When I Discovered My Town Is Where Immigrant Families Are Separated

A Texas journalist’s investigation revealed the worst and best of America—including the Angry Tías from the community who are providing help.

Grannies Respond/Abuelas Responden Caravan arrived in McAllen, Texas, in early August 2018 to bring attention to the impact of “Zero Tolerance” at the border.

Photo by Joyce Hamilton

In the summer of 2018, writer Daniel Blue Tyx had just returned home from vacation when the Trump administration’s treatment of undocumented people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border hit the news. Tyx discovered that his home in McAllen, Texas, was close to the processing center where parents and children were being separated and held in cages.

The evening we arrived in McAllen, after the kids were in bed, I opened my computer and pulled up the New York Times website. It was Father’s Day, the day a congressional delegation toured the Ursula Central Processing Center where parents and children were held in separate cages in an area called la perrera, or the dog pound. McAllen was the dateline. I had to search on Google Maps to find out where the center was—7 miles from our house, in the “foreign-trade zone” near the border, a part of town I almost never visited. I found myself crying. This is my actual home, I thought.

For a few days, the initial shock left me paralyzed. As a journalist, and as a border resident, I felt a strong pull to respond. But I wasn’t even sure where to begin until I saw a Facebook video posted by John Garland, an old friend from McAllen who is now a Mennonite pastor in San Antonio. He’d already spent extensive time at the border documenting family separation for his congregation and the wider faith community. “It’s worse than anyone could possibly think,” he said. “People need to know.”

He invited me to go with him to Nuevo Laredo the following day, where he was meeting with pastors organizing emergency housing for refugees turned away at the international bridge. He also arranged for me to shadow an immigration attorney—her office was housed in his church—the day after that at a detention center halfway between Laredo and San Antonio. In Nuevo Laredo, one of the most violent cities in North America, I saw and heard about the dangers that refugees faced. At La Voz del Cielo evangelical church, an armored tanklike vehicle patrolled the street, while the middle-aged pastora told us about the armed men who’d stormed the shelter, which doubled as the church’s sanctuary. Then, the next morning, I witnessed what refugee families faced on the U.S. side of the border. 

For the hour-long trip to the detention center, I rode in the backseat of a Subaru belonging to Sara Ramey, the 35-year-old director of the nonprofit Migrant Center for Human Rights. Joining her in the front was a retired patent attorney, while next to me was an intern from Brownsville who had just finished her first year of law school and had previously worked at Casa Padre, the infamous Walmart-turned-children’s-detention-center. Intensely focused, with a rapid-fire diction and encyclopedic knowledge of the law, Ramey cut back and forth between a mock hearing with the intern—she would be appearing in court alone for the first time—and an asylum-law crash course for the patent attorney. “Do you speak Spanish?” Ramey asked me during a brief lull. , I murmured. “OK,” she said, “you’re going to be my assistant.” As I was about to find out, the entire system was so overwhelmed that every bit of extra help counted.

The detention center was behind a Holiday Inn Express on the I-35 frontage road, surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Four flags flew at the entrance, those of the United States, Texas, Department of Homeland Security, and GEO Group, the private prison conglomerate. The company logo had a map of the world inscribed inside the letter O. Inside, we stuffed our cellphones and wallets into a locker and passed through the metal detector into a windowless lobby. To one side, I noticed an open door next to a long, narrow, rectangular room lined with stools and labeled “non-contact visitation room.” There was a play table like the one at my kids’ pediatrician’s office next to a Coke machine. 

The women of Angry Tias. Front row left to right: Elisa, Jennifer, and Susan. Back row left to right: Joyce, Madeleine, Elizabeth, Nayelly, and Cindy. Photo by Nayelly Barrios.

Ramey entered a passcode into a heavy security door, and we walked down a hallway and into a courtroom. Thirteen men in navy uniforms—except for two who were inexplicably in red—sat in wooden pews, watching us. Ramey set out cardboard boxes full of documents on a pair of wooden tables, while a guard in a tan GEO cap hushed the asylum seekers, although no one seemed to be speaking above a whisper. “This is a courtroom,” he admonished. Not seeing any judge, I turned to Ramey in confusion. Court wouldn’t actually begin for another two hours, she said, but this was the only space available to meet with clients. Anyway, we wouldn’t have to wait for each detainee to be called out individually—a process that was often delayed. “If we had more attorneys, if we had more time, we wouldn’t have to do so much at once,” Ramey explained.

She handed me a box full of intake forms and a yellow legal pad and explained my job. On the forms, I was to record names, alien numbers, and dates of birth, as well as information about income and savings. (One father I later interviewed had $.06 in his commissary account; a mother reported an income of one dollar a week working in the laundry room.) If there was time, I could take additional notes. I jotted down a list of questions: When did you come? How did you come? Why did you come? Were you separated from your children? How were you separated?

“Where are the women?” I overheard Ramey ask one of the guards. The guard mumbled something about a headcount earlier and walked out the door. An hour or so later, I looked up to find three women waiting in the front pew. I’d finished the intake with the men, so I listened in as Ramey delivered the bad news to the young Salvadoran woman in pigtails. I turned a page on my pad and prepared to write down everything I could.

