Migrant kits energize givers, amaze border volunteers

Sep 16, 2019 by and

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The most valuable item included in immigration detainee kits distributed by Mennonite Central Committee Central States never passes through the hands of volunteers doing the sorting and packing.

Connie Angleton, left, and Kathy Seibel of First Mennonite Breth­ren Church in Wichita, Kan., inspect and pack immigration detainee kits Sept. 9 at Mennonite Central Committee Central States in North Newton, Kan. — Tim Huber/MWR

Connie Angleton, left, and Kathy Seibel of First Mennonite Breth­ren Church in Wichita, Kan., inspect and pack immigration detainee kits Sept. 9 at Mennonite Central Committee Central States in North Newton, Kan. — Tim Huber/MWR

For the thousands of migrant families stranded or detained at the U.S./Mexico border, a bag of basic necessities holds dignity — in addition to deodorant, T-shirts and toothpaste.

For MCC, response from across the country to the detainee kit project has exceeded expectations.

Hundreds of kits and between $80,000 and $100,000 have been donated to MCC to help people who have either been released from a U.S. detention facility with nothing, or are languishing homeless in Mexico as they wait for their turn with an asylum process susceptible to policy changes from week to week.

MCC Central States immigration education coordinator Ana Alicia Hinojosa has been working with partner organizations to deliver the kits. She said a woman preparing to leave McAllen, Texas, with her 4-year-old son to reach relatives in Boston told her on Sept. 4 she had been traveling for four months with only a plastic trash bag.

“She said we packed two plastic bags that within two days ripped, and we just carried what we could because we lost half our things,” Hinojosa recalled. “She said, ‘I’m going to be able to get home. It’s an 18-hour bus ride with my son, and he’s going to be able to change clothes after months.’ ”

Joy and disbelief

Though MCC described the kits in detail when the project was suggested to South Texas partners earlier this year, volunteers were amazed when the first ones arrived in August.

“They said, ‘Absolutely, any donation helps,’ because there’s desperation,” Hinojosa said. “So when I took them the kits, I had several volunteers cry and ask, ‘Wait, you’re giving us these things?’ It’s just disbelief at what’s in there.”

U.S. detention facilities swelled to overcapacity in recent months as migrants waited for their asylum cases to be heard. This prompted the Trump administration to make a change in policy in August, requiring applicants to wait in Mexico for their cases to be heard rather than first allowing them into the U.S.

Hinojosa said that meant there were 664 adults and children waiting at the McAllen port of entry in early September. Asylum applicants are effectively homeless, many sleeping on cardboard with their children, though some organizations have provided tents and food.

After the change was made, MCC and its partners remained flexible and worked to get some of the kits into Mexico.

“It’s pretty much the same as the detention centers, just without the fences,” she said of the situation for those waiting to present their cases. “We just went through Tropical Storm Fernand these past few days, and people were refusing to leave.

“The Mexican authorities worked out shelter for them, but people were scared that if they got on the buses they would be deported. It was hurricane-force winds, torrential downpours. They were just outside out of fear: ‘What’s a little rain going to do to us?’ ”

Above and beyond

MCC Central States program director Andrew Wright said the response of material and financial donations went far beyond anything anticipated.

“I think people are deeply troubled by what they are hearing and seeing at the border,” he said. “People have a deep concern about the children especially and the separation of families and the vulnerable.

“It’s just on display how our country’s border policies and the border itself is a form of division and really a form of violence . . . but it’s really hard to have a tangible way to respond.”

Because the project arose after the beginning of the year, it is entirely outside the budget.

“We’re just grateful for how the wider Anabaptist community responded,” he said. “It’s not just Mennonite Church USA. We’ve had some folks from the Mennonite Brethren side of things, and we’re also getting people who had no idea what MCC was but they heard about the kits and wanted to do something. So there are new relationships being formed with people who ­didn’t even know who we were.”

Thus far, MCC Central States has distributed about 300 kits, valued between $60 and $75, with 450 more departing to South Texas on Sept. 20. Financial contributions, which have come in from across the U.S. and Canada, will fund materials to be purchased in Texas and packed by churches and volunteers there to save on shipping.

“I’ve gotten boxes from Maryland, Lancaster, just all over,” said workroom supervisor Kate Mast, who picked up six large boxes from East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., on Sept. 4.

From east and west

But such kits aren’t exclusive to MCC Central States’ sprawling 16-state region. West Coast MCC collected just more than 600 kits in July for distribution along Arizona’s southern border.

Franconia Mennonite Conference raised $11,000 for kits from congregations and matched that amount with a $5,000 conference grant, which will fund more than 300 kits.

MCC U.S. associate interim executive director Ann Graber Hershberger said in a statement to MWR that the organization “experienced overwhelming generosity” from people who have gotten involved in kits delivered in Texas and Arizona.

“We are encouraged and blessed by the compassion our constituents have demonstrated for people seeking safety in the U.S,” she said.

She encouraged people to donate to MCC’s immigration education and legal work, and support development and peacebuilding projects in Central America.

“Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine this would be the response,” Hinojosa said. “. . . God sent us here to do this work.”

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