Sharon Lehmann, 69, was watching the news on TV at her home in Granby more than a month ago and saw a story about militia groups aiming guns at migrant families. She turned to her partner, Audrey Walker, 66, and said, “I can’t watch this. I just can’t do this anymore. I have to do something.”
An online search for ways to get involved led the couple to reach out to Texas-based volunteer organization Team Brownsville, one of many groups offering food, water, and other assistance at the border. Soon, Lehmann and Walker formed their own local group: Serving Asylum Seekers.
Consisting of about a dozen people, including Lehmann and Walker and several parishioners of the First Congregational Church of West Brattleboro, where Walker serves as a minister, Serving Asylum Seekers will head down to Brownsville, Texas, in January to help Team Brownsville provide asylum seekers with food, clothing, water, and basic life necessities.
Lehmann said she’s filled with anger about the Trump administration’s policies separating children from their parents at the border and preventing asylum seekers from entering the United States.
“I felt very helpless,” she explained. “I can’t change the administration’s policies, but at least I can prevent them from starving to death at the border.”
Just last week, the deaths of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter Valeria, reported widely following a photo being taken of their drowned bodies, gave further urgency to their trip. The father and daughter drowned in an attempt to cross the border on the banks of the Rio Grande River in Matamoros, Mexico — the same area served by Team Brownsville.
Walker said the tragedy highlights everything that’s wrong with the United States immigration system. “It’s even more imperative to help them out and to give them money for food and supplies,” she said.
She and her group are not the only ones who feel committed to act.
As news spreads and intensifies regarding the mistreatment of asylum seekers, the separation of families at the border, and the dire and deadly conditions at the detention camps those who cross the border are placed in, more and more people in this part of the country are looking to give their time and help out.
Among them is Kathleen Mellen, 66, of Northampton, who traveled to the border as a part of the New York-based activist group Grannies Respond last year. A former editor at the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Mellen said she believes the private and for-profit nature of the detention facilities has delayed information of the treatment of asylum seekers from getting out.
That is changing, she said, and the result is heightened interest in getting involved.
“You can’t close your eyes when the predominance of the evidence shows that this is happening,” she said. “A year ago I don’t think we were at this place. And now people are outraged as they well should’ve been a year ago. But it takes time. The public is slow to react. Let’s face it.”
On the front lines
Andrea Rudnik, 58, a co-founder of Team Brownsville and a retired teacher of 30 years, said Team Brownsville has an average of 20 volunteers helping a steady stream of asylum seekers every week.
A growing number of those volunteers are coming from across the country. This month alone, eight volunteer groups, each with 4 to 10 people, will be traveling to Texas to support Team Brownsville, she said. These groups are made up of churchgoers, youth group members, and people who just want to help.
“Brownsville is one of the epicenters of this humanitarian crisis,” said Rudnik. “We really needed to do something to alleviate the suffering that we were seeing.” Dozens of asylum seekers often can be found sitting on the Mexican side of two of the nearby international bridges in 100 degree heat with no water, food, or shelter, she said. “We realized that we had to take action.”
Rudnik said the typical process by which people gain asylum is that individuals or families are taken into custody by the United States Border Patrol or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and are screened, and then go through an initial process of eligibility for asylum.
From there, asylum seekers are sent to detention centers and wait to be approved for weeks, months, or in some cases, years, she added.
“Normally the single men and women that come in will be in detention from anywhere to a month, to the maximum that I’ve seen — two years,” she explained. “Some people opt to stay in the detention center because they really don’t have anywhere to go and they know if they stay in and plead their case while they’re in the detention center, they don’t have to pay bond when they get out if they do get asylum.”
Team Brownsville assists asylum seekers at both ends of the border, providing food, water, clothing, and other assistance to those waiting to enter as well as those released from detention centers, according to Rudnik.
Among those Team Brownsville has assisted are Sergio, his wife Viviana, and their infant child, who had been waiting more than a week in Matamoros, Mexico, to cross into the United States as asylum seekers when they spoke to the Advocate. They declined to give their last names.
They decided to flee their home country of Cuba and seek asylum in the United States due to the current political climate in the island nation, Sergio said. Freedom to criticize the government or political leaders can often result in arrest.
