Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report
Hundreds of migrant women and children released from South Texas detention centers and transported to San Antonio have overwhelmed the small nonprofit organizations that are feeding and housing them.
The migrants, most of whom are fleeing gang violence and other threats in Central America, began arriving in waves over the weekend after a Travis County judge in Austin issued a ruling on Friday preventing the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) from issuing child care licenses to the nation’s two largest family detention centers — the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley and the Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City.
The court action was a major victory for immigration rights groups. State District Court Judge Karin Crump ruled that the facilities do not meet the minimum standards required of child care facilities operating in Texas, including the rule prohibiting children from being housed in bedrooms with unrelated adults.
“The conditions at Karnes and Dilley are equivalent to prisons, not childcare facilities,” Bob Libal, executive director of Grassroots Leadership, stated in a posting to the organization's website. Grassroots Leadership is one of the plaintiffs that filed suit to win release of the detained migrants.
“We are glad the court heard our concerns about the damage that family detention does to mothers and their children and how lowering standards to issue licenses to these facilities only exacerbates that harm," Libal stated. "We now call on the Obama Administration to end the practice of detaining immigrant families once and for all.”
“The state’s executives admitted in documents and testimony that DFPS wanted to license these facilities to help the federal government, and not the children. Motive matters and we believe it was the key to the case,” said Jerry Wesevich, an attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, who represents the plaintiffs in the case and also was quoted in the Grassroots Leadership article.
Federal litigation aimed at stopping U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from holding migrant women and children in detention facilities is still pending, Meanwhile, agencies in San Antonio were overwhelmed by the wave of migrants that arrived over the weekend without warning or any preparations or assistance from the state or federal government.
Advocates and volunteers for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a local nonprofit founded in 1986 that provides free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families, and refugees, have been placing the families in Southtown's Mennonite Church on 1443 S. St. Mary’s St. and an adjoining shelter while they figure out logistics to reconnect them with family members or "sponsors" in different parts of the United States.
Quoting several of the volunteers from Sunday, "every inch of the church was filled" to the brim.
"We slept about 240 on Saturday night, 340 on Sunday night, and about 200 last night," RAICES Executive Director Jonathan Ryan told the Rivard Report Tuesday morning. "So the numbers are fluctuating. And we're waiting to hear more." Ryan estimates that a total of more than 700 people have passed through.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-San Antonio) responded to the sudden court-ordered release of several women and children.
"I applaud the City for responding promptly to this outrageous situation and to the generosity of so many individuals who opened their hearts and pocket books to help," Doggett said. "These are not victims of an unpredictable hurricane but of an unnatural, unnecessary bureaucratic failure. The apparent indifference of federal immigration authorities to the well being of children and their mothers is an injustice to them and to our entire San Antonio community."
Ryan said U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) officials have not told the nonprofit if more people are on the way.
"The biggest challenge is the lack of meaningful coordination and communication from ICE," he said. "They claim to be concerned about the security of our nation, yet this has been one of the most destabilizing events – and they had absolute control over it. One of my fears is that ICE will clam up for a day because of the media response, in order to make attention go away."
Student volunteers, neighbors, and representatives from several religious organizations, such as the Interfaith Welcome Coalition (IWC), a group of faith networks and individuals that provide a helping hand to refugees in the city, have shown up in droves to provide food, blankets, clothes, and Spanish translation services.
"Over two years doing this work, we know that it's a long term issue, and we just hope this raises people's awareness," Ryan said. "This didn't just happen over a weekend and then it's gonna stop. This is the reality of the world in which we live and the city where we live and we have busy days and less busy days, but the work continues."
The court ruling signifies a victory for opponents of family detention centers, but the big question now is – Where do all these people go?
"We're busy and tired but we're overjoyed, because we've been fighting for years to close family detention and to free families," Ryan said. "Attention is on this issue right now, which is a good thing, and people are learning about the fact that even today under an Obama administration we face a government that regularly engages in harsh anti-immigrant policies."
According to data from the Department of Homeland Security, deportations under the Obama administration total more than those carried out by all presidents in the 20th century. Numbers from the Pew Research Center show that between 2009 and 2014 alone, 2.4 million people were deported.
I was told harrowing stories from different women as they described their journeys across Mexico or the inhumane treatment they suffered at the hands of Border Patrol agents.
After leaving Guatemala, taking several buses through Mexico, and being apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, Vilma Yolanda Ramirez, 33, and her son Jose Edilson Ramirez, 11, were placed in what migrants call the hielera, a cold and dimly lit room, for four days.
"In the hielera is where we suffered the most," Vilma said in Spanish. "We suffered a lot due to the cold temperature and they treated us terribly. We were wet, tired, and suffering from the iciness – it was terrible. When we wanted to rest they would yell at us, 'get up, get up'
"Nos trataban como perros," she added with tears streaming down her eyes, which translates to, "They treated us like dogs."
After that, Vilma and her son were transferred to a room nicknamed la perrera, which resembles a dog cage. There, she was finally able to eat and drink some water.
When I asked her which detention center she was taken to – Dilley or Karnes – she said she did not know. She also doesn't know when she'll be able to take off her ankle monitor.
"I don't understand why they treat us like criminals," Ramirez said. "Why do they put these (ankle monitors) on our feet? Tan feo, as if we owed something."
What she does know, is that she and her son will be able to reconnect with her uncle in Atlanta, their final destination.
Throughout the weekend and the beginning of this week, volunteers have been helping immigrant asylum seekers communicate with family members or others points of contact in order to coordinate travel plans to their destinations.
This is often the most stressful part of volunteer work, remembering bus and flight times for each individual and ensuring that language barriers do not inhibit the process.
Ramirez said she feels better now that she received food and care at the church. She was able to pack some belongings, and for the first time in several days, she has received smiles instead of orders from strangers in this new country.
"I feel good now," she told me, "Primeramente dios." (God comes first).
After seeing so many women and children bundled up in blankets and sweaters, volunteers couldn't help but reflect on the real meaning behind Christmas and the holiday spirit. Many said they have come to realize that the holiday season isn't about material things, but about helping those in need.
"It was interesting to see how we had to dismantle our nativity scene for advent and make way for a real one," said San Antonio Mennonite Church Pastor John Christopher Garland.