Sunday, July 28, 2019

Reporting from the Concentration Camp Exit Gate: Part 2

Juanita Salazar Lamb is an author who lives in Northwest Arkansas. Geographically removed from the Rio Grande Valley where she was born and raised, Juanita keeps her pulse on happenings in the Valley, on immigration issues, and other topics that affect the Latino community. She continues to work on her mystery series featuring Yara Garcia.

Read Juanita Salazar Lamb's first two days here, link.

Juanita Salazar Lamb

Day 3 was a slow day at the bus station. By 9:30 on other mornings most of the seats in the waiting area of the Greyhound station...

... are filled with travelers carrying their immigration documents and tickets in large manila envelopes as they juggle a tote bag and the black plastic bag that contains their sack lunch. But this morning there are no travelers in the waiting area by ten a.m. Two situations loom over everyone today: the impending landfall of tropical storm Barry, and the visit of Vice President Pence to McAllen.

Tropical storm Barry is taking aim for the Gulf Coast, taking direct aim at southern Louisiana with widespread rains as far west as Houston, as far east as Memphis and as far north as Arkansas. Busses to Houston and New Orleans were canceled the night before.

This morning travel to Houston is delayed because of the weather. Vice President Pence’s visit poses a different concern: will the airport shut down entirely for security reasons? How widespread will street closures be? Maybe the ICE busses can’t get through to deliver travelers to the bus station?

Late in the morning travelers start arriving in groups of twos and threes. They hold their immigration documents in their hands without the manila envelope. The adults look exhausted and disoriented. The children’s clothes and hair are dirty, their eyes frightened. Group members cluster together, the children cling to the adults; the teens always close by, watchful of the adults’ interaction with me.

I approach a group of five people, two women and one man with several children, including an infant.

As I talk to them, I learn that they are two separate families. They tell me they are waiting for confirmation from the bus line that their sponsor has paid for their tickets. I decide to wait until they have their tickets to explain their travel arrangements and documentation to them all at once. As I start to move away, the teen-aged boy asks is he can take his younger brother to bathroom. I say yes and explain to them that restrooms are free and that the water in fountains is safe to drink.

I then move on to a couple with a baby to determine the level of assistance they need. I notice the shins of the adults’ pants legs are smeared with mud. They are both wearing sneakers but neither has laces in their shoes. She tells me that they were released by ICE that morning and went to the “Catholic church,” and were told to come to the bus station to arrange their travel. After more discussion I determine that they haven’t eaten and have no sack lunch for themselves nor food for the baby.

Other volunteers encounter travelers in the same situation, without food or tickets and not having had a chance to clean up and rest. I walk to the Respite Center and find a Catholic Charities staff member. I explain the travelers’ situation to him, and he comes to the station to escort them to the Respite Center where they can get rest, a shower, clean clothes and food for themselves and the children. Although activity at the bus station was slow, the Respite Center volunteers who make travel arrangements and direct recent arrivals were short-staffed. Some travelers were inadvertently directed to the bus station prematurely.

In the afternoon small groups of travelers, carrying manila envelopes and wearing clean clothes, are grouped together according to departure time. Today we have five volunteers and few travelers, so I don’t get to assist too many people, which gives me time to think about those I have assisted. 

This week I talked to several travelers going to Houston and southern Louisiana. Will the neighborhoods in their new cities flood? Did they reach their new homes safely? What about the young man who was held for 40 days, is he now safely wit his family who prayed for him every day of his detention? What about the teen girl who wants to be a doctor, how long before she will start school? And what of the man who worked on farms and ranches his whole life and is now moving to a metropolitan area, what kind of work will he do? He just wants to work.

In the morning I had received a text about a shipment of 1,600 blankets that were due to arrive at a church in McAllen. One of the volunteer coordinators with Angry Tias and Abuelas asked for volunteers to unload the truck. The truck arrived around 2:00 pm after many delays and miscommunications.

