Two Highlanders Help those Stranded on the Border of Mexico

There are areas along the U.S./Mexico border where families and other refugees gather and wait while seeking asylum into the United States. Highlanders Diane McPhail and Jeannie Macleod collaborated with a group called Kino Border Initiative and traveled down to Mexico to spend a week helping where they could.

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Highlands resident Diane McPhail with “Lucero,” and 18-year-old woman McPhail met while volunteering in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico to help the Kino Border Initiative. Submitted photo

KBI created shelters for those people waiting in limbo about their case. If asylum seekers meet certain criteria, they are given a number, and they wait for their number to be called. Once it’s called, the family must get to the gate to the U.S. and wait. This could be 5 to 10 days of waiting, and once someone’s number is called they must stay at the gate until they are called up for a final interview. Those staying at the gate have no access to food, water, or shelter and sleep on the concrete.

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KBI Director of Education and Advocacy Joanna Williams listens to a recently deported individual, who had been living and working in Tucson, Ariz. for years and is now unsure where to go next. Submitted photo

KBI Director of Education and Advocacy Joanna Williams, who works in both Nogales Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, said the issue with the line of asylum seekers has been that Customs and Border Protection has delayed processing individuals.

“CBP has a legal obligation to process asylum seekers as they arrive at the port, but instead they were telling individuals to wait and only processing three families a day, which is far fewer than they have processed in the past,” said Williams. “That is why the shelters became necessary.”

Some family members may get through, others may not, sometimes family members, including children, are sent off to for-profit prison facilities without being charged with a criminal crime, said McPhail.

“I was just so distraught about the children at the border who are being separated from their parents,” said McPhail. “This is inflicting lifelong trauma. And I got to the point where I can’t just keep talking about it.”

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Children play on the floor at one of the shelters built by the Kino Border Initiative where Highlanders Diane McPhail and Jeannie MacLeod volunteered for a week in Mexico. Submitted photo

MacLeod said she wanted to do everything she could to help the people along the border.

“I decided to go because I was absolutely outraged at what was happening at the border, both with the separation of families and the detention of so many people.” she said.

Before the duo headed off to help in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, they shipped 13 large boxes full of games, art supplies, puzzles, books, clothes, etc. McPhail said there was a donor in the parking lot who picked up the approximately $1,000 shipping fee for the 13 boxes.

Everything that was shipped was the result of a request by McPhail for donations on Facebook.

“We had such an outpouring of support and love from this community,” said McPhail. “We also packed five of the biggest luggage bags allowed and took them down with us.”

They flew to Nogales, Ariz., and then headed south to the border to begin their trip to Mexico.

MacLeod said upon arrival to the border she noticed the U.S. side of the border was noticeably clean and organized, while the Mexico side was dirtier with unfinished houses.

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A view of the street on the Mexico-side of Nogales. Submitted photo

“It was when I met the people that I really felt the difference,” said MacLeod. “The people we met were so full of hospitality, kindness and generosity. I was utterly charmed by their spirit.”

Their days staying at a shelter primarily consisted of teaching the children new games and helping with chores. McPhail said the inside of the shelter, which houses 35 to 40 people, was spotlessly clean because it’s swept and mopped twice daily.

In the mornings, McPhail and MacLeod were awakened by children’s faces peeking around the corner to their room. After getting to know the people staying in the shelter, McPhail learned that they were mostly from Central America and were fleeing for their lives because of violence in their home countries.

“These people are doing everything they can do to live with dignity and integrity,” said McPhail. “Some of their stories about what they’re fleeing from are both horrifying and heartbreaking.”

MacLeod said she can see why these people have come seeking asylum.

“They were protecting their families from life-threatening situations in their home cities,” she said. “They love their children just like I do. They are amazing, admirable people who I grew to be extremely fond of.”

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Diane McPhail holding a piece of artwork by one of the children she met while volunteering in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Photo by Brian O’Shea

After returning home to Highlands both women have said to have made lasting friendships. McPhail said she has been in contact with one family of nine she and MacLeod had both connected with. However, once back in the states McPhail heard some bad news.

Lucero, 18, and her brother Pablo, 17, were detained for the asylum process, while everyone else in the immediate family were released into the United States pending an immigration judge’s decision on their asylum claim. Both children have been sent to a for-profit prison facility and McPhail said no one can get a hold of them.

“These two great kids have done nothing criminal,” said McPhail. “There are no charges against them. They and their family have followed the letter of the law down to the last period in seeking asylum. They nor the family have any recourse nor any way to know what may happen.”

MacLeod and McPhail are working with an asylum attorney to investigate the family’s case. The rest of Lucero and Pablo’s family are living in California with relatives.

Both MacLeod and McPhail were amazed at what KBI has done for people down at the border.

“The sisters and the father who are involved are the most incredible people,” said MacLeod. “I felt like I was with mother Theresa while I was with them. So compassionate, so hard working, so structured and organized.”

The Kino Border Initiative is a mission of the Catholic Church and the Jesuits at the U.S./Mexico border that is supported by a broad network of volunteers and donors. To donate visit their website.

“Our vision is to promote humane and just migration policies in the US and Mexico,” said Williams. “We do that be offering humanitarian aid to migrants in Nogales, educating communities on both sides of the border, and advocating for reform in both the US and Mexican governments.”

She added that KBI could not operate without the help of volunteers.

“The work of volunteers is critical to allow our humanitarian aid to function,” said Williams. “We served over 40,000 meals last year, and volunteers perform a great deal of the food prep, service, and cleanup. Volunteers are also important because of the way that they listen to migrants and make them feel welcome, which helps in a difficult emotional moment and also transforms the volunteers’ perception so that they can share migrants’ stories with their communities.”

Article by Brian O’Shea
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