JOURNEY TO TEXAS: Making Connections With Immigrant Families

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Kaz Naganuma shares his story about being imprisoned at the Crystal City Department of Justice camp during World War II before the Mexican American Legislative Caucus at the Texas State Capitol building.

Third of three parts

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor

BUS DEPOT VISIT

Some pilgrimage members assisted the Interfaith Welcome Coalition in San Antonio (IWC) in their bus station ministry, which is headed by Sister LaRock. Shoshana Arai and Mari Matsumoto organized this event.

Sister JT Dwyer said this all-volunteer ministry was started in 2014 to assist immigrants who were coming out of the Karnes and Dilley detention centers with the logistics of traveling to their destination.

“We help them read their tickets,” said Dwyer, who noted that many of the immigrants do not speak or read English. “They will not automatically understand that they don’t necessarily get off every time the bus stops, so we show them, usually by highlighting with a yellow marker, ‘Okay, this is where you need to transfer for your next bus.’ We show them how they can see on the ticket how long that stop is supposed to be and how long they’ll have to wait.

“We also give them information in case they get approached by human traffickers. We give them numbers to call. We do the best we can to orient them to the trip they’re going to make.”

Each immigrant family is also given a backpack that includes toiletries and snacks. Just for the month of February, Dwyer said they’ve given out more than 2,000 backpacks.

The pilgrimage group helped prepare some of the backpacks. Matsumoto shared that when she saw the boxes of diapers, she noticed that there was an enormous amount of diapers for one-year-olds, so she asked one of the Sisters whether a lot of babies were being born. She was told that many of the babies were so malnourished that they were underweight for their age.

Matsumoto had one encounter with a little boy who broke down when she gave him a bag of arare. “He was so overcome when he tried to say gracias,” said Matsumoto. “The tears just started flowing.”

When she asked one of the volunteers if she had done something wrong, she was told, “No, when they break down, it means they’ve been abused and are releasing some trauma.”

Dwyer said they have volunteers who assist for about 8-10 hours per day, 365 days a year. The volunteers go through orientation and a criminal background check before participating in the program.

The IWC also has an airport ministry at the San Antonio International Airport, but Dwyer said they get a fifth of the people going by airplane.

A few years ago, Satsuki Ina was able to participate in this program with Sister LaRock. She was told that volunteers are able to identify newly released immigrants because they usually arrive at the bus depot or airport carrying only a brown paper bag.

At that time, one family did not have a bus connection until the following day. In such cases, Ina said the volunteers take the family to a Mennonite Safe House, where they are provided with food and a bed.

“There was a young boy I sat in the back seat (of the car) with who you could tell was traumatized,” said Ina. “I learned that he came with his mother and sister but because he was over eight years old, he was separated from them to be, I don’t know if he was in the men’s unit, but he was separated from them.

“He had the very detached look of a traumatized child and didn’t talk. He had, just moments earlier, been reunited with his mother and sister. I don’t speak Spanish either so I tried to make eye contact but he was gone. Then, my iPhone rang and his eyes lit up, so I showed him my iPhone. We started looking at games or whatever it was and then, we got to the Safe House. It was nighttime, and I’ll always remember the moment the door opened. There’s a bright light just emanating from the door and the smell of tortillas and beans.

“The family got out of the car, and by this time, this young boy just had tears streaming down his face. We came in. We sat down, and all these volunteers had come. They get the phone call, and they come start cooking.…

“The boy’s hand was on the table, and I reached over and just gently put my hand on his. He asked me. There was a translator sitting with me and he said, ‘Are you Chinese?’ And I said, ‘No, actually I’m an American.’ And then he quietly reached over and opened that brown paper bag, which was everything he possessed.

“He took out a bracelet and tied this bracelet on my wrist. I said, ‘Did you make that?’ He said, “No, my friends, the night that my family was leaving, my friends came to say goodbye.’ They had made these. He had a whole bunch of these wristbands. They had given them to him and said, ‘Please don’t forget us.’ And so I told him, ‘I promise that I won’t forget you either.’”

Those who would like to make monetary donations are asked to write a check and send it to: University Presbyterian Church, 300 Bushnell, San Antonio, TX 78212. In the memo line, write “Interfaith Welcome Coalition.”

Other than monetary donations, Dwyer asked that supporters pray for them. “This is never-ending,” Dwyer said. “And then we go home at night and we turn on the TV, and we see more hate. It’s discouraging. It’s discouraging but just pray that we can keep on helping the people.”

The group stages a protest, holding signs and origami cranes.

LAREDO/NUEVO LAREDO

Another group of pilgrims drove down to the border city of Laredo and met with asylum seekers and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients and various organizations, including with members of the Laredo Immigrant Alliance and the No Border Wall Coalition.