When the rig pulled up to the church, the driver said he would have to unload the pallets on the sidewalk leading. As four of us volunteers pushed carts to load the bundles of blankets, the driver relented and said he would take the pallets in only as far as he could. 

This kind-hearted driver took the pallets all the way into the building. Six of us volunteers made quick work of unloading the pallets and arranging the bundles of blankets in space provided by the church.

The evening news of Day 3 has coverage of Vice President Pence’s visit to Ursula, the processing center in McAllen where many of the travelers I spoke with have been held. Video of his visit shows men in such crowded conditions that they are standing shoulder-to-shoulder within a chain-link enclosure.

One man standing in front keeps holding up fingers of both hands to form 4 and 0, indicating he has been held for 40 days, and keeps mouthing the words “cuarenta días”, forty days. Another portion of the news coverage is of the Vice President’s interview in which he was asked about the conditions of the centers. The VP repeatedly referred to the clean and comfortable conditions he had toured where the children were held.

I later learned that the VP had visited the tent city at Donna, Texas, a few miles from the Ursula facility. The Donna facility is relatively new, having been built within the past year, and the facilities and furnishings are said to be comfortable. It is a small facility which holds less than 100 immigrants.
Even the Vice President didn’t mention the availability of a full-time dentist.


I volunteered at the border for three days to learn for myself the situation. What I learned through what I saw and heard was a need, a great need: a need and willingness to work on the part of these travelers. A need to pursue dreams of education and a medical career. A need for clean clothes, and a ham and cheese sandwich packed by a religious Sister, a need to be able to use the restroom without asking permission.

I’ve learned in talking to these travelers that they have been in ICE-operated centers anywhere from 4 to 40 days after traveling for weeks, if not months, to reach the border. They have slept on the floor in cold rooms surrounded by other people in similar situations. They haven’t had a good night’s sleep because the officers have come in several times during the night, turned on the lights and made them get up from their make-shift beds, sometimes for no apparent reason.

In reviewing their documentation, I learned that ICE has given them permission to be in the U.S. Each person must still report to immigration court, but they have written permission to be in the U.S. If, and until, the immigration court hears their case and makes a decision, each of these people is in the U.S. with permission from ICE.

I am not an immigration lawyer nor a politician. I did not learn how to fix our immigration system. One thing that strikes me now when I hear politicians claiming that our immigration laws need changing because of the overwhelming numbers of immigrants, I can’t help but think “if the numbers of immigrants are illegal, the laws don’t need changing because the laws are being disregarded. And if the laws need changing to curb the numbers of immigrants, doesn’t it mean that they are coming here legally?”

There is a crisis on the border. I did learn that. But it’s not a political crisis, or a partisan crisis. Finger-pointing and name-calling will change nothing. This is a humanitarian crisis. Regardless of politics or broken systems, these travelers, these new arrivals, need our assistance. The Humanitarian Respite Center is doing a tremendous job serving the thousands of people they do each week. And it’s done entirely on donations. Food, clothing, water, toiletries arrive at the Respite Center each day, provided by individuals and organizations who want to help. The Center is staffed by volunteers who perform the many functions it takes to run the Center. The organization Angry Tias and Abuelas of RGV provides the volunteers at the bus stations.

I spent three days at the border. I know I will spend more days at the border.


Humanitarian Respite Center gift registry on This registry is up and ready for orders. I’ve included the items listed on the most recent list from the Respite Center, and they will ship directly to the Respite Center’s warehouse.

Direct Donations – Mail or ship your direct donation to
Catholic Charities Respite Center
700 N. Virgen de SJ Blvd
San Juan, TX 78589

In addition to the items listed on the gift registry, the Center is always in need of travel size toiletries for men and women.

Volunteer – Volunteers are always needed. You don’t have to speak Spanish as there are many tasks that need to be done. Volunteers are welcome to serve for as little or as long you can. Contact the respite center at 956.702.4088.

Angry Tias and Abuelas of the RGV – This is the group that coordinates the volunteers at the bus station. Contact them through their Facebook page, (link).

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