Response: October 2016 Issue

Welcoming Refugees in San Antonio

United Methodist Women members provide hospitality for women and children fleeing terror in Central America.

Welcoming Refugees in San Antonio
Yanira Lopez walks her daughter Melany home from school in San Antonio, Texas, in November 2015.

As Central American women and children have fled terror in their homelands for relative safety in the United States during the past two years, the Texas city of San Antonio has become a dumping ground for refugee families released from two huge detention centers nearby. A coalition of churches and immigration activists has struggled to provide hospitality to those traumatized by repression at home and a dizzying asylum process in the United States.

"When the first wave of women and children began to arrive in San Antonio from the detention centers in Dilley and Karnes City in 2014, the churches here began to realize that we had this huge group of people that needed assistance, primarily help in getting to their families throughout the United States," said Janice Clayton, a member of United Methodist Women at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church.

"There was a call at our church to get involved in the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, and my husband Bert and I volunteered."

Ms. Clayton and her husband started visiting the local bus terminal, where the two corporate-run prisons would simply dump families released from detention and awaiting a final decision on their asylum claims. Women and children would often wait for days until family members could purchase tickets for their onward travel. The Claytons and other volunteers took the families home until they were ready to travel. And they started what has become a massive project to provide backpacks with personal items for the women and children.

The Interfaith Welcome Coalition works closely with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a group formed by San Antonio church leaders and others in response to the refugee crises of the 1980s. Today RAICES provides pro bono legal assistance to refugees and migrants, including unaccompanied minors, arriving at the U.S. border. And it has opened a shelter where families can stay while they work out transportation arrangements.

Ms. Clayton, who continues to provide hospitality in her home to volunteers who come to work with RAICES, says she has heard terrifying accounts from the Central American women she has met.

"They are caught between cosmic forces. They're fleeing from violence and poverty and drug traffickers in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, yet they're fleeing toward a country that is doing a lot to keep them out," she said. "These are ordinary people. They're like your own children and grandchildren. But they've experienced sheer horror in getting here. These women are incredibly brave."

Just because families are released from detention and allowed to travel onward doesn't guarantee they can remain in the United States. As women and children arrive at the border in increasing numbers, activists express concern that the U.S. government is indiscriminately deporting families who should be eligible for asylum, sending them back to the cauldron of violence they fled.

Every week in San Antonio, Ms. Clayton and other United Methodist Women members continue to gather with folks from other churches to put together the backpacks in the basement of El Divino Salvador United Methodist Church. Ms. Clayton says that work keeps her from being depressed by anti-immigrant sentiment encouraged by some politicians.

"There's so much fear out there, but if people spent 15 minutes with one of these mothers and their children, that fear would dissipate," she said. "I try to be a person of faith and not be totally outraged that others have so little regard for humanity, so little understanding that Jesus is found in every one of these people. So we keep on working and trying to stay sane. That's our faith. That's what we're commanded to do."

Futility and impunity

When Dayanara Lopez' sister went to the United States years ago, she left her two boys in the care of family in Honduras. Today gangs rule the streets of Honduras, and soon her children were being recruited into one of the violent groups. When one refused, he was beaten and ended up in the hospital. The gangs made it clear that they'd kill him if he didn't join.

So Ms. Lopez decided it was time to take her two nephews and her own two children and leave. "I wanted to take them to their mother, because the people who rule my country have created an environment where the poor can't survive," she said.

Reporting the assault on her nephew to the police wouldn't have helped, she says.

"We couldn't denounce this to the police. If you have money, they'll take care of you. But if not, nothing will happen. You can't trust the police. Calling the police is the same as calling the gangs," she said.

Ms. Lopez admits she was also tired of getting beaten up by her husband, a crime that's also futile to report to the police. "In Honduras there is a lot of violence against women. They kill women like they kill cockroaches. And nothing happens," she said.

Her father, an evangelical pastor, was worried about how she would make it through Mexico, so he hired a man to escort Ms. Lopez and the four children to the United States. But the migrant smuggler turned out to be abusive. "He mistreated and humiliated us. He asked me to give him my daughter. When I repeatedly refused, he abandoned us," Ms. Lopez said.

On their own, the five wound their way north, riding buses and walking the lengthy routes around immigration checkpoints. Throughout the journey, Ms. Lopez clutched her Bible, and they slept in shelters run by the Catholic Church.

"In front of the shelters there were always houses where I went and offered to work cleaning, washing dishes and doing laundry. In return, they would give me and the children some food to eat, and at times a place to sleep," Ms. Lopez said. "God always put good people in our path."

Along Mexico's northern border, Ms. Lopez and the children worked for a woman who sent her own boys to help them wade across the river. But on the other side, some assailants started chasing them, and Ms. Lopez and the four children ran for their lives through the bushes at night.

"The men were chasing us, and I felt like I couldn't run any further. My nephew was urging me on and I was pleading with God to save us. Then a car from immigration came along. 'Help!' we yelled. I didn't know where we were, whether we were in the United States or Mexico. But they saved us."