“You have to say that Cuba is a nice country and that Cuba is free,” he told the Valley Advocate during a recent phone interview. “I can’t say that.”
He added that he believes living in the United States would mean a democratic voice and opportunities for his family that weren’t available to them in Cuba, where he had been working as a bartender to financially support his family.
Sergio, 35, said he and his family are part of a group of more than 50 people waiting to enter the U.S. They and others have waited outside in the heat, sometimes in 90 or 100-degree weather, for days. Hundreds of other asylum seekers and migrants throughout the border city of Matamoros are waiting for the opportunity to make their case for asylum, too.
For Sergio, volunteers from the United States providing them with food and fresh water have left a lasting first impression.
“The USA gives you opportunities to be a big person,” he said. “When you live in Cuba, you don’t know that. People from the USA come every day with food, water, medicine for the children and everything to help. Right now, in this moment we can feel that the USA is a nice country.”
An opportunity to help
For Lehmann, Walker, and a number of other volunteers heading from the Valley to the border with Serving Asylum Seekers, responding to U.S. government actions they consider immoral has been a motivating force.
“We have atheists who are supporting us, who are humanitarians; people who don’t believe in anything, except social justice,” Lehmann said.
Sandy Holzhauer, a 66-year-old resident of Bernardston and semi-retired transit bus driver, will be traveling to Brownsville as part of the group in January — likely for about two weeks. Her involvement with Serving Asylum Seekers came about through the church.
“This is something that a lot of us spoke about in church,” Holzhauer explained. “We’re all very compassionate. We felt that doing things like ripping children from their families, to me, you don’t do that. When it was brought to our attention that a group of individuals were going to go down to the Texas border, I said, ‘Oh, wow. There’s an opportunity to help. I can do that. I don’t have huge amounts of money, but I can help.’”
Gail Speno, a 74-year-old retired legal assistant from Brattleboro, said after speaking with Lehmann and Walker, she decided to join Serving Asylum Seekers.
“I think there are two missions in this journey,” she added. “One is to assist the people of Brownsville, who have been working so diligently to help these people trying to come into our country. The other mission is to actually give some assistance and encouragement to the people on the other side of the border.”
For Speno and many other Americans, immigration is a part of their heritage. Her mother immigrated to the United States as a young child with her family from Scotland in the 1920s, as did her late husband’s father and mother, both of whom came from Italy to live in America during the 1910s.
“People should have the opportunity that my ancestors had to come over here and I feel very strongly about that,” Speno said.
She added that when she makes the journey to Brownsville, Texas, she’ll be bringing knitted hats for asylum seekers made by a church knitting group that she’s a part of as another small way to provide relief.
“It’s an opportunity to help and to give back,” Speno said.
Serving Asylum Seekers has also created a GoFundMe page, which aims to raise $30,000. The funds will all go towards providing relief for asylum seekers. As of July 3, the page has raised $565.
Listening to migrant stories
During the past year, Team Brownsville went from a loosely established organization to a relief group that supports asylum seekers daily. They serve breakfast and dinner to asylum seekers living near the two international bridges every day and provide those same people with supplies. They also meet asylum seekers who’ve been released by the U.S. government at local bus stations to guide them towards their destinations.
There’s been an influx of asylum seekers near Brownsville and throughout the southwest border recently. In March, there were at least 200 families per day being released by government agencies near Brownsville, Texas, said Rudnik.
The majority of people seeking asylum are from Central America or Cuba, but thus far Team Brownsville has spoken to thousands of people from at least 35 countries, including African countries such as Uganda, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and Eritrea.
In addition to providing food and supplies, relief workers are also there to listen to the stories of asylum seekers, many of whom are traumatized after spending months in federal government detention centers, Rudnik said.
“It hasn’t always been a positive experience, so a lot of what we do is just sit and talk with people,” she explained. “They know that we’re here for them and welcoming them. We’re happy to see them. Sometimes people are very fearful at the beginning. When they come into the bus station, if you approach someone and say, ‘Hey, I’m a volunteer here to help,’ they become fearful of everyone. They don’t know what your motivation is in asking them their name or anything. So, we try to calm their fears.”
