Standing in the El Paso Greyhound station, with its confusing array of electronic schedule displays, A, B, and C waiting lines, departure doors labeled #1 through #6, and garbled loudspeaker announcements, you can tell by the look on their faces whether they “get it.” Whether these refugees understand the system they have entered; whether they will board the correct bus, whether they can negotiate the five or six bus transfers in their journey across country, whether the printed message we give them explaining to strangers that they don’t speak English and need help—whether all that will be enough.
As for me, I’m left wondering whether they will find the future they seek. Standing there with little more than their white plastic bag of extra clothing and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, with their ankle monitors and shoes without laces, they still manage to look hopeful. They have been through so much in their trek to our southern border, yet the challenges they will face in an ambivalent adopted country seem equally daunting. We part with hugs, smiles, and wishes of “buena suerte” and “viajes seguros.” I’m not much given to prayer, but I pray for them.
In May, my wife and I joined other returned Peace Corps volunteers and dozens of other well-meaning individuals to answer the El Paso Annunciation House’s plea for help in supporting the hundreds of migrants crossing the border seeking asylum. For two weeks we immersed ourselves in the tasks assigned to us by Annunciation House’s Pastoral Center. This setting serves approximately 100 asylum seekers each day. We gather critical information once our guests disembark from the ICE buses, provide them with a clean set of donated clothing, a shower, and a cot to sleep on, feed them three times a day during their stay, minister to an array of sicknesses, and arrange transportation from the shelter to their destination anywhere in the United States. Ultimately, we drive them to one of El Paso’s bus stations or airport and help them negotiate through a variety of security checks, immigration requirements, and misunderstandings (on both sides of the counter).
For Linda, that meant 12-hour days monitoring the comings and goings of everyone and everything—collecting information during in-take, assigning drivers to get our guests to transportation hubs, seeing that all questions were answered, using her very best grandmother skills to minister those with sore throats, coughs, and bellyaches, and generally keeping the peace among a variety of competing interests and needs. Her fine organizational skills were put to the test. For Roger, most time was spent behind the wheel, strapping kids into car seats, negotiating traffic, accommodating various airline and bus company rules, seeing our folks through immigration and TSA airport security, finding the correct gates or buses, and generally easing the fears of people who were doing some pretty scary things for the first time.
Through it all, we laughed and cried. There were lots and lots of positive moments. Seeing kids and their parents negotiate an airport escalator for the first time, watching hungry people dig into a big meal of beans and rice, putting desperate people at ease, at least temporarily. We watched with appreciation as migrants dug in to help each other make the 300 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches needed each day or to clean up after every meal or to maintain the single men and women’s bathrooms at our site. Most of all, we marveled at the success of the whole operation—getting folks from the border and on their way to a new chapter in their lives.
If there is a negative to all of this it is simply the enormity of the need and the realization that the small contributions of people like us simply fall well short of what is needed to solve a humanitarian crisis. Etched in my mind is a young Guatemalan mother—all 4’11” inches of her—standing in line at the bus terminal. In her arms is an eight month old baby. Standing next to her are her two other children, two and four years old. She is exhausted, her bus is late, and she faces six bus transfers in her three-day trip across country. At the risk of sounding political, she is not a terrorist; the man standing next to her in line is not a rapist, nor is the man next to him a drug dealer. Most of the people we met were single parents with a child or two in tow.
The fact that they were willing to face the trials they were experiencing speaks volumes as to what they are desperately trying to escape. In saying this, I do not in any way wish to minimize the issues of border security or a system ill-equipped to address the situation it faces. However, we can do better. I am a New Yorker. In the harbor of our great city lies a statue with the message, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” I still believe in that message.
In short, our thanks to the National Peace Corps Association for alerting us to this opportunity. As returned Peace Corps Response volunteers, my wife and I welcomed the opportunity to extend our Peace Corps commitment in an area of great need. As was the case in our initial Peace Corps service in Micronesia, we gained far more than we gave.