, climate change and failed foreign and border policies. We heard countless stories of small family farms in the mountains where people could no longer make a living selling their corn, so the husband traveled north for work. Over time, it became impossible for the husband to keep returning because the border became harder to cross.

Farms in Guatemala had a hard time sustaining themselves in part due to the shifting climate that alternated between droughts and floods. For years, a husband would send money, until even that was no longer enough. When the cartels moved in and started recruiting the children, families decided to pay those cartels for the trip north. They often put their land up as collateral against a loan with 10 percent interest every month.

The families took a bus north through Mexico, where they were forced to bribe Mexican immigration officers. When they arrived at Nogales, Mexico, the smugglers lifted the mothers with babies swaddled to their backs and dropped them over a 15-foot fence. They risked getting raped, kidnapped or killed by the people they were paying a small fortune to. These stories were frequently glossed over. What they wanted to tell us was how our country treated them when they arrived.

They told us their stories at our dining room table each night, over corn tortillas, rice and black beans. Mothers often bounced a baby on one knee while feeding a 3- or 4-year-old. Although I have never traveled to Guatemala, I now know how to cook for Guatemalans.

The first time I tried to serve cold corn tortillas, the mothers looked at me with confused expressions. One walked me to the stove and showed me how to heat tortillas over an open range. I learned that my black beans were too spicy, and that it was not appropriate to mix them with rice. We learned to put sippy cups next to the coffee mugs. It always surprised me how sophisticated a 4-year-old could look drinking coffee at night, wearing a wool sweater over a collared shirt.

After dinner, mothers would cycle through our one bathroom, taking a shower and bathing their children. The children fell asleep on their mothers’ laps or played quietly, silently dismantling our couch or kicking around a stuffed soccer ball. Often, around midnight, as the dark Tucson night buzzed with cicadas, the women would start to tell us stories about what happened to them in the cells they called hieleras (ice boxes) while they were with la migra (border patrol). Agents took jackets from children and made them sleep on the floor. BP took all belts, shoelaces and bags—including diaper bags.

Many mothers lamented that their children had to wear the same diaper throughout the three-day detention. The food consisted of frozen microwavable burritos, and when water was given, it was filled with ice. Even worse, medical care was not given when needed. One mother told me her child had a cold so severe that he had trouble breathing through the mucus.

When she asked a Border Patrol agent if she could see a doctor, he asked for $80.

“I laughed in his face! We are so poor; how could we pay that?” she said.

At every step of their incarceration, they were goaded and coaxed into signing documents written in English.

“I knew better; I could see that they were voluntary deportation papers,” said a woman who could read English. “I told everyone in my group, ‘Don’t sign any papers.’ ”

We took several terrified pregnant women to the hospital because they feared a miscarriage due to this abuse. We gave children cold and cough medicine every night. It was surprising to see a child without a cold.

Sometimes an older child, around 16 or so, would be separated from the rest of her family. It was never clear why an agent singled her out. She would be sent to a shelter for unaccompanied minors in an old motel at the end of Tucson’s Miracle Mile. We would contact our friends who provided pro bono legal services. Over the course of a week or so, the child would be reunited with her family on our front porch.

Whenever a father traveled with the mother and children, he would be separated from his family in BP detention and sent to Operation Streamline. He would go through a criminal proceeding—with 80 other migrants—that lasted two hours. Afterward, he would spend three months in a for-profit immigration detention center before he was deported with a misdemeanor or felony on his record. He would then be barred from the U.S. for 10 years or longer.

Over the course of a year, our small community helped over 3,000 families, half of which spent the night in our home. We helped them find Greyhound rides to various parts of the U.S., where they waited for their immigration court cases to be processed. To be released by BP, they needed to give ICE an address of the family member they would be staying with. The migrant families would be processed with fingerprints and pictures, given a court date and discarded at the Greyhound station.

