Bringing the border to the Front Range

Area faith communities host asylum seekers as border shelters reach capacity

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“Does it snow here in December?” she asks me, sitting in the shade of a tree outside a Denver church on an 80-degree June day. 

“Yes,” I tell her, through an interpreter. “Sometimes it snows an inch, other times feet. It snowed recently in May.” 

Her eyes get big. “Does it snow everywhere in the U.S.?” she asks. “Does it snow in Arkansas?”

“She” is a mother from Central America. It’s been 21 days since she left home, traveling with her 5-year-old son. She doesn’t want to be named, or to talk about which country she’s from. She doesn’t want to say anything that could compromise her asylum case. 

She only says that after 13 days traveling by bus, she arrived in Juarez, Mexico. The bus journey was long, and her son often complained of being hungry, but she gave him what snacks she could. When they stopped, she’d try and find water to wash their clothes. She says the journey took them longer than expected, as Mexican immigration officials patrolled the streets, forcing migrants to wait until the roads were clear to travel. As the bus pulled into Juarez, she says, the group she was traveling with was let off in a park and told to run to the U.S. border. So she ran, holding her backpack and her son, trying to keep up with the rest of the crowd. 

“We started to run,” she says. “I was the last one of the group, and we went downhill and fell. As I was sliding, I was scared they were going to get us. Then I couldn’t go uphill because it was a little too high for me, and a pregnant woman helped us. I was the last one to cross the line. … 

“Once you cross the border, the migration police — Mexicans — can’t get you, but before you set your feet on the other side, they can.” 

She says that as soon as they crossed into the U.S., the entire group sat down, waiting to be found by U.S. Border Patrol so they could claim asylum. At some point, she says, officials found them, telling them to walk along some sort of barrier until they reached the immigration building. From there, they waited in a line that seemed to keep growing and growing before being taken into Border Patrol custody. She says there were about 100 people in all. 

She describes how they were then split into groups, men and women, the children staying with whatever parent they had with them. Border Patrol agents then took their names and told them to throw out all their belongings, any food, extra clothing and anything else. Finally, they were taken into what she calls a “jail.”

“I spent four days and three nights in jail,” she says. She was placed in a cell with about 50 people, she says: “We looked like sardines. We could barely sit because there was no space.” 

She hardly slept, waiting to see if someone lying down would be released soon so she could claim their spot. The area was relatively clean, she says, mostly because the women would clean it themselves after guards would open the door, push in cleaning supplies and then close the door again. They were fed soup and given bottles to fill up with tap water from the sink. Once a day they were given a burrito. 

On the fourth day, she says, she was released with paperwork she didn’t understand and taken to a nearby shelter where she was able to shower for the first time in days, although she had to put back on her same dirty clothes. From there, she and her son were put on a bus bound for Denver. A group of volunteers welcomed her to a church, gave her fresh clothes, a towel to take a shower, and warm meals. By the time we speak, she’s been at the church for two days, and is leaving that night. Volunteers helped her arrange travel to meet her family in Arkansas. For security reasons, the hosting churches wish to remain anonymous.

“Above all, we have found wonderful people, like you,” she says, pointing to the interpreter, “who have helped us in the hard times when we were hungry, when we needed a shower, and when we needed clothes. A thousand thanks.”

Still, she had no idea how difficult the journey would be, she says, and doesn’t wish it on anybody. 

“Is that immigration?” she asks, as a Denver Police SUV drives by. The interpreter explains the police regularly patrol this area of Denver, it’s nothing to worry about. She shakes her head, acknowledging she understands. But there’s still worry behind her eyes.

On Tuesday, June 11, a network of faith communities and immigrant rights groups in Denver welcomed a bus from New Mexico carrying 44 asylum seekers from the border. This is the second busload of people the groups have hosted since the beginning of May.

 Since the end of April, U.S. Border Patrol has reported apprehending large groups of migrants, mainly from Central America, near the Antelope Valley port of entry in New Mexico. After being held in processing facilities, the asylum seekers have been released into the small border communities of Demming (population 14,183) and Las Cruces (99,000), forcing local governments to declare a state of emergency in order to house them all. 

Ruben Garcia, executive director of the Annunciation House, a nonprofit which has been working with refugees and impoverished communities on the border since the late 1970s, says that when you add what’s happening in southern New Mexico to the thousands of people seeking asylum and being released in nearby El Paso, Texas, it’s easy to see how the numbers of migrants in the area needing assistance quickly became overwhelming, not just for local governments, but also for nonprofits and transportation systems.

