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The church has set up an air-conditioned tent with cots to serve as a temporary shelter for incoming refugees.

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For Guilford psychologist, a humanitarian mission on the U.S./Mexico border

Judy Greenberg volunteers with a Catholic welcome center in McAllen, Texas, offering humanitarian support and trauma therapy to refugees fleeing danger in Mexico and Central America

BRATTLEBORO—Late this summer, psychologist Judy Greenberg returned from a trip to McAllen, Texas.

This was no leisurely vacation to the sprawling border town of 130,000, located in one of the poorest counties in the United States, where the average August temperature is 96 degrees Fahrenheit.

Greenberg, who practices in Brattleboro, visited McAllen to work with the local Sacred Heart Catholic Church’s welcome center for newly arrived refugees seeking asylum from their violence-ravaged homes in Mexico and Central America.

So many are arriving, the federal government refers to the increase as a “surge.”

Greenberg’s decision to volunteer in McAllen was spurred by a lifelong interest in “Latin America, human rights, and justice issues,” she says. “For four months last winter, I worked with refugees from Columbia, offering mental health support.”

Two decades ago, she founded a mental-health training program in the Dominican Republic for at-risk girls.

But the relevance of the plight of today’s Latin American refugees for Greenberg began before she was born.

“All four of my grandparents were refugees from Russia,” she says. “Unless you’re full-blooded Native American, you’re from somewhere else.”

Turning words into action

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, set up the center in what Greenberg describes as “the spirit of ‘liberation theology.’”

This movement originated in the 1950s, when the more populist sectors of the Catholic Church began interpreting the teachings of Jesus Christ from the perspectives of poor and oppressed peoples, including examining systemic political and social injustices that create and maintain these conditions.

This ethos drives Sister Pimentel, Greenberg, and thousands of other volunteers to display “the best humanity has to offer, regardless of politics,” says Greenberg, “to take care of people who are right in front of us.”

And these people, she points out, are fleeing from oppression — and worse — in the locus of liberation theology: Latin America.

Immigrants crossing the border from Mexico to border states such as Texas and Arizona is nothing new, but since late last year, the demographic has drastically changed.

Previously, young adult men — and sometimes young adult women — sneaked into the United States to escape extreme poverty and deprivation.

Seeking greater economic opportunity, Mexican immigrants would find work in this country, often at menial or dangerous jobs.

Although life as an “illegal” was wrought with challenges, as was crossing the border, the ability to send valuable American dollars back to their families in Mexico to improve their lives was a sacrifice many chose to make.

That practice hasn’t ceased, but now these mostly young men have unexpected company on the many clandestine paths from Mexico to the United States: young mothers with children or infants, and unaccompanied minors.

And it’s no longer just Mexico from which they’re fleeing.

According to “Children on the Run,” a March 2014 report published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an increased number of asylum-seekers — both children and adults — are coming from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.

“The number of adults claiming fear of return to their countries of origin [...] increased sharply from 5,369 in fiscal year 2009 to 36,174 in fiscal year 2013. Individuals from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico account for 70 percent of this increase,” the UNHCR report said.

And economic opportunity no longer drives this migration pattern.

As Greenberg recounted: “The refugees told us, ‘We feared for our lives if we stayed.’ In schools, boys are recruited into gangs. If they refuse, their lives, and their families’ lives, are in danger.”

These three Central American countries — El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — are in the “top five” nations with the highest murder rates, according to the UN’s Office of Drugs and Crime.

Honduras heads the list, with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people. In the June 2014 issue of Harper’s, the magazine’s “Harper’s Index” feature offers a statistic. “Percentage change in the past year in the number of Mexicans requesting U.S. asylum: 160.”

The Associated Press, in a July 8 story headlined “UN pushes for migrants to be called refugees,” reported that Central America’s “Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras “has become one of the most violent regions on earth in recent years, with swathes of all three countries under the control of drug traffickers and street gangs who rob, rape, and extort ordinary citizens with impunity.”

Political and systemic corruption are endemic, removing any chance of protection or recourse for many Mexicans and Latin Americans. Greenberg says the refugees told her, “If you tell the police, it makes it worse.”

The AP article claims that “Honduran police routinely are accused of civil rights violations,” with at least five cases of alleged gang members missing or killed after being taken into police custody.

Migrants, or refugees?

The harrowing stories that Greenberg heard might lead one to believe that the U.S. border states are dealing with a refugee crisis. But Greenberg says Texas and the federal government still view those fleeing from Mexico and Latin America as immigrants.

