Two evenings ago, I drove with another volunteer - I'll call her Ana - to have a conversation with a refugee from South America - I'll call him Roberto - now detained in Eloy, Arizona. I wanted to see what the detention facility was like, and have a conversion with a person actually there, and learn more about what was going on. Here's what happened:
1. In the La Palma facility, the staff is friendly - almost welcoming - to visitors. On entering, we left everything behind except driver's license and car keys. And when going through security, we left license and keys behind as well.
2. Between the second and third security gates, I viewed a glorious sunset beyond the concertina wire, but couldn't take a picture because I'd had to leave my phone in the car.
3. Ana and I sat at a round table across from Roberto for an a hour-long conversation. The room, a cafeteria, was full of such tables and such conversations.
4. Our conversation was entirely in Spanish, though Ana translated any questions I had. I'd say I understood about 20 percent of it.
5. Roberto, detained in Eloy, has a wife similarly detained at a facility in another state. They are not allowed to talk to each other because facility-to-facility phone calls are prohibited. Their only contact is between each of them and Ana.
6. Roberto's wife has applied for asylum on behalf of herself and her husband. Her hearing was the day before our meeting with Roberto, but none of us had heard the outcome of that event.
7. Roberto has been in detention for four months without a hearing. He will also apply for asylum on behalf of himself and his wife. I asked if there's a database that will show the same two people applying for asylum in two locations. Roberto said he does not think there is such a database.
8. Roberto and his wife are in fear for their lives. As I listened to their story, I know for certain their lives are indeed in danger.
9. Roberto said, "It isn't fair that people who come across the border illegally are getting hearings more quickly than people who came across legally."
10. I know more of Roberto's story, but I'm not going to say more here, for the sake of his safety.
Last evening, my husband and I spent our usual four hours volunteering at a refugee shelter in Tucson. We had 20 guests - ten adults and ten children. Most of the people this week were from Guatemala.
Our shelter is serving only families - one or two adults with one or more of their children. Children cannot be detained for more than 20 days, so this shelter system has been devised. Within a two-day period, the families will travel to sponsors in other parts of the US to apply for asylum there.
I understand that in times of rapid policy change, agencies may scramble to comply. The children are being kept with their families, but where is the fair treatment of cases for people like Roberto, whose lives are in danger, where their hearings are not close at hand?
Over all these things, I know I am powerless. So I listen to Roberto, and provide a safe place for the shelter guests, one person at a time.
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