|This nonfiction winner stands out for bringing fresh eyes to the all-too-familiar struggles on the border, including the unprecedented numbers of migrant children that have made their way into the headlines since the author's visit.|
A volunteer from Virginia experiences the disturbing reality of life
on the border in El Paso and Juarez.
by Pauline Hovey
Since leaving my home in central Virginia to volunteer at the border town of El Paso with the School Sisters of St. Francis, I've been exposed to one disturbing reality after another. Kidnapping, torture, rape, gang recruitment and human trafficking — this is the plight of many who travel across the US/Mexico border. The stories of women and children get to me the most.
What brought me to this dusty, arid, desert landscape so contrary to the lush, hilly countryside of Virginia, where immigration reform has quietly faded from most people's circles of interest — if it ever found its way there in the first place?
Flashback to February 14, 2013. I'm standing outside an elongated, two-story brick building in downtown El Paso waiting for an unmarked door to open so my "border immersion" group can hear yet another presentation on the plight of immigrants. This "house of hospitality," known as Annunciation House, shelters undocumented immigrant families — the only facility in the area, maybe even the state, that allows families to stay together.
There's no sign on the door or building. But for the past 36 years, more than 125,000 migrants and refugees from over 40 countries have found their way here, mostly through word of mouth. Sister Fran Hicks, a Catholic nun with the order of the School Sisters of St. Francis, brought us here as part of a border immersion trip she organizes to educate northerners like myself about the complex issues involved in immigration, clear up the myths and misinformation, and offer some heartrending stories, up close and personal.
Our meeting with Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, is only one of the scheduled stops on this week-long trip packed with presentations from inspiring and tireless immigration advocates, educators, Border Patrol, and even the immigrants themselves. But listening to this impassioned humanitarian and social activist share the stories of torture, death squads and human-rights abuses of those who have walked through these doors — as well as their incredible faith and generosity — gets to me in a way nothing else has. I return home to Virginia unable to get this place, and the people, out of my heart. Months later, I apply to volunteer with Sr. Fran, who along with Sr. Kathy and Sr. Elsa, serves the Hispanic population through Casa Alexia — their ministry in El Paso.
With my limited knowledge of Spanish, I am limited in how much I can help Sisters Fran and Elsa at El Paso's colonias, where they serve the mostly Spanish-speaking residents. Instead I teach English at Centro Mujeres de la Esperenza, tutor Hispanic residents studying for citizenship exams, help the Sisters wherever needed, and get a temporary gig writing and editing the quarterly newsletter for Las Americas — an immigrant advocacy group that, among other services, offers free legal help to asylum seekers.
Katie Hudak, executive director at Las Americas, and her staff and volunteers work countless hours interviewing people and gathering information to prepare their cases. My first day I'm given an orientation — a requirement for all volunteers. I view and listen to Katie's PowerPoint presentation on the harsh facts of life at the border: NAFTA's effect on Mexico's small farmers and the growing poverty; the random killings of Mexico's drug cartels that send entire families fleeing their homes, complete with pictures of relatives collapsed in tears over coffins holding the remains of their loved ones; the astonishingly low percentage of cases that are granted asylum in the US. One fact comes as a painful surprise to me — the high percentage of women who are raped crossing the border.
Since Katie gives me free rein to research and write on any topic related to immigration, I choose the plight of undocumented women. Immediately my research uncovers alarming statistics: As much as 80% to 90% of the women crossing through Mexico are raped on their journey. Usually the perpetrators are the smugglers, or coyotes, who take the women across; sometimes they are drug cartel members; sometimes they are one and the same. I discover that rape has become so prevalent among undocumented females crossing the border that in recent articles, some are calling it "the price of admission." Women are forewarned, especially if they will be traveling from Central America, that they can expect to be sexually abused along the way. Some women take birth control pills before they begin the journey. How difficult must their lives be, I wonder, to cause them to risk such personal violence.
Along with these statistics, disturbing images pop up on my computer screen: "Rape trees" — the name given to the tree that marks the spot where the women are raped, signified by the women's undergarments hanging on the branches. And these spectacles don't show up only on the Mexico side of the border. Through blogs and other social media, I discover that, along with Border Patrol agents, Southwest ranchers are reporting an increase of rape trees on their property. Another disturbing reality — the undergarments do not always belong to adult women. Some girls as young as 11 have been raped on their journey — a fact I confirm with a local social worker who meets with children in detention centers.
Children in detention centers. Yet another disturbing reality of immigration, as more and more unaccompanied minors, known by the federal government as "unaccompanied alien children," or UACs, pour across Mexico to migrate to the States. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement, between fiscal years 2004 and 2011, on average 6,800 UACs were detained at the US/Mexico border. That number rose to well over 24,000 in 2013. This year, some predicted the Department of Homeland Security would pick up at least 60,000 children at the border, with most of them traveling from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. (This was written in April; by mid-2014, the number had already reached 57,000, creating headlines and political controversy. The magnitude of the situation has changed how these children are being handled.)
El Paso holds at least 250 unaccompanied minors in such centers, where local health care professionals, social workers, and spiritual counselors attempt to reassure the children as they listen to their stories, conduct intake, or prepare their cases for deportation proceedings. I have visited two of these centers: Southwest Key is a well-run, for-profit business that houses older children and teaches an accredited curriculum. The youths' days are completely structured, including the amount of time allotted for bathroom use. Southwest Key's director touts it as one of the best youth shelters available; it has been toured by the United Nations, and it serves as a model for other centers. Still, I can't help noticing the bars and the locks.
The second center is Lutheran Services Center, known as transitional foster care for younger unaccompanied children. Here children under 12 are assigned case workers who match them with short-term foster parents, trained with US government funding for this purpose. The foster parents bring the children into their homes every evening and weekend for an average of one or two months before the children are reunited with a parent or other relative in anticipation of their court case. Many will face deportation.
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