PENN YAN — It was a trip borne out of simple curiosity.
Three Yates County women spent two weeks in November seeing for themselves what the border conditions are like in the sister cities of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. They shared their observations Friday evening at the Penn Yan United Methodist Church at a presentation organized by the Penn Yan Action Coalition; despite the single-digit temperatures, more than 75 people attended.
This was the second trip to the border for Anne Meyer-Wilber, who first visited last January. Meyer-Wilber, a former Peace Corps volunteer, recalled listening to nightly news stories in October 2018 about what was happening there.
“I thought there has to be something I can do,” she said — and after an internet search that repeatedly landed on Annunciation House in El Paso, she booked her first visit for January 2019.
Annunciation House, founded in 1978, is a volunteer organization that offers short-term hospitality to migrants, immigrants and refugees in the border region of El Paso — mostly from Mexico and Central America. The refugees who pass through their doors have been released from federal custody and have family or jobs waiting for them in the U.S.
When Meyer-Wilber returned from that trip and spoke publicly about it last February, Debbie Koop was among the people who attended. She left the talk committed to visiting El Paso herself and she, Meyer-Wilber and Peggy Soule did just that in November.
They were part of a 10-member group that stayed and worked at the Annunciation House from Nov. 9-16; members ranged in age from 18 to 81 and hailed from states across the country. For $90 a day, they received room and board and a crash course on the realities of what refugees trying to enter the U.S. face.
As part of their border awareness experience, the group met with border patrol members, visited El Paso’s sister city Juarez right across the Rio Grande river, attended meetings on seeking asylum and migrant solidarity and volunteered for Annunciation House doing laundry and preparing meals, among other tasks.
Why they want to come
The women spoke of the challenging conditions forcing families to flee their homes in Central and South America, the complicated policies surrounding immigration and the need for a comprehensive immigration policy in this country. Meyer-Wilber said their goal was not to “be political or change minds … but share what we saw, what we felt and what it moved us to do.”
Koop, whose background is in farming, noted that the refugees the group met were “100 percent families,” with 60 percent of them children 10 or younger. She was especially affected by a visit to Juarez and its migrant camps where families patiently wait for interviews for possible entry into the U.S. The camps were comprised of tents or tarps and featured primitive conditions. When they visited, the temperature dipped to 32 degrees in the evening and many of the residents lacked shoes or warm clothing. Clothes were washed in public fountains and hung on bushes to dry. Yet despite those challenges Koop said the camps operated with dignity under self-made rules.
At that time, Juarez had three camps but the women said they recently learned from the Annunciation House’s executive director that the camps have been disbanded — leaving them to wonder the fate of some of the camp residents they spoke with, like Jesus who was a leader of one camp.
Koop shared Jesus’ story of living in Oregon but returning to his hometown Acapulco, to raise his family and run a taxi cab business. Drug cartel members broke into his home at 3 a.m., demanding that he drive and kill for them for five months. When he refused, Koop said Jesus was kidnapped. He was able to escape, gather his family and fly to Juarez to await entry to the U.S., leaving his home and belongings behind.
Cartel violence, according to the women, is a prime reason for people seeking entry to the U.S. They spoke of cartel member first stealing cell phones so they have a person’s friends and family to contact for ransom, and of seeing burned-out vehicles on Juarez’s streets, only to turn the corner and see a group of schoolchildren walking to school. The city, Koop said, experiences 10-15 murders daily.
“If legal means are shut out, people will find an illegal way [to enter] even if they don’t want to,” Koop said. “Think about what you would do if you were threatened by a member of a drug cartel … you’d flee.”
Meyer-Wilber handed out notecards to the audience, identifying each as a refugee from different countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Brazil. She had their holder read the reason for their desire to migrate … and in each case it was either fear of violence or poverty.
“How many of you under these situations would want to get out?” she asked.
Meyer-Wilber noted that on her first visit she encountered mostly Central American refugees but this time around the majority were coming from Brazil — an effect she attributed to the new “remain in Mexico” policy that requires non-Mexican asylum seekers to stay in Mexico while they await court hearings in their cases.
Several in the audience noted that their ancestors came to America for the same reason of poverty. Another mentioned that it’s imperative to help these countries stop the crime that is forcing people to flee — and that the U.S. can’t have open borders; certain guidelines and laws must be followed.
Koop did not disagree but noted that refugees seeking asylum deserve to be treated humanely.
“The inhumanity and crimes against are humanity are horrific. The key is the comprehensive immigration plan, which has not been done,” she said.