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I wasn’t an immigration reporter. To the contrary, ever since I’d left a steady job as a community college professor to begin work as a freelance magazine writer five years ago, I had mostly avoided pitching stories on that beat. I told myself—not unreasonably—that this was because there were already plenty of other writers doing those stories, with more resources than I could hope to muster. But also, I think now, there was another reason. Although I grew up in the Midwest, I’ve lived in McAllen for 15 years, the longest I’ve ever been in one place. McAllen is home, which may explain why I tried for so long to evade the dim realization that our community’s economic, political, and social life is inextricably tied up with the detention of thousands of people every day who’ve come to our country for no other reason than to seek a better life—or to not be killed, or not have their children killed.

The majority of asylum seekers came from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where heavily armed gangs control entire neighborhoods and swaths of territory. The roots of this violence can be traced to American military intervention in the region, when the Reagan administration supported repressive authoritarian regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador in civil wars that killed as many as 300,000 people. While there was no large-scale civil war in Honduras, the country served as the staging ground for paramilitary Contras fighting in Nicaragua, and the CIA sponsored a military battalion responsible for the disappearance of hundreds of students, human rights leaders, and members of the political opposition. 

On the left, volunteers help with filling backpacks with food and supplies for asylum seekers in July 2018. On the right, supplies included in the backpacks. Photos by Joyce Hamilton.

In the aftermath of these conflicts, a surfeit of militarized and often unemployed young men provided a breeding ground for the growth of organized crime, as did stepped-up deportations of criminals from the United States. By 2016, El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the world, with Honduras second, and Guatemala 10th. Some 95 percent of crimes go unpunished in the Northern Triangle, creating a culture of impunity that is especially dangerous for victims of domestic violence, which is why, in recent years, women and children have made up an ever-greater proportion of asylum seekers. After the most arduous journeys—by bus, on top of trains, in semi-trailers without ventilation, on foot—these asylum seekers finally arrived at their harbor of safety, only to have the very government they were counting on to protect them take their children away.

It was the worst of America, and it was the best of America, all condensed into one narrow stretch. 

Back at home, I felt a sense of urgency to respond, although at first I wasn’t sure how. I began by traveling, alone, to the places where the crisis was unfolding. Often, I felt foolish for even going. I went to the Ursula Central Processing Center, also known as la hielera, or the icebox, on account of the frigid temperatures inside that many detainees described as a form of torture. But what was I going to do except stare from outside the gate, trying to catch a glimpse of the white buses carrying parents and children, separately, that lined up hundreds of yards away, deliberately shielded from view? I had a similar experience on multiple days at the federal courthouse, where even though the proceedings were ostensibly open to the public, the guard kept turning me away because, he said, every seat in the room was already occupied by defendants.

But at the midpoint of the McAllen-Hidalgo International Bridge, where dozens of asylum seekers slept on cardboard boxes and subsisted on ham sandwiches delivered by volunteers, the crisis was in plain view. Mothers, with little to protect them from the elements, waited with toddlers, even babies. They were marooned there, stopped from going to the American side by three armed Customs and Border Protection officers, and fearful of even using the bathroom on the Mexican side, where migrants had been kidnapped for ransom from the foot of the bridge. On most summer days in the Rio Grande Valley, the families had to endure triple-digit heat, but the week I started going to the bridge it rained nonstop, a deluge that would eventually lead to a state of emergency being declared for the entire county. Everything, and everyone, was soaked; all the kids had coughs. 

Asylum seekers waiting at the bus station in McAllen for their long journey to family members and/or sponsors in the U.S. Photo by Elizabeth Cavazos.

The bridge was where I first encountered the Angry Tías and Abuelas—or just the Tías, or aunts, for short—a group of ordinary local women who were handing out backpacks full of food, water, menstrual pads, toothbrushes, toothpaste, crayons, coloring books, even toy cars and stuffed animals, to waiting families. It was the worst of America, and it was the best of America, all condensed into one narrow stretch of suspended sidewalk that wasn’t technically America at all. 

The volunteers I met told me about other volunteers, who told me about other volunteers, and on it went. Across the Rio Grande Valley, from McAllen to Brownsville, more people started showing up at bridges, courthouses, detention centers, shelters, and bus stations. They wrote down the names of separated parents and their children at the federal courthouses. They organized protests. They fed and clothed asylum seekers at the bridges, and, later, at the bus stations where Immigration and Customs Enforcement dropped off parents, often with no ticket and no money. They filled in the gaps left by a government that abnegated responsibility for the well-being of families that had fled the worst violence imaginable.

As I continued my reporting, I also met lawyers and other professional advocates and agitators who, like Sara Ramey, had dedicated their lives to working on behalf of refugees. Over time, I came to think of these dedicated professionals as Angry Tías, too. Equipped with infinitesimally small resources in comparison to the huge government bureaucracies they were fighting, they relied on personal conviction, audacity, and seemingly boundless empathy to accomplish what sometimes seemed impossible even to them, whether that meant creating a database of every separated parent and their children in government custody without the government’s help, or reuniting a child with her mother in a matter of hours when the government insisted it would take weeks.

The Angry Tías of the Rio Grande Valley were—are—doing the work of democracy, in a country that at times seems to have forgotten the meaning of the word.

This excerpt from Angry Tías: Cruelty and Compassion on the U.S.-Mexico Border by Daniel Blue Tyx (Strong Arm Press, 2019) appears by permission of the author.

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