I don’t think many would deny our country is in a challenging time. Opinions are strongly held and compromise seems a lofty and far away goal. Depending on where in the United States you live, the faces of our issues may vary. Our cities are unique, made up of many different people working many different jobs. Not everyone has close contact with asylum seekers or immigrants who have recently arrived in the United States. While it may at times seem our issues are too difficult to overcome, stories such as the one I’m about to share will hopefully inspire you to see our commonalities before highlighting our differences. I also hope it causes you to pause and spend some time reflecting on what you’re grateful for in your life.
One of my dear friends, Erin Bill, is a fellow military spouse who lives in San Antonio. She and her family have been stationed there for a few years now and she has been volunteering with two groups helping asylum seekers who are routinely dropped off by Border Patrol in the city. I’ll let her tell you more about that in the interview.
Erin has shared some of her experiences with me throughout her time volunteering and recently told me a particularly moving story. She was helping a group of Congolese women wash babies and clothes in the sink of the building they were staying in. Erin had a mop. A standard, simple squeegee mop. She was tidying up the floor so no one would slip on the wet surface even though cleaning floors isn’t exactly her favorite chore. As she worked the women stopped and stared. They were amazed at the mop. Erin was struck, she said, by their delight in the mop and the drain in the middle of the floor. Here they were, smiling at the tool she typically avoided. She watched these women cheerfully tending to their chores, seeing the novelty of a mop and a faucet and a drain with new, grateful eyes. Cleaning a floor with clean water from pipes and even more pipes to carry the dirty water – what was a chore swiftly became an experience of luxury.
When she shared this experience with me I knew it was one that had to be told to you all. What follows is an interview with Erin about her work, those she works with and the people she serves.
How did you start volunteering with the Interfaith Welcome Coalition and RAICES?
I read about these groups’ outreach in 2017 after several hundred asylum seekers were released without warning in San Antonio. They stepped up to house the families in a local church and help them on their way. It really called to me as work I could serve in as I speak Spanish well, grew up in a border state, and the best part was that I could work around being a stay-at-home mom and come in whenever I was able to. I joined the outreach sent to help families dropped off at the San Antonio Greyhound Bus station with supplies. We work alongside RAICES, which provides legal information to migrants as no counsel is provided for them in immigration court. I also do document translations for RAICES at home.
Who primarily are you serving?
IWC primarily serves people who arrive at the border or cross the border and ask for asylum. Historically, they were detained while officers evaluate whether they had a “credible fear” of being returned to their home country. If they were found to have a credible fear and no security issues, they were generally released to a sponsor to apply for asylum. There are three large immigration detention centers south of San Antonio and these asylum seekers were released at the bus station where they would pick up tickets purchased by their family in the U.S. That is who we usually encountered and helped on their way.
In the past year the system has been upended quite a bit. The government no longer makes sure everyone they release has a sponsor or a destination in the U.S. Some do and some don’t—it’s very haphazard. We have helped a lot of people who are released pending their court date straight from the border and may arrive without any tickets or money. Most are from the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. I have also met migrants from Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, Haiti, Congo, Angola and China.
How has your work challenged you, inspired you or caused you to think about things differently?
One of the founders of our ministry, Sr. Denise LaRock, always talks about restoring the migrants’ dignity. That is the amazing thing about getting to work with these families at the Greyhound station. They come in very frightened and disoriented, with tired and frightened children in tow. Being able to see them smile when I say “Welcome” and explain to them that we can help them understand their tickets, get on their bus, and give them some extra diapers for the baby is an amazing feeling. Simple things, like medicine for a headache, a toy car and a sack lunch just make the parents and children light up. Many have had people extort them on the way to the United States and sometimes they can’t believe that the faithful of San Antonio want to help them for free.
IWC uses a trauma-informed care model and sends volunteers for training in trauma. Learning how trauma can manifest in people appearing very quiet, frightened or aggressive helps me take those stressors less personally when I volunteer. It can be emotionally overwhelming at first to be faced with people who are suffering so deeply. Instinctively you want to step back and protect yourself at first.
It constantly causes me to reflect on and to be grateful for the safety I live in and for the food and shelter that I have. I’m also reminded that I don’t have these blessings because I am more deserving of them than any of the people I meet. To the extent I have these things, it is so that I can use them for others as Jesus instructs us to do.
Their faith is an inspiration to me. I wear my Lady of Guadalupe bracelet or necklace when I go to the bus station, since she is the patroness of all the Americas. That can be a great point of connection with the families, who recognize her and smile. Many arrive wearing or holding rosaries. A phrase of thanks I often hear is “Dios te lo pague,” which means “May God repay you.”
It can be very difficult knowing that many of the people I meet will not win asylum and will be ordered deported. It is also hard to say goodbye to them each day knowing that not everyone they meet here will be welcoming or kind. I have had to lean on my faith that our work matters anyway, even if only God knows the outcome.
Can you share a little more about the organizations themselves, how others can help their work and those they serve?
IWC is a group of churches and temples in San Antonio that have joined forces and funds to support migrants in the city. RAICES is a secular organization that focuses on legal representation for immigrants, on advocacy and on refugee resettlement. They are able to represent immigrants free of charge in court proceedings and they also pay bail so that immigrants are not kept in detention longer than necessary. They are both in need of cash donations, especially for IWC which doesn’t have as high of a profile.
The shelter with the infamous mop is run by Travis Park Methodist Church and IWC helps staff it with volunteers. It is in the church’s Sunday school rooms near the Greyhound station and gives people released by ICE or CBP a safe place to stay overnight if they don’t arrive with tickets. Seeing different faith communities, nonprofits and the city government coordinate to provide the shelter has been wonderful.
Currently IWC is raising money to support shelters in Mexico where the U.S. government is currently making many asylum seekers wait for their court date instead of releasing them to sponsors in the U.S. The border cities are very dangerous for migrant families and the shelters are not adequately funded by the Mexican government. We are also constantly fundraising for money to put together backpacks of supplies and to buy medicine, diapers and cell phone minutes. This is a video the local PBS station put together about Sr. Denise that gives a good look at what we do.
Another great way to help is to learn about the asylum system in the United States. The national media generally don’t do a great job explaining how complicated the process is for any immigrant and how little resources are available to help people navigate the system correctly. This is one good summary: And this is one that explains some of the roots of Central American migration.
I am so thankful to Erin for sharing her thoughts, experiences and volunteer efforts with us. I hope you found this interview as insightful as I did.