Bearing Witness to the Human Consequences of U.S. Immigration Policy

On the Ground in EL PASO, Texas — At dusk on a Friday night in October, big, white buses pull up near the Greyhound station and dozens of parents and children emerge. Some clutch important documents or carry plastic bags filled with precious possessions. They file into the station, with its tile floors and green metal chairs, unsure what to do next.

Fleeing violence and hunger in their home countries, these families have just been released from government custody after being detained at the U.S.-Mexico border. Most are from Guatemala and Honduras, and are here to claim asylum. They’ve arrived amid inflammatory rhetoric and a fierce debate about immigration policy that has transfixed the country in recent months.

When they arrive at the Greyhound station, they have no money, no cell phones, no way to make travel arrangements.

This isn’t a typical scene along this part of the border. Here in El Paso, immigration officials don’t simply drop migrant families on the street without notice. So when I heard from a source this was happening, I grabbed my recording equipment and raced over to the station.

As a reporter on the border, I hope to cover the real, human consequences of the latest immigration policies and the responses to those policies. There is so much rhetoric from politicians about immigration and the border – much of it dehumanizing, and completely divorced from reality. I hope to bear witness to what is actually happening here, and elevate the voices and experiences of people on the ground.

Security guards are blocking reporters from entering the Greyhound terminal, so I stand on a sidewalk across the street and wait to see what happens. Advocates had warned this was coming. Earlier in the week, ICE changed the process for how it releases migrant families. Typically, along this part of the border, immigration officials either help families arrange transportation to sponsors around the U.S. or bring them to local shelters or churches. Now officials won’t help with travel plans and will release families whether or not shelters have the space to accommodate them.

An ICE spokesperson says this is because of the large number of families arriving together at the border. Advocates say this is a political ploy to create a sense of chaos on the border right before the midterm elections. Now as buses pull up to the Greyhound station, it appears the new policy is taking effect.

ICE agents detain a man in Houston. (Photo by ICE)
ICE agents detain a man in Houston. (Photo by ICE)

These days, immigration policy and enforcement changes so rapidly and produces so many news that it’s easy to miss smaller developments like this one. But these policies have real impact. As a local reporter, living on the border, I’m able to see their consequences and capture moments like this as they unfold.

Greyhound calls the police, but also calls Ruben Garcia, who directs the city’s main immigration shelter. He oversees a large network of “hospitality centers” in El Paso and southern New Mexico, which temporarily house and support migrants and refugees who have just been released from custody, and usually coordinates with immigration officials as they prepare to release those families. Garcia rushes over to greet the families and quickly arranges for a nearby church to take them in. He’s dressed casually, in jeans and a button-down T-shirt, and tries put the group at ease. He explains they can come with him, if they’d like – to a church, where they can have a meal and spend the night. About a hundred parents and children take him up on the offer.

With Garcia’s permission, I follow as he leads the group through downtown El Paso. They’re escorted by police officers, bike lights blinking in the dark. I keep my tape rolling as we walk under an overpass, down a residential street, and arrive at a church. Garcia ushers the families into a room that’s already filled with green cots. He delivers an emotional speech, welcoming everyone to the U.S. Volunteer doctors arrive to perform triage; several children need medical care. Community members bring food, blankets, and toiletries.

I interview several parents. One father, who requests anonymity, is there with his eight-year-old son. He says he was confused when immigration officials told him to get on a bus, then pulled near the Greyhound station and told him to get out and go. “Where?” I asked. “See those doors over there?. Go through them,” he recalls.

He says his relatives in another part of the country are ready and waiting to pay for bus or plane tickets, so he and his son can come join them. But officials didn’t contact them, and he has no way to reach them. “On my own I can fend for myself,” he says. “But I have my son with me. This is painful for him.”

A group of immigrants walks under the "Union" arch on their way to a church where they'll find shelter for the night. (Photo by: Mallory Falk/GroundTruth)
A group of immigrants walks under the “Union” arch on their way to a church where they’ll find shelter for the night. (Photo by: Mallory Falk/GroundTruth)

I speak with a mother who cradles her infant child and occasionally pauses to chew on a slice of pizza; she also asks to remain anonymous. She describes her experience in immigration custody. “They treat you really badly,” she says. “They give you one blanket- they call it a blanket. It’s a piece of aluminum. The kids have to sleep on the floor, among garbage.”

I ask what she wants people in this country to know. “Just because you are American citizens doesn’t mean that we are lesser,” she says. “We are human beings, equal to everyone. We’re worth neither more nor less.”

The father tells me this experience has been horrible and marvelous at the same time, to go from being dropped on the street to being offered shelter and care. “We’re in a country we don’t know, lost in the street, and an angel appears who says I’m going to take you to eat.”

As a reporter, I hope to faithfully capture these experiences, sometimes horrible and sometimes marvelous. I try to consistently cover policy changes and their impacts. And to reflect the border community, I have come to know and love – not the lawless, dangerous place so many describe who have never actually spent time here, but a place where people come together (on short notice, on a Friday night) to make sure newly-arrived families have food, toiletries and shelter.

I am one of several reporters who covered the events that night. Afterward, local ICE officials stopped dropping off families without notice. They went back to what they’ve done before, notifying Garcia before they release families, so he has an opportunity to arrange housing. The policy change is still in place; if Garcia can’t find enough places to stay, officials can still release those families to the streets. But Garcia rents out motel rooms, convinces more churches to take people in, and works to avoid that fate.

As for the families, they will spend a night or two at the church, where volunteers will help them contact their sponsors and make travel arrangements to their final destinations in the U.S. Their journeys aren’t over. They’ll still face immigration judges in court, where they plan to make asylum claims. I don’t know if the news coverage contributed to ease the shock of being dropped in a strange land without any resources or direction for these families. But I’m glad to be here, documenting, bearing witness and capturing real, human experiences.