Although, there’s much rhetoric at the national level presenting asylum seekers as criminals or people wanting to game the system in the United States, the reality is far different, Rudnik said.
“Those are not the stories you hear,” she said. “You hear stories of people who have suffered tremendously, who have endured losses that we don’t know about — violence, burning down houses, being tortured. I’ve met two people who’ve had fingers cut off by gang members threatening their family.”
Rudnik said she once spoke with a man in his early 40s from Nicaragua, who had gained asylum. He told her about the political unrest in his home country, specifically how his involvement with a political party made him a target for he and his family.
And for many asylum seekers, their journey is arduous. Migrants are often at the mercy of people, some of whom prey on individuals and families trekking hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles to seek asylum. They extort money or threaten violence.
“We’ve had people who’ve gotten kidnapped and had to tell their families that if they didn’t pay a certain amount of money, then these kidnappers would kill them,” Rudnik said. “And of course, we only speak to the ones that got through. We don’t really know if there are people that are getting killed every day.”
Migrants are also often the victims of theft, she said. Many people have their phones stolen and find creative ways to hide their money, whether inside bras or socks.
Many die along the journey to the border, she said. There are migrant pathways in Ecuador up into Panama where people die of dehydration in the remote jungle area.
“I don’t know how many people who have told me stories about this area and how they would witness people collapsed on the side of the pathways, just dying or already deceased and how shocking and traumatizing it was to just have to walk on by. They literally had nothing. They had no way of helping other people because they could barely help themselves.”
And yet, some who are providing what she considers humanitarian help are being prosecuted, she said.
Rudnik said she is baffled by the case against No More Deaths volunteer Scott Warren, a 36-year-old Arizona State University professor, who helped a pair of migrants from Central America by providing them with food and water. His desire to help migrants in need could result in a 20-year prison sentence.
Warren is charged with three felonies: one count of criminal conspiracy to transport and harbor illegal aliens and two counts of harboring after he was arrested in January 2018 by U.S. Border Patrol in Ajo, Arizona. Warren’s first felony trial began on May 29, but after a seven-day trial and 11 hours of jury deliberations over two days, the jury was unable to reach a decision. The case against Warren is now moving to a retrial.
“When you’re doing something because somebody is going to literally die, if they don’t get water, I don’t really understand how anyone could see that any punishment would be acceptable,” Rudnik said.
A caravan of ‘Grannies’
For Mellen, joining New York-based Grannies Respond has involved spreading the word about the injustices and inhumane treatment suffered by migrants at the U.S. border.
In late July and early August 2018, the group traveled from New York City to McAllen, Texas, located nearly 60 miles or about an hour’s drive from Brownsville.
What started with a small caravan of a couple of vans and a camper with 25 to 30 people on board grew to a group of 200 people. Along the way, they stopped at rallies, vigils, and political actions.
“As a grandparent or a parent, having a sense of children being threatened tugs at you in a way that little else does,” Mellen explained. “And I think that is what we responded to. It was emotional, is still is emotional, and should be and must be emotional. But what do you do with those emotions? You take action.”
Mellen said the group’s aim at the time was to garner as much press coverage along the more than 2,000-mile, six-day trip as a way to shine a spotlight on the issue at the southwest border. CBS, Al Jazeera, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and local news affiliates throughout the country all covered Grannies Respond.
“I got a note from my daughter’s mother-in-law who lives in Cologne, Germany, and she said, ‘I just saw you on the news,’” she said. “Another person said, ‘You were on the front of the BBC today, you and your group.’ It was international. And that is what we needed to do. That was our goal.”
While Grannies Respond was traveling through Texas in August 2018, the group attempted to visit the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, ICE’s largest family detainment facility in the country, which according to ICE has a 2,400 person capacity. As of March 29, there were 1,025 being held at facility in Dilley, according to the Washington Post.
“There was a 2-year-old who died in a facility in Dilley, Texas,” Mellen said. “It was while we were on the road and, our name being Grannies Respond, we decided we needed to respond to that. So we went there and we were basically told, ‘Get off our private property. You have no business being here and we will have you arrested if you don’t leave.’ So we had no legal choice but to get off their property. That’s where the privacy begins and our rights as citizens end.”