The immigration officials transported the five to a holding facility known as la hielera ["the freezer"] for its low temperature. There they slept on the floor on thin mattresses, covering themselves against the cold with Mylar blankets. "They made me sign a lot of papers, but they treated us well," Ms. Lopez said. "Except for the cold."

After a few hours, officials took away her nephews. "I cried. The officials told me not to cry, that they would be OK. They explained that they had to verify that their mother was already in the United States. We had brought along their birth certificates, but they were in a backpack we lost when we were running from the men on the border. My sister called our family in Honduras and they faxed the documents that were eventually needed to get them released," she said.

After just one night in la hielera, where Ms. Lopez and her own two kids, Josue Isaac and Genesis, cuddled together on one small mattress to stay warm, they were transported to another facility that quickly released them in San Antonio. It was an unusually short detention; many women and children are held for weeks.

They went to the shelter run by RAICES, where they rested overnight and availed themselves of clothing from the shelter's clothing bank, which is kept stocked by local churches. The next day a volunteer drove them to the bus station. Ms. Lopez' sister had purchased their bus tickets, and they were soon on the way to Tennessee. The two sisters hadn't seen each other in 11 years.

Ms. Lopez' daughter wants to be a pediatrician when she grows up. Her son wants to be a pastor.

"The path to get here was hard, and I only did it to give a better future to my children. They encouraged me, and God gave me strength to make it all the way," Ms. Lopez said.

Fleeing fear

"If you want to survive in Honduras, you have to cooperate with the gangs. If not, you'll wake up dead," said Rosaura Pineda Hernandez, a Honduran woman who fled to the United States with her two children in 2015.

"I was afraid the day was coming when I'd lose my children," said Ms. Pineda, who says friends of her two children, Isaac and Celeste, had been threatened and beaten for refusing to join the violent groups. She was afraid her kids were next, and saw no other way to keep her family alive and intact.

"I couldn't go to the police. They seldom do anything," she said.

Ms. Pineda, who also suffered from domestic violence, made the decision to leave. She had no money to pay a migrant smuggler, so she and her kids made their way as best they could, usually riding freight trains by day and sleeping under trees at night. Once they clung to the outside of a railroad car for 17 hours. "The scenery was beautiful, and my son thought it was fun. But it scared me to death," she said.

In one location, she said, members of the Zetas, a violent Mexican gang that often terrorizes immigrants, came through the train demanding money and assaulting anyone who resisted. She and her children hid out of sight and were quiet until the gang members passed.

Shortly after crossing into Mexico, Ms. Pineda and her children had joined an informal group of women, all with children, some of whom had made the trek before and knew where they were going.

"We were all women, and no one had any money. In Querétaro, we went house to house asking for help. People were nice to us, gave us food and blankets," she said. "We trusted God to protect us on our path and provide us angels along the way."

The entourage finally made it to Mexico's northern border, and Ms. Pineda's family crossed the Rio Grande in a small boat that deposited them on the U.S. shore. "The immigration officials were right there on the bank, and they asked us where we were going. I said we'd come looking for them," she said.

The immigration officials took the three asylum seekers to la hielera, where they spent two days. Then they spent another two days in la perrera ["the dog pen"] — a warren of wire mesh enclosures. Ms. Pineda says an immigration officer tried to convince her to sign a document agreeing to voluntary deportation back to Honduras, but she refused.

Ms. Pineda says the toilet facilities were particularly inadequate. "There was nowhere to bathe. We all smelled bad. Everyone. Someone had some deodorant and we all sprayed that on us to try and confuse the bad smell," she said.

From there they were transported to the corporate-run South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, where Ms. Pineda says conditions were better. After nine days of waiting, interspersed with interviews with immigration officials, they were released, but not before Ms. Pineda had a large electronic ankle monitor attached to her leg.

Ms. Pineda and her children were then welcomed to the RAICES shelter, pending the arrangement of travel on to Minnesota, where Ms. Pineda has friends with whom she and her children wanted to live. What is normally a one- or two-day stay at the shelter turned into weeks for Ms. Pineda. She refused to leave San Antonio until immigration authorities removed her ankle monitor.

"If I'd known they were going to put an ankle monitor on me, I wouldn't have come. People see me and think I'm a criminal. It's wrong," she said. "The lawyers are trying to get rid of it, but in the meantime I lay awake at night crying because of it. I pray to God they take it off. I can't continue my journey with it on. I'm sorry I came this far to have to endure this."

Despite the bothersome apparatus on her leg, Ms. Pineda appreciated the safe and warm environment of the shelter. "People here help me in whatever way they can. And listening to the stories of the other women who come through here keeps my problems in perspective. Almost every night I listen to their stories. Some have been raped as they passed through Mexico. I thank God that nothing that bad happened to me."

Angels on the path

When narcotraffickers threatened her son, Yanira Lopez hurriedly decided it was time to leave the town in Guatemala that had long been her home. "I didn't tell anyone. I didn't say goodbye. It seemed best for our safety to just leave, even though I felt sad leaving behind my parents and siblings," said Ms. Lopez. "We just grabbed our suitcases and left."

