A Place to Start

It is Tuesday, August 14th, and I am shadowing the intake and transportation process at Loretto or Casa Nazareth, one of the temporary shelters that the Annunciation House network has been operating on and off for the past few years. Located in a former nursing home, Loretto has the luxury of wide hallways, cool air, and office spaces for private phone calls. This location is superbly organized, with charts in the office spaces and specific protocols that are not too laborious to learn. There are volunteers that come in from the community each day to provide the most basic support of the operations, like taking guests to their assigned rooms or (the much more intimidating) calling their family members in the United States to ask them to buy a plane or bus ticket and helping coordinate that.

The primary function of Loretto, as well as a handful of other temporary shelters that are part of the Annunciation House network (mostly churches) are to house and support families (and occasionally individuals) who have been released from ICE. Nearly all of these families have at some point in the past few days, months, or years, presented themselves at a port of entry and asked the United States government for asylum. The procedures of ICE in recent years has been to detain these people during the duration of their court proceedings, but because the detention centers are overflowing with detainees and there are not very many that can house children with their parents, some of those families are released to Annunciation House, usually with ankle monitors that will keep them in check throughout their process.

As far as I understand, these individuals and families who are detained or being tracked by ICE are not criminals nor did they cross the border in an “illegal” way. They traveled hundreds or thousands of miles, knocked on the front door (after sometimes many failed attempts at crossing the bridges due to being turned away by custom officers), and were thrown into prison. The sort of tale that a lot of people tell about coming to the United States the “legal” way, as far as I understand it, is a tragic farce. The truth is that a lot of people who work in the government, as well as the civilians who support them, just don’t want these people here. There is no justice in this process. We treat people like they are animals and then wonder why some people don’t like the U.S. or critique it all of the time. For many people who flee to the United States from Latin America, the first thing they encounter is state-sponsored cruelty. It’s heartbreaking.

Though I was shadowing for most of the time I was at Loretto, I got to do a few other cool things during the moments in between that feel especially close to my heart. There was a young 20-year-old man from Guatemala who had stayed overnight at the house with his 1-year-old son when I arrived and I spoke with him very briefly just to say hello. He was going to be taking a 6 am bus the next morning which meant that he had to stay the night at the station because there would be no one able to take him there at 4 am. Even though we had just told this young guy that he would have to sleep at a bus station with his baby, he just nodded in compliance and gathered his things to wait for the volunteer driver.

Around 8pm, these two Guatemalans and one other family of two who needed to go to the bus station gathered by the door and their volunteer driver started to lead them out to her car. She turned around, came into the office and said “we need a car seat, right?” and so I offered to take it out to the car for her. When we got to the car, she looked at me and said “do you know how to buckle that in? I don’t have any kids so I have no idea!”

I told her I would try my best, because it seemed like out of the six of us, I was the best bet. I buckled in the car seat and then waved over the dad to put in his baby, and then I asked him (in Spanish) if he knew how to buckle the little guy in (Well, I think all I actually said was “Sabes como…” with a hand gesture, which translates to “do you know how…?”) but he nodded his head, so I took the small bean into my hands as I wiggled him around to find the buckles and adjusted him to be comfortable. He started to cry because his dad had disappeared to the other side of the car and also it is possible that he probably had never been in a car seat before and was quite frightened by the foreignness of it. He was so small and so beautiful and I was so touched by the relationship I saw before me between this parent and his child, only 19 years apart and in search of a better life.

As I walked away, I smiled and sighed in joy and kept saying out loud, “Wow.” That could’ve been me, my younger brother, one of my friends. I can’t remember the name of this brave young dad or his son, but I think of them all the time and hope someday we can meet again.

After all of the families had gone through intake and transportation, I went into the office and asked the shift coordinator, Sister Teri, what she wanted me to do next. I had missed dinner but my technical duties were finished, so she told me I could go back to Annunciation House or I could find some food in the kitchen and reheat it for myself and for two guests who, for some reason, had missed dinner too. I chose the latter and headed into the kitchen, which had been shut down for the night.

Where are the lights in here? I thought as I looked all around the walls of this commercial-grade kitchen practically the size of the whole first floor of Annunciation House. I traced all of the edges of the room and then resigned to using my phone light. I found a platter of rice from the day before and a Ziploc bag of refried beans and I set to work on looking for microwaveable plates. Hmm, everything in here is locked up. I checked the pantry where all of the food was. Nothing.

I bet they are right in front of me, but I’ll ask sister Teri anyways. I went back into the main building and found her; she told me where to look and how to turn the lights on. It was almost 9 o’clock and everything was quieting down quite nicely.

Back in the kitchen, I searched and searched but could not find plates. I was beginning to feel embarrassed, like my mind had tricked me into thinking a stack of plates was a box of cereal. After all, I was so tired and feeling quite hungry too. After my third return to the office, she and another sister accompanied me to the kitchen, assuming that I was missing them by just a hair. But we quickly went where I hadn’t looked, into a walk-in refrigerator that was being used for storage.

“Oh, I just assumed this was another fridge, I’m sorry!” I said, feeling like I could have tried a little bit harder. She also showed me where a tray was and gave me some water bottles (cold!!!!) to give to the family.

I got to work in spooning out the beans and rice and ended up running three microwaves at the same time. Once I finally got the centers of the food to feel hot, I stacked the plates onto the plastic tray and went back across the street. With a water bottle in my pocket and another two squeezed underneath my left arm, I came across a locked door and no one in sight. Knock knock. No answer.

The tray was beginning to feel painfully heavy in my stick-like arms. Ah, why did they forget about me, I thought. Luckily, there were cell phone numbers posted on the front door and the first one I called was Sister Margaret who came and got the door for me. I stood around the office for another three minutes before asking where the family was and where I could put the food. Throughout the day, I had noticed that it was important to the sisters, in most instances, to finish the conversations they were having, even if there was someone waiting, confused, at the doorway.

Soon, I was directed to a room with a large statue of the crucifix of Jesus, an oval shaped table, and a shelf where an orange-gatorade-cantina was perched next to a stack of cups and a trash can. I pulled up two chairs and sat down, deciding to start eating right away because I wasn’t sure how long this mom and daughter might be.

I recognized the mom and daughter when they came into the room because I had been the one to check them into Loretto. The daughter so preciously had a few bites and then started to wander around the room. Her mom told me about how she had gotten medicine in Mexico for her daughter’s persistent cough but it didn’t help. She told me about how, while detained, she was fed at the most random times of day, sometimes long after the children had already fallen asleep. She told me how they were only allowed to spend five minutes in the shower, and how the ICE officers would thrust open the doors even if you were not finished. She asked to see a doctor with her daughter and they said no.

“No me gusta mi gobierno” I said, trying to communicate to her that I did not think she should have experienced that treatment. She immediately responded by telling me some officers were kind to her and it wasn’t all that terrible. She reminded me of the complexity of everything that goes on in this system, that there are things that we call good and bad and everything in between. What she experienced in detention might be paradise compared to that which she is fleeing. I just wish we would try better to not incarcerate every person who doesn’t have the resources to advocate for them self.

When I finally made it home after that intense evening, I hung onto the bravery of the people I encountered. There is no way I could ever truly come to know the depth of their experiences, but I think being there along the way to offer a smile and a warm plate of food is a place to start.

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