Since then, public outcry has grown over the conditions under which migrant children are detained by the Trump Administration. News organizations have reported on children, too young to take care of themselves, in jail-like facilities without access to regular showers, adequate food, clean clothes, soap, toothbrushes, proper beds, who’ve been separated by their parents.
During the past year, Grannies Respond has evolved to become a nonprofit organization and has been connecting with other Massachusetts and southern Vermont residents who want to help asylum seekers.
Mellen’s commitment to the organization has deepened as well — she was recently elected vice chairwoman of its board of directors.
Julie Dolan, a member of Grannies Respond from Brattleboro and a retired teacher of 35 years, said when she was traveling down to the border last year, she found the experience “eye opening” in regards to how the issue sparked a fervor and passion in people to help asylum seekers.
“I’ve just watched it over the past year grow,” she added. “It’s tremendous. It struck a chord in people’s souls.”
And in November 2018, Dolan went back to the border to help, this time volunteering with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. She supported asylum seekers at bus stations by helping to guide them to their destinations.
Doctors at the border
Andrew Mackey, a 66-year-old semi-retired family doctor from Florence who works at Cooley Dickinson’s Urgent Care Center, said he hopes to go down to the border sometime in the future.
He thinks there is a need for medical support at the border for migrants.
“There’s lots of organizations down by the border doing things for the immigrants, but interestingly, very little of it tends to be medical,” Mackey explained. “We wanted to do something where we could use our medical skills.”
Mackey said if he were to visit the border, his patients would likely have many different medical issues ranging from insect bites to rashes as well as respiratory issues and other medical conditions.
“The bulk of what doctors do anywhere in the world is respiratory illnesses,” he explained. “The worry, particularly when you think about it as a doctor, are the kids that are sick. They’re seeing thousands of people a day. There’s got to be sick kids in that group. It would be nice to be able to offer some sort of medical care.”
David Katz, a 68-year-old semi-retired family physician, has been reaching out to individual doctors in the local medical community who want to provide medical relief to migrants at the border via Grannies Respond.
Katz, who is Mellen’s husband, said nothing is set in stone yet in regards to providing medical support at the border, but several local area physicians have expressed a desire to help.
“The Grannies group is hoping to be a resource to people to put together people who have medical training and to put them in places along the border where they might be useful,” he said.
Katz said asylum seekers oftentimes don’t have medical insurance, which is why he believes doctors volunteering their time and medical expertise, could make a difference in their lives.
‘It’s good to be angry’
Halley Glier, a 22-year-old graduate student at Clark University from Shelburne Falls, is at the border now. She is one of seven Clark students who are student interns through Grannies Respond program organized by its executive director. The students will be spending three weeks traveling and supporting asylum seekers.
Glier said she wanted to experience what the reality at the border is like through the internship. She thinks the “level of inhumanity” against asylum seekers has motivated her to get involved.
“I’m really interested to see what’s going on with my own eyes, especially with all the stories we hear in the media and all the different opinions we hear,” she explained.
Glier is in her fifth year at Clark going for her master’s degree in community development and planning.
The group of interns started driving down to Texas on June 28 and drove for three days. They’ll spend two weeks in McAllen and one week in Brownsville, and then start driving back July 20, returning home to Massachusetts on July 23.
Glier said the group of interns will provide meals and sandwiches to migrants, and hand out supply bags to asylum seeking families arriving at the Humanitarian Respite Center operated by Catholic Charities in McAllen.
Elena Novak, a 27-year-old recent master’s level graduate of Clark University, who is also among the group of interns traveling to the border, said she believes it’s necessary to bring back the reality of what life is like for asylum seekers at the border to her local community.
“It’s good to be angry,” she explained. “It’s good to read what’s happening and feel offense, but what you do with that feeling is most important. It’s important to me that we have an opportunity that not everyone gets to go down and channel that outrage into serving and contributing and hopefully figuring what avenues we can take back to others to contribute in other ways.”
Serving Asylum Seekers is seeking donations through gofundme.com/serving-asylum-seekers-team-brownesville. More information can be found on other featured organizations at www.granniesrespond.org and www.teambrownsville.org.
Chris Goudreau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.