She had no money to hire a migrant smuggler, so Ms. Lopez borrowed about $600 from a bank and set off with her three children for the United States.

"We got through Mexico with few problems. God put angels in our path to help us, and we got to the border. We crossed a bridge over the river and found an immigration official. I told him we were from Guatemala and wanted to turn ourselves in and request political asylum. We waited a long time; I think they forgot about us. So I had to insist, and finally one guy listened to me and asked a lot of questions. They were nice to us, and got us hamburgers," Ms. Lopez said.

After spending the night at the border station, the four were placed in a vehicle and driven for hours.

"I asked where we were going and they told me, 'You'll find out.' The kids thought we'd soon be hugging my sister, and I thought maybe they were taking us to a bus station or airport so we could continue our journey to where she lives, but I told them not to celebrate quite yet. I was worried by the bars on the windows of the vehicle. I felt like we were being treated as criminals," she said.

They were taken to la perrera. Her two boys were separated from her, something she found traumatic, and she and her daughter Melany cuddled together on a thin mattress in one of the pens. When she tried to speak to one of her sons when walking to the toilet, she says she was told, "Shut up!" by one of the staff.

After a couple of days, they too were transported to the Karnes County Residential Center, where she was able to keep her family together. After 10 days, she pleaded her asylum case to immigration officials. A few days later, she was told she had a credible fear of suffering in Guatemala and would be released pending a final decision on her petition. They also demanded $7,500 in bond. Ms. Lopez didn't have it, nor was her sister in the United States able to come up with such a large sum. So she and her kids remained in the detention facility, and she worried she'd be deported if she couldn't raise the money. Finally she got assistance from an attorney from RAICES, who helped her get released. She and her children spent the first several nights of their freedom at the RAICES shelter.

Although she'd initially planned to live with a friend in California, Ms. Lopez decided to temporarily remain in San Antonio pending her immigration hearing. She started volunteering at the shelter, assuring that the women and children who arrived were received warmly. Several months later, she's still there, living nearby. Her kids are enrolled in San Antonio schools.

"I've met about 1,500 women who've passed through here. I've often cried as I've listened to their experiences, how they were mistreated by migrant smugglers and immigration officials alike. These women have survived incredible abuse, and I'm always praying that God will give them the strength to continue on," Ms. Lopez said.

"None of them knew what to expect when they got to the United States. I thought I'd get here and immediately be placed with my family. We flee our home countries because of delinquency, but when we get here we're the ones treated like criminals. Having to pay a bond or have an ankle monitor placed on your body is a kind of extortion racket. And if you ask questions in detention about these things, they insult you. They ask, 'Who invited you to come here?' They pressure you to sign a deportation order. No one explains the process.

"But we all decided to leave home in order to save our children, so we endure it. Our children are a blessing given to us by God, and we're willing to do anything to protect them. It's an incredible act of bravery to take your children and flee for your lives to another country."

Finding strength in God

Eulalia Miguel Francisco didn't tell anyone in Guatemala that she was leaving. Her husband beat her, and she was afraid he might kill her if he learned she wanted to leave.

"I didn't tell him, nor anyone else. I told no one," she said. "Once I mentioned that I was thinking of leaving and they said they'd take my son from me before I could leave. So I decided to leave without telling anyone."

In November 2015, Ms. Miguel gathered her life savings, about $250, and she and her 5-year-old son Cristopher set off toward the United States. Her idea was to reach Nebraska, where she had a friend. She had no idea how to get there, but she and Cristopher navigated their way through Mexico by continually asking people which bus would take them further north. Her money ran out before she reached Mexico's northern border, but the kindness of strangers kept her moving.

She and Cristopher crossed the Rio Grande into Texas with five other women and their children. They floated across the river on inner tubes.

"I can't swim, and I was afraid. But I just kept repeating to myself that God was going to protect us," she said.

The group members started walking, looking for immigration officials so they could request political asylum. "We arrived at a crossroads, and there were some big dogs there. I was afraid they would get loose and eat us. Finally, a car from the border patrol came along. An officer got out and said, 'Hola.' We responded, 'Hola.' They took down our information, and took us to an immigration office, where we spent one day and one night, then on to la perrera. Thanks to God they didn't take us to la hielera. We spent two days in la perrera," she said.

Ms. Miguel and her son were then taken to the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas, for two days. When a medical examination revealed she was pregnant, officials released her. They took her to San Antonio, where she was welcomed into a shelter run by RAICES.

"I walked in the door and felt like I was in my own home. I breathed fresh air," she said. "I'm never going back to my country. I'm afraid. And there is no work with which one can survive. I have an appointment with immigration officials in five months, when they'll decide about my case. But I'm not going back."

After a couple of days in the San Antonio shelter, Ms. Miguel and her son boarded a late night bus bound for Nebraska.


Paul Jeffrey is a United Methodist missionary and senior correspondent for response. He lives in Washington State and blogs at kairosphotos.com.

Posted or updated: 10/1/2016 11:00:00 PM
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