How a little hospitality has helped grow the movement for migrant rights

A Salvadorian family waits at the Greyhound bus station for their trip to Houston on July 25, 2014 in McAllen, Texas.

On a weekday evening back in June, Pancho Chavez sat in the Tucson Greyhound bus station. He wasn’t waiting to go anywhere, nor were the half dozen other retirees buzzing around near him. Instead, they were all there to help undocumented Central American mothers and children navigate Greyhound’s complex bus system.

Nine families had been released from the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, directly into the station that evening. They were headed to locations across the United States, where they had relatives who could take them in, before needing to report to an ICE office within 15 days of their arrival and beginning immigration court proceedings. If they failed to report, their stay in the country would immediately be considered illegal. But since many of these families were planning to apply for refugee status, they would not be missing their appointment.

While volunteer work at the station started in September 2013, there was a huge spike in the number of families being dropped off in May. Border crossings had surged in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, and immigration authorities in Brownsville and McAllen simply couldn’t handle the load. They started flying migrants to cities along the U.S.-Mexico border, including Tucson, to be processed. Even so, the United States has very few detention centers that can accommodate families — the only one in operation, at that time, was in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Since September, Casa Mariposa, a community of faith inspired by the Catholic Worker movement, and its associated Restoration Project, had been providing food, material resources and information to these families. On Memorial Day, Casa Mariposa got a call from workers at the Greyhound station, saying 70 people had been dropped off. These inflated numbers continued over the next few weeks, and Casa Mariposa volunteers could no longer keep up with the workload. They put out a call for help and Chavez — who also works with humanitarian aid groups Humane Borders and the Tucson Samaritans — was one of the volunteers who responded.

“At the beginning, my wife and I said, ‘Let’s go for one night,’” Chavez said. “We ended up coming every night because of the big need.”

In June, the Greyhound station had a surplus of volunteers, but there was still a need for Spanish speakers like Chavez. He was able to explain the bus tickets to the families and help them use the Restoration Project’s cell phone to call their relatives. He also acted as an intermediary between the bus drivers — who often had questions — and the Central American families. Chavez, like many other volunteers, busied himself with basic tasks as well, cleaning the room and organizing the used clothes donations.

In the early days of aid work at the Greyhound station, the volunteers were dealing mainly with men, who were released from detention to pursue their court cases.

“They all had charges, unlike the current group of women and families,” said John Heid, a member of the Casa Mariposa community. “These migrants were often needing a place for the night, and then they would get their bus and go on their way.”

Activists in Tucson began advocating that ICE release the detainees at the Phoenix station, which is open 24 hours a day and has more buses with better connections. Ultimately, their campaign was successful. Heid linked it to media attention — the re-route to Phoenix occurred just after a French film crew did a story about the deportees being dropped off in Tucson.

“Every now and then we’d get a call from the bus station telling us that women and kids had been dropped off,” Heid explained. “Then, gradually, it began to pick up. Somewhere about a year ago, we began to notice more often than not there would be somebody [at the station].”

The increase in arrivals of Central American families at the border — and, as a result, at the bus station in Tucson — started with rumors. Smugglers began telling Guatemalan, Honduran and El Salvadoran families that if they arrived with their children, they would be allowed to stay in the United States. Now, families are paying steeper and steeper prices to travel to the United States — sometimes as a unit, sometimes just sending their children. Instead, they arrive to find that they have not been granted amnesty and are trapped in the U.S. deportation system. If a family with both a mother and father cross the border, the father is separated from his family and detained. Men are usually only released as part of the family if there are no female guardians present.

This crisis became a regular part of the work day for employees of the Tucson Greyhound Station. Rather than ignoring it, they collaborated with the Restoration Project to make the wait a better experience for families. They were consistently helpful in figuring out how many families had been dropped off, and Spanish-speaking employees often explained how the bus system worked to the mothers.

Tucson isn’t the only border town giving support to families dropped off at Greyhound stations. In El Paso, a Catholic Worker organization called Annunciation House has provided hospitality to these families, as well as unaccompanied minors and other migrants. This work follows over three decades of service to migrant communities. Other groups, including a Phoenix branch of the Restoration Project, have been helping migrants at their local Greyhound stations.

When Guillermina Xajap crossed the border with her nine-month-old in the 1980s, she reached the United States safely and was granted asylum. Xajap, who is Mayan, immigrated during a particularly brutal period of the Guatemalan civil war — a 36-year political struggle that disproportionately affected the country’s indigenous population. She was one of thousands of Guatemalans granted refugee status during this time.