At first, we didn’t understand why ICE simply released families. For the first month, we were quiet about it, not telling many friends or asking the families too many questions. We had heard stories of BP agents releasing people they had found in the desert at the Greyhound station. Had the agents been struck by their consciences after spending shifts arresting women and children fleeing cartel violence? Was there a bribe too big to pass up?

After a month, we asked a lawyer for explanations. She examined the papers the families carried with them. A Bush-era law required families from Central America to see an immigration judge before being deported. Since most family detention centers do not stay open long due to human rights abuses, there was no place to imprison them. This had an unintended effect, causing begrudging ICE officers to treat asylum seekers in the same manner most countries did: allowing them to live with their own families while a court took the time to determine if they could receive asylum.

Two days before Memorial Day 2014, the cartels increased the number of buses they sent to the border. When ICE started dropping off 80 families a night—even flying families from Texas BP stations to drop off at our Greyhound station—we caved. We called the newspapers, and a story ran in a Phoenix paper. The Associated Press picked it up.

During this time, two of our roommates were on a road trip in Texas. They saw the same situation in every Greyhound bus station they passed: families not fed and abandoned with no money and no concept of where they were or how to get to where they needed to go. Nicaraguans and Salvadorians were pushed into the Rio Grande by smugglers from a different cartel.

When I asked them what I should say to the TV stations calling our home, my housemate John said, “This is a humanitarian crisis with a military response.” Over the course of weeks, this turned into a “Central American Surge” in national media. The Tucson BP station also received a lot of calls from news stations. And when we took TV crews to the Greyhound station, BP began collaborating with Catholic Charities, whose members took over our work and set up a migrant shelter in Tucson.

All around us, talking heads debated what BP should be doing differently and whether our border policies were “working.” To us, it was clear this was not a system that worked. Families still had to risk crossing the desert, and the cartels made a fortune ferrying vulnerable families and literally tossing them over the fence. Mothers and children left the Greyhound bus station having undergone an expensive, traumatic trip that caused lasting pain. Once a family made it into the interior of the U.S., they put their extended families at risk by giving ICE their phone numbers and addresses. If they didn’t report to their local ICE office, their unexecuted order of deportation would become active. They would become undocumented and risk being flown back to their country of origin.

Even though these families had every reason to fear ICE, 95 percent of people released into this monitoring system returned for their ICE appointments, according to an ICE study from 2014.

But the narrative spun out of control on the national stage—falsely described as a “massive influx,” an “invasion.” People were “caught and released” like fish. We watched in horror as militia groups came back to the border. They came because (they said) BP agents were too busy acting as babysitters. Protesters turned away buses of children at a shelter for minors in California, waving back the buses with American flags. The belief that separating families would act as a deterrence grew out of a soil already primed with racist fears of an ever encroaching “other.”

What differentiated our small community from ICE and BP was our ability to see these families as people. They were humans, not “Illegals.” They deserved to be treated with dignity.

For the last several decades, we have manufactured a constant emergency on our southern border by toppling democratically elected leaders in Central America’s Northern Triangle, strengthening cartels by providing a market for the smuggling of drugs and people, and flooding foreign markets with cheap American corn. Yet we respond with racially charged vocabularies such as “infestation.”

The driving assumption behind a “zero-tolerance” border policy and the “detention first” response is that those coming to our border are criminals—a false, easy label that justifies all kinds of abuses.

I recently heard in news reports the cries of migrant children being separated from their parents, and couldn’t help but think of the children I saw at the Greyhound bus station in Tucson. They smiled as I handed them a stuffed toy, their shy, bright, hazel eyes looking out from under mops of brown hair. They asked if I wanted to play, yearning for a human connection, unaware of the labels meant to divide us.

Daniel Wilson
Dan Wilson provided humanitarian aid on the U.S.-Mexico border from 2012-2015 with No More Deaths and the Restoration Project. He currently lives and farms in southeastern…
Daniel Wilson

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