By KAY MATTHEWS
We (my son, granddaughter, and I) arrived at the Diocese of Las Cruces Project Oak Tree bunker (storage unit) right on time with our truck full of donations from our generous norteño friends: the folks gathering donations for the Embudo Valley Library yard sale (facilitated by Karen Cohen); clothing, toys, and books from Jean Nichols and fellow volunteers at the ReUse Center and SPOT office in Peñasco; clothing from Deborah Begal of Española and the Rochesters of Rancho Nambe; Taos Mountain Energy Bars from Jakob Schiller (my son); and money from several Dixon folks whose names I don’t know. Lucy Collier and Peter Malmgren always take care of my dogs so I can make these trips south.
The volunteers gathered at the bunker had plenty of work to do while waiting to hear if immigrants would be dropped off by ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) where they are held in detention centers and processed for movement to families and sponsors across the country. The volunteers were many loyal Las Cruces citizens, like coordinator Sylvia Corona and Delia Narváiz, who is 84 years old, several Santa Fe Spanish speakers, and Sayrah Namaste from Albuquerque, who runs the “adopt a shelter” for the Diocese of Las Cruces. Clothing was sorted into gender and age, from babies to adults. Toys, toiletries, and medical supplies were sorted and set aside in the bunker. With so many more migrants coming across the border, the city and county of Las Cruces, as well as other religious denominations, have stepped up to try to help the Catholic Diocese, under the direction of Annunciation House in El Paso, that runs the shelters in both El Paso and Las Cruces. With new shelters coming on board the situation can be chaotic but there will be better accommodations (see later in the article for specifics) for the thousands of refugees. ICE is supposed to notify the shelters the day before it plans to bring the immigrants so that volunteers can offer them food, clothing, and a night’s rest before they leave for their families or sponsors across the country. Deacon Lonnie Briseño, head of Project Oak Tree, and other volunteers work throughout the day to make sure everyone has a ticket for the bus or plane that will take them there.
This time, however, the Central American immigrants were brought by the Border Patrol to the Doña Ana County Triage Center instead of the shelter run by Project Oak Tree. We didn’t know why, but early the next morning Deacon Lonnie called Sylvia Corona to tell her that volunteers were needed at the Triage Center, especially for the children, and off we went, our truck loaded with donated bicycles and toys (if anyone has a children’s bike, especially appropriate for 5 to 12 year olds, please let me know and I’ll make arrangements to get it to Las Cruces). A group of about 40 people, comprised of fathers, mothers, and children ranging in age from under two to pre-adolescence, were all crowded in a room while papers were processed and food was brought in by food truck. The immigrants would be sent out the same day they arrived: no day of rest as provided by the Diocese shelters.
And so we played with children. Outside, some flew around the parking area on the bicycles in gleeful abandon. Some of them had never ridden a bike before so we recreated the days when we taught our own children to ride (my granddaughter Lucia was with us and had just learned to ride with help from her dad). I also sat in a small patio area with several lovely pre-adolescent girls who spent hours working on word puzzles in the Healthy Kids coloring books that Jean Nichols sent down. The words were all in English, but they were able to match the letters and I told them what they meant in Spanish. The younger girls and boys colored pictures in the books that depicted health lessons in both Spanish and English. They were all from Guatemala and Honduras; they were going to Maryland, Alabama, Washington, North Carolina, and beyond.
The father of one of the girls accompanied her whether she was outside riding a bike or on the patio coloring, never taking his eyes off her. At 11 years old she was full of life: smiling, riding the bike at full speed, jumping rope, talking with the other children. Jakob and I fell into conversation with her dad, whom I’ll call Raúl, a farmer from the village in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. When we asked him how big his farm was, by comparing it to where we were sitting in a small parking lot, he kept saying “Mucho más pequeña,” much smaller. Here he grew corn, potatoes, and beans. He couldn’t make a living from the farm and was on his way to Alabama, where his brother worked in a chicken processing plant. His brother’s entire family was still in Guatemala; Raúl’s wife and other children remained behind as well. They would work until they had the money to bring the rest of the families to Alabama.
