Rocío Guenther / Rivard Report
More than 400 women and children have been released from the Karnes and Dilley Family Detention centers after a Travis County judge in Austin issued a ruling on Friday against private detention facilities, stating that the State of Texas could not use the detention centers as childcare facilities.
After the ruling, U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) turned families over to the care of the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), a nonprofit organization in San Antonio that offers legal services and refuge to immigrants.
"Over the weekend, ICE hurriedly released over 460 mothers and children from Karnes and Dilley Family Detention Center to Casa RAICES in San Antonio, Texas," RAICES representatives stated in a release. "This massive release to our shelter came after an Austin judge sided with Texas advocates and detained families and ruled against the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), as well as GEO and CoreCivic (CCA), the two private prison companies that operate Karnes and Dilley, by issuing a final judgement which prevented the Texas DFPS from issuing child care licenses to ICE-controlled family detention centers."
After ICE dropped off more than 200 people near downtown San Antonio on Saturday, members of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition (IWC), a group that aids refugee families, helped open the doors to San Antonio's downtown Mennonite Church on 1443 S. St. Mary's St. and an adjoining shelter to help with human overflow.
"Our church has a property around the corner that is used as a 24-hour, eight-bedroom shelter in conjunction with RAICES," said San Antonio Mennonite Church Pastor John Christopher Garland. "Last night there was an estimation of 200 or 240 people and someone just told me 400 tonight. I don't know how that's going to work."
Buses came and went throughout the night Sunday, and volunteers who got word started showing up with trays of food, soup, and warm clothing for the families. Two volunteer doctors arrived at the church to assist sick family members.
"This is a new normal right now," Garland said, explaining that volunteers have never seen such large amounts of people. "It looks very bad, it looks like (they will be here) for days," he added. "They're just dumping everyone."
Women and children – most of them from the Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador – were bundled up in jackets, scarves, and hats due to the cold temperature inside the church. They told the Rivard Report that they were fleeing violence from gangs, while several women from Mexico cited narco violence.
"During my journey I climbed on the back of a train through Mexico and also took buses," said Lucía Echeveria, 46, from Honduras. "Then I got to Reynosa and I crossed the river on a raft. I escaped because there was horrible violence in my country."
Damari Pineda, 36, from Honduras said she spent 16 days in detention.
"There's just a lot of violence, theft, and it's very dangerous right now," Pineda told the Rivard Report in Spanish. "One can't even work. The mara salvatrucha gangs want people to pay them 'rent' for having a business. I had a restaurant and they asked me for $15,000 lempiras every month."
Elsie, 22, who did not provide her last name, came all the way from Colima, Mexico with her two children: 4-year-old Luis and 2-year old Liam. She said her journey on several buses through Mexico lasted six days and that she turned herself in willingly after crossing the border.
“I was escaping the narcos," she said, "because they threatened us after my partner got into a bad situation with them. I left him and escaped with my two children."
According to RAICES representatives, some of the released families have only been in detention for a short time and have yet to conduct their "credible fear" interviews. In these interviews, migrants must explain why they fled their country and prove they meet the basic requirements of asylum.
The problem might be bigger than a lot of people imagine, said Trinity University Digital Content Producer and volunteer Anh Viet Dinh, especially after witnessing the buses and waves of people coming in en masse.
“It’s not just a few families crossing," Dinh said, "it’s a ton – enough to fill a church – and it takes an army to get these people situated and to help them. It was very touching to see people give their time and seeing them make these people feel at home or human again."
Several sick children were given cough medicine and received overall medical assistance throughout the night Sunday. Local religious organizations and student groups from several local universities sent out emails and texts asking for food donations and Spanish speakers to help with translation services. At the food line, women from a variety of religions and backgrounds plated meals for the people in need.
"It's heartwarming to see how people from all religions and people of all ages showed up to help," said volunteer Julio Cortez de Santiago, a student from the University of the Incarnate Word. "Seeing the children and the moms...clearly they were stressed and I don't know how they can deal with all that stress. Their faces said it all."
At one point of the night on Sunday, some children began to play with the church's piano and bang on the keys, but volunteer Annette D'Armatta said she didn't mind the ruckus.
“Looking at these kids playing the piano...they’re doing what kids should be doing, not crossing borders and going through this whole process," she said.
According to RAICES Executive Director and immigration attorney Jonathan Ryan, the organization has calculated a 350% daily increase of released families in need of care since January 2016.
When they opened up Dilley, the for-profit prison negotiated a billion dollar contract where it got paid for a full house every night, Ryan said.
"When CCA announced its annual profits, the federal government realized that they had just handed over profits to these corporations for no work," he added. So they’ve gone back and tried to renegotiate the contract and so the employees at Dilley got pay cuts or got laid off. They are trying to figure out a way to do less work since they are getting less money. They gotta find ways to do it cheap and cut costs."
One young mother who came to volunteer on Sunday noted how the children were smiling as they played with donated toys.
“The kids are so cute, smiling and playing with toys,” she said. “Most American kids are so bored with their toys, it’s not a big deal anymore. This is also an opportunity to give someone a meal who doesn’t otherwise have a meal. This is a very direct way to help during this season of giving.”
Ryan told the Rivard Report that the best way to help the families in need is to donate money through the RAICES website. He added that the organization spent $1,700 just on air mattresses and blankets alone. Trays of fresh fruit, medicine for children, and warm clothing donations are also needed and can be dropped off directly at the church.
"Spanish speaking volunteers are still needed," RAICES staff stated on their Facebook page. "RAICES staff have been up past 3 a.m. the last two nights helping families. We need your support. We also need extra cell phones for families to call their families in the United States. We have hundreds sharing two cell phones. People interested in volunteering should email firstname.lastname@example.org."
To donate to RAICES, click here.