My experience as a volunteer at an improvised migrant shelter in Yuma
May 6th was the first day of our week-long mission at the improvised Salvation Army shelter in Yuma, AZ. Catholic Community Services, a faith-based nonprofit, through their staff and volunteers, coordinates the family reunification efforts for the migrant families arriving at the shelter. They help asylum-seeking families reach their final destination in the U.S. after being released from immigration detention.
This story is about a particular family whose struggle was at the center of our hearts that week.
As day one went by at the shelter, the staff trained us on how to coordinate reunification efforts by reviewing the intake notes from each of the more than 100 families with children that were staying at the shelter. Our goal was to reach their families in the U.S. by phone so they could help them make arrangements for their trips, either by bus or by plane. Because the space at the shelter was limited, it was important to expedite reunification efforts to make room for many more waiting to get in.
I came across a particular intake that had a yellow sticky note that read “mother waiting for missing 4-year-old daughter who got lost while crossing the border.” Yes, I read that again, and then again. I sorted through the intake to see what else I could learn about this family. As it turns out, Maria,* the mom, had made the journey from Guatemala with her three daughters — ages 2, 4 and 8. Four-year-old Juanita* was missing.
Through my work with the immigration legal services program at Catholic Charities in Washington, I have had contact with families of children the government separated from their parents between 2017 and 2018; however, this cruel practice had stopped.
Maria and Juanita’s case was different.
I called Maria through intercom at the shelter, and she quickly came running with her two other daughters. As I saw her approaching, I noticed a smile on her face. It dawned on me that she probably thought her daughter Juanita had arrived and that’s why she was being called.
I sat down with Maria to try to get the details of the separation. To my surprise, I could not communicate very much with her due to a language barrier. Maria spoke a native language, K’iche, which is spoken in a small region of the Guatemalan highlands. She did not speak Spanish.
While I searched among shelter residents for suitable interpreters, I noticed that Maria held her two daughters close and would not leave them out of her sight. I cannot meaningfully describe the look in their eyes. Even the 2-year-old looked deeply sad.
After several failed attempts to find an interpreter who spoke K’iche, we got a match. I started asking Maria about her journey, to get as much information as possible. I suspected the interpreter may depart the shelter without much notice, leaving Maria and I without a means to communicate.
Maria shared that she was climbing a wall from the Mexican side into the U.S. with her three children. She held her 2-year-old while her other daughters were helped by other travelers. Then, the details got confusing. In part, because Maria was too traumatized by the separation that she found it difficult to retell the story. She cried and begged for help finding Juanita.
On day 2, I arrived at the shelter and had a pile of phone calls to make. I was also faced with a dilemma: should I start making all those calls or should I try to find Juanita? If so, where do I start? I only had her name and date of birth, not even a picture. Did she make it to the U.S., or did she get stuck in Mexico? Does the U.S. government have her?
And then one bigger question and fear: Did someone else take her?
I carried on with making calls.
Day 3 arrived. I had placed a call to the Guatemalan Consulate to alert them about the situation and ask them for help on Maria’s behalf, but I was left with very little hope. Later that day, I met with Maria, who was clear that she did not want to leave the shelter without Juanita. I knew the chances that Juanita would be brought to the shelter, if found, were slim. Maria then came to the realization that she would have to leave the shelter without Juanita — and it broke her. It broke me too.
That night, I went to a small chapel nearby and prayed. I talked with God and asked him for his guidance. I gently reminded him that I was not originally scheduled to join that mission, as the call came in at the last minute after a colleague had fallen ill. HE had brought me there that week was for a reason.
That same night I sent an email to a government contact in Washington. My email was short and had a desperate tone. The next morning, day 4, I had received an email confirming that Juanita was at a U.S. government children’s shelter in Michigan, some 2000 miles away.
I ran to the shelter that morning, so Maria could speak with Juanita over the phone. Juanita was crying, in distress. Maria was happy to hear her daughter had been found and was safe.
Day 5 arrived. It was May 10th. It was Mother’s Day celebration in Mexico and other Central American countries, including Guatemala. Our last day was also Maria’s last day at the shelter. Her family had made arrangements for her to travel to Tennessee, where she would be expecting Juanita in just a few weeks after completing some required government paperwork.
Maria and her daughters were smiling while wearing new clothes and holding backpacks with supplies for their long bus journey. Most importantly, they had a whole lot of hope: the hope to reunify with Juanita soon and be a family again; the hope for new beginnings and opportunities.
* Names have been changed to protect identities.
About the author: Jenny Cachaya is a Department of Justice fully accredited legal representative at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington’s Immigration Legal Services department. She is also a master’s degree student in social work at The Catholic University of America. Jenny, an immigrant from Colombia, is passionate and devoted to serving the most vulnerable.