By KAY MATTHEWS
This is a tale of two Americas. In a rational conversation that would be a strikingly reductionist statement, but considering the depth of the depravity we are experiencing, I’m going to go ahead and use a dialectical method to lambast the first America. This is where migrants from Central and South American arrive to ask for asylum and are put in either Custom and Border Patrol (CBP) or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers where they take away their shoe laces, rosary beads, belts, shawls, and other personal belongings, put them in cold cages, feed them insufficiently heated burritos, and make them sleep on concrete floors. The other America is where the migrants are dropped off by CBP or ICE to shelters run by religious organizations and local governments where they are provided with warm food, showers, medical care, toys for the children, beds for the night, and help with bus and plane tickets to continue their journey to family members or sponsors all over the US who will care for them while they wait for asylum hearings.
The first America is required by law to take care of the immigrants like the second America does (Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is suing the Trump administration for releasing asylum-seekers from Central America into communities near the southern border without any assistance. Obviously, it flaunts that law by often separating children who arrive with their parents or other relatives so the adults can be detained for extended periods of time. It flaunts that law by housing unaccompanied children in overcrowded, unsafe, and unsanitary tents or former industrial buildings that many are calling “concentration camps.”
While the articles detailing this first America are being issued fast and furiously, as they should be, there are many stories about the second America as well, most recently about Deming, New Mexico, where migrants are being dropped off by CBP or ICE because the shelters in El Paso and Las Cruces are overwhelmed. “We’re really good at this,” said Chris Brice, who runs the shelter and also serves as Deming’s jail warden and assistant county manager. The city is spending about $15,000 a day to accommodate the migrants, Brice said. “We don’t even discuss the politics of it here,” Brice added. “It’s what we do or they would be out there on the street trying to find their own way. And that’s unacceptable to everybody.”
I’m going to tell another story about Project Oak Tree in Las Cruces, from which I just returned, my third visit. Each time I go I speak to those from El Salvador, Honduran, Guatemala, and Nicaragua who risked everything to seek a better life in the US. Each time I go I see a single parent, with one or two children, who have left behind a spouse and other children with the hope of gaining asylum, getting a job, and reuniting the family. Each time I go see children who come to the shelter tired and frightened but who find balls, coloring books, and bikes to become regular children having fun.
This time I also saw a child who became seriously ill the afternoon after she arrived with her father. By the time the doctor arrived, a semi-retired Las Cruces woman, Dr. Burke, who regularly volunteers at the shelter, the little girl was obviously in pain and crying. The doctor stayed at the shelter until 9:30, examining the little girl, figuring out what kind of infection she had, ordering an antibiotic (that another volunteer went to get at the all night pharmacy), and administering the shot to the frightened child, screaming in distress. By the next morning, when Dr. Burke returned to check on her, she was riding around the shelter on a bicycle and playing with the other kids. She still had a thirty-hour bus ride ahead of her, to her sponsor family, but at least for the time being, she was happy.
I asked Dr. Burke what kinds of problems she usually deals with at the shelter and she said the most common problem is that the migrants arrive there dehydrated, which can trigger colds, sore throats, and bronchitis. These are people who mostly come from warm, humid environments who then enter our semi-arid border towns with no water bottles or proper food. The detention centers notoriously fail to provide sufficient water—a bottle a day—so by the time the migrants arrive at the shelters they’re dehydrated and vulnerable.
But at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Cathedral they got all the water they wanted and needed, chickens stew, bread, fruit, milk, juice, a spaghetti dinner donated by a local Italian restaurant, and pizza on Friday, donated by a local pizzeria. Sylvia Corona, volunteer coordinator, and Stephanie Gonzalez, student coordinator, spent hours getting everyone’s transportation papers in order and arranging for volunteers to drive people to the airport in El Paso and bus stations in Las Cruces, Doña Ana, and El Paso. Those whose buses left late in the day went to Sylvia’s house, where the kids rode their bikes around her yard and she served one more dinner with leftover food from the church kitchen. Many thanks to those who sent supplies down with me, folks from Taos, Peñasco, Albuquerque, and Truth or Consequences.
In the Atlantic article, author Ken White has this to say: “The fault lies not with any one administration or politician, but with the culture: the ICE and CBP culture that encourages the abuse, the culture of the legal apologists who defend it, and our culture—a largely indifferent America that hasn’t done a damn thing about it. This stain on America’s soul will not wash out with an election cycle. It will only change when Americans demand that the government treat the least of us as both the law and our values require—and firmly maintain that demand no matter how we feel about the party in power.”
I would call it worldview rather than culture, that which encourages the abuse and that which remains indifferent about it, but other Americans are demanding that the government follow the law by filing lawsuits, bearing witness, protesting at detention centers, and taking care of refugees as best they can. We also have to examine what produces those with this worldview to better disempower it: neoliberals who create economic disparity; Wall Street elite who take advantage of it; Puritan individualists who lack empathy; and racist white nationalists who have been with us since the founding fathers. The comment “Leftist nonsense” in The Santa Fe New Mexican about the editorial that lays out what is going on at the border and offers concrete, positive actions to deal with it pretty much encapsulates America First. We of the many other Americas know what is the right thing to do.