Last year, a group of us went to El Paso, at a time when 1000 people were being released from US government custody each day. Our aim to help the travelers find their way to their sponsoring family members across the country. We spent the two weeks organizing which guests will stay in which room, (as the turnover was constant), who is headed to the airport at which time (and showing them the ins and outs of the airport terminals), and trying to meet the needs of the people who are waiting for their bus ride or flight (it could be days or even weeks). Last year was spent helping huge volumes of refugees and asylum seekers.
This year, a 15 hour drive further south in Texas, the political landscape has changed, requiring asylum seekers to wait outside of the US for their court hearing. A team goes across the border into Mexico each day with basic food supplies in zip lock bags filled with: corn meal, beans, sugar, coffee, salt, oatmeal, and a water bottle refilled with cooking oil.
The journey to the people begins an hour away, where the bags are prepared (filled from larger volumes of supplies). Then there is an hour's drive, parking near the border, filling 8 beach carts with 60 portions of each item, and then we wal. First we pass through a toll booth that requires exactly 4 quarters. Then we cross over a wall, the Rio Grande River, and a checkpoint into Mexico. After they inspect our goods, we cross a street that feels like a parking lot, filled with cars waiting to get into the US.
Immediately you can see the tents in the distance. The tents are all covered with plastic bags, because the dust is constant. (I have a false tan, composed of dust). The outside temperature is in the 80's (in February), so I can only imagine how hot it is inside the tent and plastic covering.
We walk then length of the camp to the opening, whose mouth seems to be a few city blocks away, then back that same distance to a known gathering space. Through all of the up and down slopes, we pull the hefty carts, filled with precious cargo.
Children appear once we enter to encampment and help push the loads from the back, hoping we have chocolate milk with us (which sadly we didn’t). We pass latrines and clothes washing stations, clean water supplies and tents turned churches. There is a barber and a hair-dresser busy at work, their salon open to the sky, sitting on the concrete steps. There are tents everywhere. If you didn’t know better, you’d think this could be camp for the summer. Clothes hang on the line. Adobe stoves are made out of mud. There are piles of sticks nearby, fuel to the cook the food. And there are children - everywhere there are smiling faces, giggles, and eyes filled with curiosity. It seems the surprise of what might be in the carts is too exciting to miss.
The camp has 4 distinct sides: concrete Mexican streets, the parking lot of cars headed to the US and on two sides the Rio Grande, with the wall and the US beyond.
I have no more impressions to share as I was so overwhelmed by the familiarity of what could be a summer camp and yet the surreal-ness that this isn’t a fun vacation, it’s a semi-permanent home, where many people have been living in for over four months.
I never felt unsafe, and wondered where these supposed ruffians (according to one side of the political spectrum) that we keep hearing about must be. I saw a very calm group of people, patiently waiting, trying to survive for their day in court.
After distributing the food, one sweet six-year old girl launched herself into my arms, gave me a bear hug, removed my sunglasses to inspect the color of my eyes, and delicately replaced the glasses with precision. She smiled and ran off, leaving me filled with a fantastic fuel for the walk back to the car and hour’s drive home.
Today our team was 6 people, and tomorrow we grow by 3. We hope to bring you different impressions of our journey over the next two weeks. Via con Dios!