In June, Xajap spent several evenings a week volunteering at the Greyhound Station, where many of the families passing through are from indigenous communities in Guatemala.

“I’m coming here straight from work,” Xajap said. “Last night, I left here at 11 p.m. I’m happy going to sleep — happy because they’re traveling to wherever they’re going.”

On nights when some women were not able to get on buses, Xajap hosted them in her home. Sometimes she heard particularly horrific stories: One guest called home to find out that her father had been murdered by the mafia that arranged her travel to the United States. He was killed because her family refused to pay the full amount until they knew whether or not she had arrived safely.

This type of gang violence is typical in Guatemala, as well as in Honduras and El Salvador, and it’s driving families north. It’s also what’s leading to the drastic increase in unaccompanied minors crossing the border: Their families are trying to get them out before they are recruited into gangs, or face violence, sexual assault and even death. Like Xajap, they see themselves as refugees.

Xajap also worries about families who have had relatively calmer experiences. Many Guatemalan migrants pay the equivalent of $8,000 for the journey, and sell their houses to afford it. When they are repatriated to Guatemala, they don’t have a home to go back to. Between work at Catholic Services and her nights spent at the station, Xajap finds time to work with Ixim Ulew, a Guatemalan organization based in Tucson. The group focuses on raising money for people facing deportation or who have recently been deported.

While Chavez and Xajap found out about the need for volunteers through their work with other organizations, some Tucsonians heard about the sharp increase of travelers on the news and simply showed up. They weren’t familiar with Casa Mariposa or the Restoration Project. Some came because they were curious, others because the situation hit close to home: They, or their family members, had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in years past.

What followed was an incredible opportunity for re-imagining and expanding the program: A June orientation session was attended by 200 current and would-be volunteers. There, participants broke out into groups and each group chose a night of the week to oversee. Supplies, which had been stored at Casa Mariposa, were set up in a back room at the Greyhound station, thanks once again to helpful management and employees. The room boasted chairs and a big round table, providing a more private space for the families to figure out their travel plans and go over their legal papers. It also overflowed with clothing, food and toys — part of a recent surge in donations.

“People are really stepping up to the plate in incredible ways,” said Beth Lowry, a long-term volunteer with Casa Mariposa. “Folks are arriving at the Greyhound Station to give support and offer their homes for overnight hospitality. People in this community have been frustrated with border policy for the past many years and now have a way of helping and supporting directly. It’s a remarkable level of compassion and care, which you don’t hear about happening in southern Arizona a lot.”

Since June, work with Central American families has changed. They are now being dropped off at a new location, run by Catholic Community Services, which members of the Casa Mariposa community report as being more spacious and comfortable for the families. Additionally, a new 700-bed family detention center has opened in Artesia, N.M. That means fewer families will be released on supervision, and more will be pushed through the U.S. detention system.

Still, the struggle for migrant rights carries on in Tucson. A myriad of groups are working to end deportations, border patrol abuses, and an unjust immigration system at both the community and policy level. The Protection Network, a coalition of migrants rights groups, has been working to prevent and fight deportations within Tucson. The End Streamline Coalition organizes against Operation Streamline, a federal program that operates in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. In Tucson’s Streamline court, about 70 migrants are processed each day, sometimes in as little as half an hour. Operation Streamline gives these migrants criminal charges and sentences, which the government believes will be a deterrent for those trying to cross the border illegally.

In the 1980s, Tucson church congregations were active in the sanctuary movement, which provided refuge for Central Americans fleeing civil unrest and who struggled to obtain refugee status. Drawing on that movement, sanctuary has begun again at Southside Presbyterian Church. In May of 2014, Daniel Neyoy Ruiz and his family went into sanctuary at the church and remained there for 26 days, at which point he was granted a year-long stay of deportation and a work permit. On August 7, Rosa Imelda Robles Loreto entered sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian with her family. This resurgence of sanctuary may well mark a new era of organizing and advocacy in Tucson.

For many Tucsonians, volunteering at the Greyhound station was an entry point into this lively network of organizations, movements and people. The station was not only a staging ground for providing Central American families with needed resources, it was also a place where members of different communities throughout the city could meet one another, work together and dream up different and creative ways to resist the militarized U.S.-Mexico border.

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