“They really are refugees, and we’re treating them like criminals,” said Greenberg. “Governor [Rick] Perry called in the National Guard, and along the border, the Department of Public Safety [DPS] patrols in these big trucks. The DPS stops people for ‘traffic violations’ and asks to see their papers, which is illegal. Then they immediately deport them without due process.”

McAllen is a border town, and the 2010 U.S. Census counted 87.35 percent of the population as Hispanic. “The whole town is Mexican immigrants!” Greenberg says.

Consequently, “everyone looks like an ‘illegal alien’ there,” says Greenberg, and because of racial profiling, “everyone is in danger from the DPS.”

Because of the “surge” in refugees, the demand on the local infrastructure that has typically dealt with immigrants has far exceeded its capacity.

Greenberg says that people entering the United States used to walk over the border into McAllen. They would arrive in the local bus station, where they would find bus tickets awaiting them, courtesy of a relative.

Some would take those tickets, board a bus, and be taken to a new (albeit illegal) life.

But for others, la migra — slang for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents patrolling the southern border — would apprehend them and start the deportation process.

“[ICE] holds them from one to three nights in the house of detention,” Greenberg says. “Mexicans are turned back [to Mexico] immediately, and [those from other countries] are processed.”

“Then they are released, and they go back to the bus station,” she says.

Those who are apprehended and processed may remain in the United States awaiting deportation proceedings before an immigration judge. They will generally use the bus tickets awaiting them.

A place of comfort

Once the bus station started becoming too full and locals began noticing the increase in the numbers of women and children there, Greenberg says “the generous Texans,” including Sister Norma, decided to help.

Since the welcome center opened, the routine has changed: Now, after the refugees’ release from the house of detention, when ICE takes them back to the bus station, volunteers waiting there greet them and offer respite at the church.

Greenberg describes the scene: “Fifteen to 30 volunteers applaud as the refugee van arrives. It’s very emotional. We take them to the welcome center, we register them, and a pair of volunteers works with every family.”

She says additional services include “a local Spanish-speaking lawyer from Legal Aid doing a daily presentation. They explain the [immigration] paperwork, how to find a lawyer, and how to apply for asylum.”

The Salvation Army feeds the refugees a hot meal, after which they get to choose new clothes.

According to Greenberg, “each adult gets one set, and each kid gets two sets. Everyone gets a ‘hygiene pack’ with toiletries, and everyone gets a hot shower and a place for grooming, and they can make a phone call to relatives.”

The Save the Children organization provides a space for children, staffed with Spanish-speaking volunteers, where they can play or they can join their parents for a nap on cots in air-conditioned tents.

When the volunteers return the refugees to the station, where they catch their buses to continue their journey further into the United States, Greenberg says “the kids get a bag of toys, books, and a blanket, and everyone gets a bag of food. Volunteers see them off, wishing them all a safe journey.”

For local residents wondering how they can help the refugees in McAllen, Texas, Greenberg recommends going down there and volunteering at the welcome center.

“It’s an amazing experience,” she says.

If that’s not feasible, Greenberg says, “Send money! It’s more cost-effective than sending goods. The local Kmart there gives the church a huge discount.”

Coping skills

The creature comforts refugees receive from the volunteers are particularly helpful because Greenberg describes the house of detention as “freezing cold, with concrete floors, no food or water, and the children are shivering.”

Many are in wet clothes — often the only clothes they brought — from having just swam across the Rio Grande.

“One woman had her 9-month-old baby strapped to her chest. The boat they were in tipped over, and the baby was cold, and cried forever when they were in jail, freezing.”

Because of the terror that many of the immigrants fled — and then experienced again on their dangerous and furtive journey from home to Texas, including having to cross the raging river, often at night — they often arrive in shock, with “horrible stories,” says Greenberg.

Her training as a trauma specialist and her fluency in Spanish made her a valuable asset in the welcome center.

“The mothers were so worried about their children” who displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says Greenberg. “I’d say to the moms, ‘Their hyper-vigilant behavior is normal. They’ll soon stabilize, but get help if you need it at the clinic.’”

She taught the refugees coping and self-soothing skills, such as “deep breathing, which is a great way to de-program the nervous system.”

And she, and other volunteers, remind the refugees, “It’s okay now. You’re safe. Your kids are safe,” she says.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #276 (Wednesday, October 15, 2014). This story appeared on page A4.

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