For the past five or six years, Garcia says Annunciation House has been coordinating a whole host of what he calls “hospitality sites” for refugees being released at the border, places for people to stay, receive clothes, a warm shower and hot meals while also being connected to volunteers who help with travel arrangements. For the most part, Garcia says, the volunteer efforts based in El Paso have been able to accommodate the hundreds of people being released there every day, even though at points they’ve had to rent out entire hotels to house people. But as the number of people crossing the border grew this past spring, it quickly became apparent that they were going to need more help. 

“When the daily numbers are in the number of 600 to 700 per day, we can manage it. We have enough churches and hospitality sites, but when the numbers surpass 700, you start getting into 800, 900 and 1,000, then we can’t,” he says. Not only is it a drain on the volunteer networks, he says, but the transportation system in El Paso can’t accommodate hundreds of additional travelers per day. (El Paso is the closest transportation hub to both Demming and Las Cruces, New Mexico, as well.)

As the numbers kept increasing in early May, and especially as migrants were being released into New Mexico without established resources to help, Annunciation House began coordinating buses to take people to other transportation hubs like Albuquerque, Denver and Dallas. Garcia reached out to immigration advocates at the American Friends Service Committee and Casa de Paz to see if Denver could be a host. Within 12 hours, a group of area churches and volunteers mobilized to receive the first bus of asylum seekers on Mother’s Day. 

“Being able to send buses to Dallas or to Denver is immensely helpful,” Garcia says. “It was immensely helpful to be able to send up a couple of buses and have people see their humanity, to give people the opportunity to receive them, to welcome them and to help them be on their way.”

For the volunteers in Denver, there has been little warning of when the buses will arrive. Still, a growing group of nonprofits and volunteers have come together and set up host sites at area churches, much like they do at Annunciation House. 

“Denver has the capacity to host a couple of hundred people a week and that could really help out the people at the border who have been at capacity for so long,” says Josh Stallings, one of the volunteer site coordinators in Denver who has also spent time volunteering for Annunciation House. “But also, it’s been a cool opportunity to bring the border to us in a way and for a lot more people to be exposed to what’s actually happening, rather than just see inflammatory news headlines.”

Once people arrive at any given site in Denver, they are taken through an intake process that involves filling out a one-page information sheet with their personal details, as well as those of their sponsor, so that bilingual volunteers can help coordinate and book travel. 

Sometimes travel arrangements can be made in 20 minutes, while others can take several hours of communicating with sponsors in different states to make it happen. Costs for travel tends to depend on the day of the week the migrants arrive and when they need to travel. In Denver, prices were as low as $38 to get to Austin and as much as $1,700 to get a family of three to Tennessee. Volunteers coordinate with the sponsors (almost always family members), who purchase bus and airline tickets. Once arrangements are made, volunteers then take people to the bus station or airport, walking them through the entire process. For flights, volunteers help pack luggage, separating liquids into small bags and walking travelers through security. At the bus station they’ll make sure people get on the right bus and understand when and how to transfer if need be. 

“Our efforts are nothing compared to their sacrifices,” says volunteer Gloria Leyba, who helps make travel arrangements. Born in Denver, Leyba’s mother emigrated from Mexico when she was 6 years old, and Leyba has been an immigration advocate for decades. She also spent 18 years in Guatemala working in economic development with indigenous women. In recent months, the majority of migrants crossing the U.S. southern border are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. 

“When I first arrived, migration was migration for economic reasons. Villages didn’t have a lot of opportunities outside of agricultural work,” she says. “Now there are fears for safety. The young men are recruited into gangs. If they don’t join, there are threats, there’s arson, there are threats against family members. … It’s changed, it’s changed significantly.”

Whereas Leyba used to feel comfortable taking public buses in Guatemala, she now only travels by private vehicle. She’s also heard about state-sponsored violence, as friends of hers have been held at ransom while men, who she claims were soldiers,  stole all their electronics, passwords and credit cards. In the fall, a United Nations special prosecutor tasked with looking into political corruption was barred from re-entering that country.  

“When I hear the asylum seekers talking about their struggles, I know, I’ve seen it,” Leyba says.

At the churches and other hospitality sites, asylum seekers also meet with volunteer medical teams, either Denver-area EMTs or staff from local clinics, and, hopefully, a legal orientation team to help acquaint them with the immigration and asylum process. 

