HARLINGEN, Texas (Mennonite Mission Network) – Immigration issues are more than just a controversial conversation topic in Harlingen, Texas. They are a part of the fabric of every day life.
Harlingen is between two of the largest detention centers in the United States, Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas and Willacy County Processing Center in Raymondville, Texas, and near the border between Mexico and the United States. It is a city where immigration law and policies matter.
Three Harlingen Mennonite Voluntary Service
participants have become intimately acquainted with the nuances of immigration law through placements with ProBAR
, the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, which provides free legal services to asylum-seekers detained in South Texas.
John Neiswander of Grace Mennonite Church in Berlin, Ohio and Laura Rheinheimer of First Mennonite Church
in Middlebury, Ind., work as paralegals with ProBAR’s adult division.
They work with lawyers and other paralegals who help to provide orientation and limited representation for detainees at the Port Isabel center. The presentation, or charla, serves as an orientation in Spanish for detainees – an overview of their rights and a way to begin navigating the complexities of immigration law. Although many detainees speak primarily Spanish, court documents are written in English and contain complex law language that makes them inaccessible. Volunteers help to translate documents for court, letters, and other written texts.
Rheinheimer, who is serving an extended MVS term, spends much of her time helping asylum-seekers fill out their applications and get paired with pro bono attorneys willing to partner with ProBAR.
The detainees, who were unable to be interviewed for this story for legal reasons, share stories. Some are asked to sign deportation orders before they are given a full explanation of their rights. Many victims of gang violence are forced to return home without asylum. Some fall off trains and are injured as they travel north.
Even when cases are won, detainees are released at the local train station usually around 11 p.m., sometimes with no access to money, transportation (the trains have already stopped running and taxis are extremely expensive) and without family to contact.
“It tends to be the same kinds of stories over and over. People go through terrible things in order to get here and often their asylum case is hard to prove,” said Neiswander.
Carrie Vander Hoek of Second Denver (Colo.) Christian Reformed Church
also works with the ProBAR children’s team. Along with five other staff members, Vander Hoek helps to support children who are detained in nearby shelters. Six Harlingen-area shelters are filled with youth younger than 18 apprehended crossing the border on their own.
Many youth come from Central American countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Making their way to the U.S. and crossing the border, children may experience harsh conditions. They are sometimes smuggled or forced to hitch a ride on a moving train. They can become dehydrated and exhausted when crossing the desert, spending days without food.
“When we first see them, the kids are often confused, tired, sad and depressed. So sometimes they are thankful just for space in the shelters to think, eat and sleep without anybody harming them,” said Violeta Discua, a paralegal.
Immigration law makes virtually no exceptions for children, but they are detained in self-contained facilities with places to eat, attend school, receive medical care and sleep.
The children’s ProBAR team also offers training, advice and connections with pro bono attorneys.
One wall of the office is lined with the faces of smiling children and their attorneys who have been able to win the right to remain in the United States.
“The kids on the wall are the ones who have won cases and the right to legally be here, that’s a pretty huge thing. We walk with them from the first days that they get here and through the whole process,” said Lauren Fisher, an accredited representative at ProBAR. “They grow up while they’re here, and it’s neat to be a part of their lives for an extended period of time.”
Vander Hoek first became interested in immigration work with children through a social work internship in Grand Rapids, Mich., with an unaccompanied minors program for children who have won asylum but have no family to stay with.
“During my internship I saw the challenges that these kids were facing adjusting to a new culture and dealing with past trauma, but it was hard to connect those experiences with the legal process at the beginning of their journeys. This job appealed to me because I wanted to understand the legal perspective so I could have a more holistic view,” she said.
Working with ProBAR and with detainees, both children and adults, is fraught with challenges. Limited resources and staff time make it impossible to help all of the thousands of detainees in south Texas, the work is emotionally draining, immigration law is complex, and stereotypes about immigrants that pervade United States culture make working for change difficult.
“People always hear about immigration in the news and on TV, and they say many things about immigration, but when you talk to these kids, regardless of why they had to leave their countries, most of them just want to come work and study in the U.S.,” said Discua.
Despite the challenges, many who work with ProBAR said the ability to help, even in small ways, makes the work meaningful.
“You help these people write a declaration, so you know everything they’ve been through and how hard they’ve worked to be here, so when they actually win the right to asylum and can make a new life for themselves, that’s rewarding,” said Rheinheimer. “These people don’t want grand things, just a little bit of normalcy.”
Mennonite Voluntary Service, one of Mission Network’s Christian Service programs, invites adults of all ages and backgrounds to spend a one or two year term living in community and serving in a variety of locations across the United States. For more information or to apply online visit Service.MennoniteMission.net.