The bilingual meeting was held at the Holding Institute’s Community Center. According to Rev. Mike Smith, the institute was established in 1860 and was named after Nannie Emory Holding, a Methodist missionary. He noted that they serve more than 6,000 people every year and provide everything — hot meals, clothes, basic health care services, mental health care services and adult literacy classes.

Just from January to March 15 of this year, Smith said they provided 4,500 warm showers. “Not hot showers,” said Smith. “Because at that rate, the hot water won’t last.”

He thanked the pilgrimage group for visiting. “When you’re living with less, it affects you,” said Smith. “Poverty impacts us daily. Sometimes we feel powerless, but at the very least if you all can do is offer hope, then that is good enough.…

“So your presence here today, of sharing your stories here with us is part of that offering hope to our community because many of the people you see around you, your presence offers them hope.”

Kiyoshi Ina, who was born in Topaz, noted that when their family was released from an American concentration camp, they were given $25 and a train ticket. “But I want to tell you that there’s hope after you leave. We had hope, and we flourished, and I’m just glad to be here. It’s wonderful what you’re doing.”

Akemi Ina, who was also born at Topaz, said she thought about her own parents’ struggles and sympathized with the plight of those coming over. “I’m very proud of these parents, who’ve sacrificed everything to bring their children here and I’m really sorry for the treatment you’re receiving.”

Becca Asari, from New York, whose grandparents were in camp, was able to speak to the group in Spanish. “We are here with you to fight alongside you,” she said. “We want to know what is needed and what we can do. We also want to say that you all are incredibly powerful, perhaps more than you might feel.”

Like Asari, Lauren Sumida is from New York and had grandparents in camp. They were in Tule Lake and Rohwer, and her grandfather was also in the Missoula, Mont. DOJ camp.

“It’s very devastating to see this happening again,” said Sumida. “We have the experience and knowledge of having gone through this so we need to build those connections and to show up for these folks and build solidarity.”

Grace Morizawa shared that she was a former principal at a San Pablo, Calif., school where most of the students and parents were undocumented. “We are a sanctuary city and school, so ICE was not allowed.”

Kay Yatabe, a retired doctor from El Cerrito, Calif., said she saw many undocumented patients. “The hard thing was to reassure people that it was safe to come, especially the pregnant women.”

Dolores C., a Guatemalan, became emotional as she shared through interpreter Ana Salinas about crossing the border with four children. After being detained by ICE, she was separated from her oldest daughter, who was 18. When she inquired about her daughter’s whereabouts, she was told that it was of no concern of hers since the girl was considered an adult. She still does not know where her daughter is.

However, her message to the group was, “I’ve heard your stories. I was detained for seven days and that was hell. I can’t imagine what it was like for all the years that you and your families had been detained. Thank you.”

Salinas became emotional as she translated the pilgrims’ stories. “Listening to all of your stories, it makes me sad,” she said. “And it’s sad that this is happening again. It seems we haven’t learned from our past.”

Juan Livas, with LIA, shared that Laredo is a conservative border town and similar to the way the government divided the Nikkei community during World War II, there is a faction of Latinos who support a border wall.

“There are people with conservative views who are Hispanic, who are pushing back and saying ‘Build the wall’ and ‘Send them back to where they came from,’” said Livas. “But we still fight on.”

Michelle L. Munoz said although her three-month fellowship with LIA ended on the day the pilgrims visited, she planned to continue working with LIA. “It’s totally different than someone just saying you need to help out. If you see the faces and you hear the people’s stories, there’s no way you can go to sleep at night or look yourself in the mirror knowing that you didn’t do everything that you can.”

On the first day of the pilgrimage, a collection envelope was passed around, and Rev. Kobata, on behalf of the pilgrimage group, gave a donation of $1,020 to Rev. Smith of the Holding Institute.

After the meet-and-greet, the group walked across the border bridge into Nuevo Laredo, Mexico to bring supplies to asylum seekers. Santiago Santos, Munoz and Livas guided the pilgrimage group.

The group met with two families from the Republic of Congo who were seeking asylum. Filmmaker Claudia Katayanagi, who speaks French, was able to communicate with them on behalf of the group.

Following this, the group visited a small park that overlooked the Rio Grande. The undocumented LIA members, who could not join the visit across the border, had strung tsuru all along the park fence.

TEXAS LEGISLATURE

Bob Libal of Grassroots Leadership arranged a meeting between the pilgrims and the Texas Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC).

Kazumu Naganuma opened by sharing a brief history of his experience, followed by Grace Shimizu, who gave a short history of the Crystal City DOJ camp.