“All these individuals are given court dates in places where they’re not going to be because of their sponsors,” says Rebecca Mendoza Nunziato, who works for Mile High Ministries (MHM) and was a site coordinator at a location hosting 13 people, including families, recently. “And so to be able to do the paperwork to make sure that they’re going to be able to attend their court dates in the right location is huge.”

As of June 12, MHM is now the fiscal sponsor for the coordination efforts accepting monetary and in-kind donations, as well as funds for a part-time coordinator position, “with the understanding that we don’t see an end in sight for this,” says Mendoza Nunziato, whose grandparents emigrated from Mexico to work the sugar-beet fields in Colorado. “Especially with this administration, this isn’t a short-term project. Until there are large-scale changes, this is something that we are going to be involved in on the ground and doing our best to create safe and healthy environments for people.”

At the same time, border crossings are decreasing, says Annunciation House’s Garcia. He attributes this decline to Mexican immigration officials who, at the urging of the Trump administration, have stepped up patrols throughout the country in an effort to stem the flow of migrants. Additionally, the Trump administration is sending an ever-increasing number of people back to Mexico to wait for their U.S. immigration court hearings. Upwards of 600 people were being released from U.S. custody on a daily basis in the last few months, but the number has dropped to 200 or 300 in the last week or so, Garcia says. 

“The number of people being released is declining significantly, so we don’t foresee any more buses going up to Denver or Dallas in the immediate future,” he says. But, “That organization is there. When it will be made use of again remains to be seen. It remains to be seen what will happen on the border.”

In the meantime, the network of volunteers and churches are preparing to host more asylum seekers, ready to mobilize again whenever the need may arise. 

“People all across [the spectrum], Christian, non-Christian, from whatever faith, generally feel excluded from this conversation because it’s so polarized, but most of us are in the excluded middle. I think that’s why people are so eager to help,” says Dave Neuhausel, a pastor of Denver Community Church, which is involved in the effort. “My hope is that churches of all shapes and sizes and perspectives would have this opportunity because it really humanizes everything.”

Sitting outside the church, another mother from Central America shares her story. She also does not wish to share her name or her country of origin. She only says that her country is full of violence and threats, as gangs control most of people’s everyday lives. 

“They can hurt you,” she says. “We can’t live there. If you own a business, the gangs will make you pay a tax, what they called a ‘war tax.’ Kids will get inducted into the gangs, and they will make them sell drugs.”

Her 9-year-old son sits nearby with another young boy, their backs against a gate, playing a game on a phone. The younger one leans his head on his new friend’s shoulder. Headed to Houston later tonight, she tells me how grateful she is for the few days spent in Denver. 

“I left my house on a Monday,” she says. She left with a backpack filled with some clothes, medicine and important documents for her and her son. It took her 15 days to get to the U.S.-Mexico border. Before Denver, her last shower was in Mexico City. When she arrived at the Border Patrol processing facility, she had to throw out all her belongings, save her documents, her earrings and one set of clothes for both her and her son. She couldn’t even keep a short sleeve shirt and a long sleeve shirt, so she kept the long sleeves, afraid of how cold the holding cell would be. 

“The thing that makes you sick and sad is to see your kids crying. My son was crying telling me, ‘Mommy, I want to go now,’ but I had to stay strong for him,” she says, her voice cracking, tears flowing down her face.

She says the hardest part of the entire journey was the 23 hours she spent in U.S. custody. It “was the most terrifying and horrible part of the whole trip,” she says. 

They laid on the hard floor, covered only by aluminum emergency blankets. She says both her and her son developed a cough while in custody, even though they weren’t held more than a day. She says she’s lucky to have stayed such a short time, as she met other women who had been in the facility much longer. She was only fed one bowl of soup in the 23 hours she was there, she says, and the guards didn’t treat them well. If one guard opened the door and let in some fresh air, soon another guard would come by and close it, she says. The worst part was hearing children constantly crying. 

After being released, she was taken to a nearby shelter, where volunteers gave them food and water before they boarded the bus bound for Denver. She says when she got off the bus she was surprised to see a group of people welcoming them, cheering, giving them clean clothes, good food, a bed. She says she never expected it.

“I never thought I was going to make it, to see my family with clean clothes and shoes. I never imagined I was going to taste such good food as I have had here,” she says. “And we needed that after coming from such a hard journey. … I have no words to express my gratitude.”