Loaded up with tote bags filled with toys, Tubac residents Nancy Bennett, Patty Glogowski and Peg Bowden crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into Nogales, Sonora last Friday morning.

As soon as they arrived in Mexico, the three women did a U-turn, heading towards the line of people waiting to enter the United States through the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales. There, they found nearly 20 people, mostly women and children from Guatemala and the southern Mexican state of Guerrero, solemnly camped out on blankets as they waited for an appointment with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer to ask for asylum.

Within minutes, the children were blowing bubbles, tooting on high-pitched plastic flutes, coloring in notebooks and playing games after Bennett, Glogowski and Bowden emptied out the contents of their bags.

The trio – all members of the Green Valley-Sahuarita Samaritans, a migrant aid organization – said they’re standing up to President Donald Trump’s asylum and immigration policies by bringing toys, underwear, cleaning supplies, fans, food and a friendly face to support the asylum-seekers, who began arriving at the DeConcini port about a month ago.

“I … feel a certain obligation to negate some of the meanness of our government’s policy,” said Bennett, a 78-year-old retired librarian. “Sometimes I just feel compelled to overtly show that it’s not in my name.” 

Bowden, a 75-year-old former nurse, said she thinks the message is getting through.

“I think (the migrants are) happy to see an American face that wants to interact with them, that likes them, that wants to sit down with their children and play, that wants to provide some comfort, that says ‘I’m so sorry this is happening, we’re doing everything we can to change the laws in our country, we don’t think this is right,’” she said.

Family separations

Citizens and politicians across the country are speaking out against the Trump administration’s treatment of migrant families – particularly in regard to the Justice Department’s so-called “zero-tolerance” policy that promises to criminally prosecute all adult unauthorized border-crossers, including asylum-seekers and those with children. The policy has resulted in large numbers of children – 1,995 from April 19 through May 31, according to a recent Associated Press report – being separated from their parents, since children can’t be detained with adults.

In the past, non-asylum-seeking families who crossed the border illegally were usually returned to their country of origin, said Joanna Williams, director of education and advocacy at the Kino Border Initiative, a migrant rights organization based in Ambos Nogales. Those who crossed illegally and asked for asylum were either put in family detention, or given ankle bracelets and released as a family to await asylum proceedings.

In reality, Williams said, it’s still not the case that 100 percent of undocumented border-crossers are referred for prosecution because facilities, like the federal courthouse in Tucson, have limited capacity. Still, she noted: “Before there was some semblance of a little bit more discretion of at least not prosecuting parents.”

Asylum-seekers who arrive at a port of entry to request a hearing with U.S. officials without illegally crossing the border, like those currently waiting on the Mexican side of the DeConcini port, are supposed to be treated differently. And Trump officials have said families legally asking for asylum won’t be separated.

However, media reports have shown several cases in which it has happened, prompting Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine to formally ask the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services on Saturday to explain their policies regarding families requesting asylum at ports.

“Ensuring the safety and security of young children is a longstanding priority of the American legal system,” Flake said in a news release. “In asylum cases, it is especially important to keep families together when neither the child nor the parent has violated any laws.”

The Trump administration has also sought to discourage legal asylum claims by announcing last week that fears of gang and domestic violence will, for the most part, no longer be grounds for asylum.

Asylum-seekers camped out at the Nogales port like 28-year-old Yesenia Guerrero said they were sad to hear of the new policy.

Holding her sleeping 1-year-old daughter, Guerrero said she fled her home in the Mexican state of Guerrero with her daughter and 7-year-old son because of violence, especially towards single mothers like her. Feeling alienated and unprotected by her own government, she had hoped to find compassion and refuge in the United States.

“You come with the idea that it’s a free country, and a country that’s much better than your own, where the authorities do carry out their work and that the government works to protect the people,” she said.

Human connection

With the debate over federal immigration policy playing out at the macro level, Bennett, Glogowski and Bowden made their ground-level presence felt at the Nogales port on Friday, playing games such as “Pop Goes the Weasel” with the children and chatting with the parents to learn why they fled their home countries.

The Tubac women have limited Spanish skills, but the retired septuagenarians say they have no problem communicating and connecting with the asylum-seekers.

“I just kind of focus on the little children,” said Glogowski, a 73-year-old former teacher. “They can tell (what you mean) by the look in your eyes, and you can tell by the look in (their) eyes, and playing games. It’s just kind of universal.”

“It’s just so warm and human to be interacting with people with all the language barriers, and all the differences in our histories,” Bennett said. “We connect as human beings, and that’s a wonderful experience.” 

The women said they also communicate with the families with the help of bilingual people waiting in the line to cross into the United States, as well as Pancho Olochea Martin, who comes to the port everyday to check on the medical needs of the migrants.

Olochea said he lived in Phoenix for 33 years and worked as a caregiver for the elderly before he was deported to Nogales, Sonora.

“To me it’s important, as an immigrant myself, that (the asylum-seekers) have the right treatment and I do whatever I can on my part to accommodate them, to make them feel better,” he said.

Others from Santa Cruz County who have been volunteering with the migrants include members of Voices from the Border, a grassroots social justice group. Helpers from Nogales, Sonora include church groups, the Red Cross and individual community members.

Last Friday morning, members of the Parroquia Juan Bosco Catholic parish served the asylum-seekers a hot breakfast of scrambled eggs, potatoes and tortillas.

“They need us, and we always are trying to help people,” said church member Marisa Beltran, adding that her group also volunteered when large numbers of asylum-seeking Haitians arrived at the port in October 2016.

Guerrero, the Mexican mother seeking asylum, said since arriving to Nogales on May 5, U.S. and Mexican volunteers have helped make her family’s ordeal more bearable by providing food, personal hygiene items and medical help.

“The truth is, I’m very, very thankful for these people,” she said.

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