Raúl carries the burden of what the United States has done in Guatemala. My friend John Nichols, after being politicized in a visit to that country many years ago, writes this in a memoir: “In a nutshell, Guatemala is still the richest state in Central American, providing us with coffee, bananas, sugar, beef, and cotton. We are her biggest trading partner, purchasing 41 percent of exports, providing 39 percent of imports. Four hundred U.S. firms have investments in Guatemala, of which ninety are among the top five hundred corporations in the United States. Since 1954 we have provided substantial military and government aid to keep these investments stable. In the late sixties and throughout the seventies, we supported the army’s civic action and counterinsurgency programs, which evolved into a policy of ethnocide against indigenous peoples. Jimmy Carter’s administration withheld aid because of these human rights abuses; the Reagan administration returned to business as usual. . . . Because of the CIA-administered coup in 1954 and our aid and support ever since, Guatemala is essentially a Yankee creation.”
In the 1980s, American backed atrocities reached “epic levels of barbarism, as the U.S. campaign against democracy and social justice moved into high gear throughout the region. Over 440 villages were demolished, huge areas of the highlands were destroyed in a frenzy of possibly irreversible environmental devastation, and well over a 100,000 civilians were killed or ‘disappeared'” (Noam Chomsky).
All we could do was wish Raúl, his beautiful daughter, and the rest of those on their way towards “a better life” buena suerte and buen viaje. But there was good news the following Monday when Deacon Lonnie and Sylvia met with the Office of Emergency Management and the city and county to discuss the opening of the National Guard Armory to house immigrants. Ruben Garica, head of Annunciation House. was also at the meeting. Working together, they decided that the large facility Armory would provide storage space for donations, and immigrants would arrive there first to have lunch, get a shower and clean clothes, and make arrangements for travel. Medical personnel will also be on hand. Then they will go to the Diocese hospitality centers (churches) for dinner and the night. The next day they will leave by bus or plane to their family or sponsors.
Deacon Lonnie plans on opening up two more churches as hospitality centers. This will aid Annunciation House in El Paso, which has been forced to put people up in motels because of lack of space at the shelters there. The city of Las Cruces has dedicated $500,000 to help in this joint effort. Ruben Garcia is working to have ICE continue to process the immigrants’ paper work, rather than the Border Patrol, as that agency has more experience and does a better job.
On the way home from Las Cruces I coincidentally listened to a This American Life “Left Behind” podcast about ICE’s 2018 raid on a slaughter house in Tennessee where they arrested almost a hundred workers and put them in detention. The show’s producer goes to the town and interviews the children whose parents were taken into custody. It’s heart wrenching, of course, as the family stories are told about who finally gets released to await asylum hearings at home, who does not, and the arbitrariness of those decisions. But the most shocking thing about the story she tells is the reaction of the citizens of the Bible belt, Trump supporting town (the county went 77 percent to Trump) where this happens. The producer interviews a woman newspaper manager and a Southern Baptist minister, who both believe undocumented immigrants should suffer the consequences of breaking the law—until the woman ends up at the vigil held for the detainees and hears the children talk about losing their parents, and the preacher remembers that he’s a Christian where loving one’s neighbor is a Christian value. The woman tells the producer that hearing the children “shook my soul.” This was not a crackdown on immigrants who were criminals; this was a crackdown on families who work at the meat packing plant: “This is not what I had in mind,” she says. The preacher says he supported Trump because he wanted a secure border. Then he says, “I have a moral obligation” to help these families. The town then raises thousands of dollars to pay the bond of those workers put in detention.
But the kicker is that they both remain Trump supporters. “Maybe he didn’t understand that they would be going after the worker at the meat packing plant,” the woman says. Then more softly, she adds, “I guess that’s probably not the case.”
Donations will be needed more than ever as capacity expands in Las Cruces (see La Jicarita April 15 for a list of needs). Volunteers are also needed and those working at the Armory will not have to get the special training required by the churches. Bilingual and computer savvy volunteers are especially needed. Monetary donations can also be sent to the organizations listed below.
Deacon Lonnie Briseno
1280 Med Park
Las Cruces NM 88005
1003 E. San Antonio Ave.,
El Paso, Texas, 79901
431 Richmond Pl NE
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87106
2010 Bridge Blvd SW
Albuquerque, NM 87105