Part of my initiatives as an OEP Migrant Justice Organizer intern has been to familiarize people with conditions at the southern border and to possibly encourage others to visit and volunteer there personally. A friend recently returned from a weeklong trip to help one of the most active volunteer groups and shared her reflections with me below:
Reflections by Risa Paskoff, Lisa Rohde, and Joanne Berkowitz of Lancaster, PA
At the present time, many of us are facing a variety of challenges, personally as well as within our own communities and then on a larger scale, within our state and our country.
Experiencing stress and uncertainty are common and frequent emotions for a number of people. Given these possible challenges, for most of us, our basic needs are most likely being met. We have a roof over our heads, clothing, and food in our homes or access to meals at various houses of worship and/or non-profit organizations on an ongoing basis. We live in an area that is relatively safe and for the most part, we are not afraid of driving down a certain street or walking through a specific neighborhood.
For those who are living either in Mexico or recently crossed the Texas/Mexico border, this is not the case. People of all ages are experiencing food insecurity as well as not having their basic needs met. If they have crossed the border, they may only have the clothes that they are wearing. Their shoes might just be flip flops which will not be suitable once the cold weather arrives, especially for those who will be traveling north to their sponsors. Women express a need for feminine products as well as diapers and wipes for their young children. Men ask for underwear and a belt as their belts were taken away at the detention center by border patrol agents, for “fear they might hurt themselves.” On my recent trip to the border one little boy was given a blue sweatshirt and he was so excited as it matched his only pair of sweatpants. As he left us, he gave each of the volunteers a high five. A sweatshirt that many of us take for granted and many of us have more than one.
For those who have to remain in Reynosa, Mexico, their situation is much worse. They are living in large encampments, outdoors, with blankets set up as makeshift tents to cover them. There is no running water, no bathrooms, and no guarantee of food on a regular basis. They are all waiting to cross but have no idea as to when and if that might happen. There is one small clinic with services being provided by two different organizations, Global Response Management and Doctors without Borders. Medical care is very limited and if a person needs to go to a hospital, a call for an ambulance often results in no response at all.
There is no question that there is a crisis at the border that needs to be addressed. It has needed to be addressed for years and unfortunately, there has never been a well thought-out answer to solve this problem. While this is ongoing and overwhelming, as there are multiple layers which complicate this crisis, people of all ages are suffering. Basic needs are unmet. Clothing oneself and feeding oneself along with living in a safe environment should be a given—sadly, it is not.
As most of us have what we need (and some have more than enough), and take it for granted at times, we need to separate out the need for a policy from the belief that all people deserve to be treated and live in a humane way. Yes, a policy needs to be created to ensure safety and security for all, and yes, while we are doing that work, we need to provide for these people so that they are having their basic needs met now. Waiting for the policy is not possible nor realistic.
Recently, several of us from the Lancaster community traveled to the Texas/Mexico border to volunteer with Team Brownsville, a non-profit organization that helps families and individuals legally seeking asylum in the United States. They have a dual mission: to continue supporting the asylum seeker community in the cities of Matamoros and Reynosa, Mexico, and to welcome and support families released by authorities into the United States at the Brownsville Bus Station. This organization is trying every day to meet the needs of the people with whom they interact. Welcoming them and providing a snack or a slice of pizza along with a pair of socks, a belt, shoelaces, or underwear are just a few of the items that they provide. What an impact we could all make if we addressed these basic needs that we have every day; shouldn’t this be a given for everyone?
Please visit https://www.teambrownsville.org/ for more information about the situation and ways in which you can donate. Let’s try and address the immediate need as we continue to work on a long-term solution to this crisis.
Risa Paskoff is also the Executive Director of Aaron’s Acres, a non-profit organization that provides individuals with disabilities ages 5 through 21 year-round therapeutically based age-appropriate recreational programs directed by specially trained and certified staff in a supportive environment that enhances socialization and communication skills.
There are big differences from what volunteers like Risa and myself saw in the past. In 2020 when the Stay in Mexico Policy/MPP was in full swing, the largest encampment in the city of Matamoros had access for NGOs and other volunteer groups to provide meals and bring in supplies via pulling wagons across the International Bridge on a regular basis. In addition, there were porta potties and access to water. Currently, in Reynosa, there is no ongoing support in the encampment that is outside two recently constructed shelters that are gated. The encampment outside these two gated areas has no water, no toilets, and no guarantee of any food. The number of people is also greater in Reynosa than what we saw in Matamoros.