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  • Marianne

A day on the US/Mexico border

Hello all! My name is Marianne Richardson, and I am a first-year Masters student at the University of Texas at Austin. I study migration and border policy, and for my summer internship I found a place at Casa Alitas, a shelter for families who have left their home countries to escape violence and poverty, operating out of Tucson, Arizona. For this guest post I would like to share with you all notes from one day I spent working at the shelter.

Wednesday, June 12

6:30 AM Woke up. I have a cold and am not sleeping much. Plus, I’m staying in a room at Casa Alitas’ current location, and my room has pale brown curtains. Sunlight pours in.

7:45 AM Leave my room, sneak around the line of people beginning to form for the dining hall (breakfast is at 8:30) and go hide in my supervisor’s office. I’m specifically working with the Indigenous Languages Office, which partners with Casa Alitas to produce and provide resources for the many indigenous language speakers who come from the shelter—mostly people from rural Guatemala. Our office is in a quieter corner of the building, so I go there to make coffee and start the day.

8:00 AM Today we’re running a focus group, which involves a group of recent immigrants reading the Spanish versions of two “Know Your Rights” scripts that will eventually be recorded into videos in Spanish and the most frequent indigenous languages. We first need to see if the Spanish is accessible to Central Americans. The other intern and I have been tracking down possible focus group candidates for days. She goes down to breakfast to remind people individually, and I’m trying to finish the rest of our preparations as quickly as possible.

11:20 AM We have our finalized list of candidates. We match each person’s color-coded nametag to a photocopied sheet of legal resources specific to the state they’re traveling to, which we will give to them and explain at the end of the focus group.

11:45 AM The other intern goes to collect the focus group candidates. A third volunteer takes their children to lunch (she’ll play with them and distract them so their parents can participate).

12:00 PM Focus group participants gather in the art room. We explain the exercise and read each piece of text one excerpt at a time, carefully noting reactions and questions. People have a few very minor edits to make but otherwise the scripts seem ready for the next step. We spend about 30 minutes walking people through the resource sheets, so they know where and how to contact an immigration lawyer. After the focus group, it feels very clear to me that a) these people learned a lot from this session and b) they did not know enough about their rights when they were crossing the border.

3:00 PM Done with focus group. We go off-campus for lunch to celebrate (All of us forgot to eat lunch). Regroup afterward, plan how to write up the focus group results.

6:00 PM My formal workday is done. I go out into the garden and skype a friend from home, then sit next to a woman I’ve been chatting with for a few days. She tells me more about her family. She crossed into the U.S. with her children, planning to ask for asylum. One child is over 18 and U.S. officials separated this person from the mom, placing the individual in adult detention. U.S. officials told the mom that her child would be on the next bus out and would meet her at this shelter but that hasn’t happened. The mom is distraught and has been crying for days. She does not know how to contact her child, or where her child is located. I make a plan with the mom to use her child’s A-number to look them up online in ICE’s detention location system. I’m not sure what else to do but I tell her I’ll ask around.

8:30 PM I go check on another mom staying here. She gave birth within the last week and was the victim of a violent crime within the last two weeks. I stop by twice a day and bring her water, food, reading material, etc. Today she’s doing well. Her baby is quiet.

9:00 PM Another guest is supposed to travel tomorrow, but is curled up on her bed, crying. She has severe PTSD following an attack in Mexico by organized crime during her journey north. I sit with her for two hours, rubbing her back. Eventually she calms down. Another volunteer comes into her room and spends the night with her so she’s not alone.

11:30 PM Bed. I lay in the dark, turning the day over and over in my mind.

2:00 AM Sleep.

If you want more info on Casa Alitas, check out its webpage here!

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