Satsuki Ina said she was distressed to hear elected officials using almost the same language as that used to incarcerate Japanese Americans. “It was like reliving a nightmare, reading the news and hearing the same things that happened to us more than 75 years ago,” she said.

Rep. Jessica Gonzalez noted that if the 150 members of the Texas House of Representatives and 35 state senators were polled, they would know little about the Japanese American experience during World War II.

“I think right now, your stories and the background of that history is so necessary,” said Gonzalez. “I do think the country would look a little different right now if everyone knew that history.”

Rep. Armando Martinez said his family had just gathered for an aunt’s funeral and imagined how devastating it would be if his family had been torn apart by the government. He thanked the group and said, “This is so inspiring that we can come together.”

Since Rep. Gene Wu is the lone elected Asian American in the Texas state government, he is a member of MALC. He is only the fifth Asian American in Texas history to be elected to the state government.

Wu, a Democrat, became emotional when he shared a story about a Japanese American Republican who had reached across party lines to support his campaign. Wu said this man had also been incarcerated in a U.S.-style concentration camp during World War II.

“It means a lot to me that you’re here because it’s when nobody speaks, when we can take the people with no voice who can easily be stepped on and nobody will say anything or raise their hands — that’s when democracy dies. That’s when liberty dies,” said Wu. “So thank you for being here and fighting for the people who have no voice.”

Wu noted that when the State Legislature debated SB 4, supporters of the bill presented it as if it would only affect people of Latino descent, so the Asian American community did not get involved.

“They sort of divided the community so that it made it sound like it would not affect the Asian community directly, so they don’t speak up or object to it,” said Wu. “But this is about everybody. It might not be you behind those cages, but it could be in the future.”

Jackie Uresti, executive director of MALC, shared about their visit to the Tornillo detention center. She described the living conditions of people there as being placed “just in cages.”

Riley Stinnett, who wanted to support the pilgrimage group, donated the food and drinks.

SANCTUARY

The final leg of the pilgrimage included a visit to St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, part of the Austin Sanctuary Network, which offers protection to immigrants who are fighting deportation. This often means ICE is not allowed into a building providing sanctuary.

Ina and Asari spoke on behalf of the pilgrimage group. Reflecting on the protest at Dilley, Asari said, “When we were protesting at the detention center, we wanted to be as loud as we possibly could because I really wanted my grandmother to have heard that someone cared and to say to her that what had happened to her was wrong … It’s so awesome to be able to do this together and to be able to bring this multigenerational army to take on this fight because the effects are multigenerational.”

Hilda Ramirez, Alirio Gamaz and Sulma Franco, three immigrants fighting deportation and living in a sanctuary church, spoke to the group through interpreter Carolina Martin.

Ramirez, a Mayan from Guatemala, and her son, Ivan, came to the U.S. after fleeing violence at home. This is their second time entering a sanctuary church after a warrant was issued for her arrest and deportation.

She talked of feeling anxious every time her son left the church to go to school or play soccer, fearing that ICE would take him away. She said she would love to be able to walk freely outside to the park and watch her son play soccer.

She thanked the pilgrims and asked that they pray for her and others in similar situation.

Alirio Gamaz is from El Salvador. He shared that in the 14 months he’s been living in a sanctuary church, he developed diabetes due to the stress of worrying. He said he went before a judge, who believed his story but did not offer him asylum. After his appeals were denied, he felt he had no choice but to enter a sanctuary church.

He shared his anger over what was occurring in the detention centers. “We are not criminals. The criminals are someone who separate families.”

He also thanked the pilgrimage group. “I’m happy to meet new friends. It helps me know that I am not alone.”

Sulma Franco was denied asylum and arrested in 2014. She has been in five different detention centers. Because she has no family in the U.S., she had no option but to enter a church that offered her sanctuary.

“I’m happy to hear so many stories,” she said. “I appreciate the beauty of your stories and how those before us fought.”

Claudia Munoz, an undocumented community organizer, had voluntarily turned herself in in an effort to organize from inside the detention centers. She noted that the more ICE hides behind secrecy, the stronger it is, so she volunteered to go into prison and witness the living conditions of jailed undocumented immigrants first-hand. She admitted she was scared.

“I had to mentally prepare for detention and deportation because I didn’t know if was going to come out or not,” said Munoz. “I really had to trust the organizing community in that I was really going in with the best intentions and that I would be able to get my story out there to not only help me but the larger community. I was terrified…It was a lot of trust in the community but as a community organizer, that’s what you ask people to do every day.”

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A larger pilgrimage to Crystal City is being planned for November. Details TBA.

Photos by MARTHA NAKAGAWA

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