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An informal welcoming committee is offering support — with everything from plane tickets to birthday cupcakes.

It might be as late as 8 or 9 pm when the Lutheran Social Services office in Phoenix, Arizona, gets the call: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has just reunited another group of asylum seekers with their children, and the newly reunited families — say, two vans, or 20 people in all — will arrive for intake in 10 to 15 minutes.

The staff and volunteers at Lutheran Social Services (with help from national advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and FWD.us) are ready, with everything from shoelaces to stuffed animals to pastors on call. Meanwhile, in Washington, DC — where it’s 10 or 11 at night — staffers for FWD.us are preparing to spend another few hours as impromptu travel agents, booking next-day flights from Phoenix to wherever the families are set to go.

Over the past several days, racing to comply with a court-imposed deadline, the federal government has reunited hundreds of families whom it separated at the US-Mexico border earlier this year. By the end of Thursday, more than 1,600 children ages 5 to 17 will be reunited with their parents.

Hundreds of those families are released from detention into an unfamiliar country, with instructions to appear for a check-in with ICE — maybe in as little as seven days, in a city a thousand miles away, with no money to get there. Their only experience of the US has been at the hands of the Trump administration, which treated the parents as criminals and the children as collateral damage.

But advocates and service providers — with assistance from everyone from church congregations to major airlines — have stepped in as an impromptu welcoming committee. They’ve hastily thrown together a system to get families from the parking lots of the local nonprofits in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas where they’re formally “released” by ICE contractors to the towns and cities all across the US where they’ll stay while their cases are under review.

The welcoming committee is trying to ensure that families make their initial check-in dates, something they feel the government should be helping with but isn’t. But they’re also trying to show another face of America to the victims of the family separation policy. “The American public is going to step in where the government has failed,” said Alida Garcia, the coalitions and policy director for FWD.us, on a press call Tuesday. “It’s going to provide comfort and love and care to these families.”

Sometimes comfort looks like an airplane ticket. Sometimes it’s an impromptu “Happy Birthday” sing-along — complete with a Hostess birthday cupcake — for a 7-year-old who’s just been reunited with his dad.

“We have to be ready all the time”

As of Monday, the federal government had reunited 1,012 children ages 5 to 17 with their parents. By the end of Thursday, it’s expected to reunite 1,637.

Many of those families are being kept in detention — many, in fact, are facing the difficult decision of whether to be deported together or to separate again so that the children have a chance to stay.

But some families, when the parents have passed initial asylum screenings and been granted parole or posted bond, are more fortunate. They’re released from detention when they’re reunited — sometimes seeing their children for the first time in months in the parking lot of a detention center on a hot day — or shortly after.

But for many families, there’s not a lot they can do with that freedom. In addition to having just suffered a traumatic experience, they’re in a massive country whose language and transit systems they don’t understand. They may have no money to get to the cities across America where they’ve told ICE agents they’re headed (usually to stay with relatives or friends) for the duration of their cases. They may have nothing more than “the shirt on their backs,” in the words of Connie Phillips, the president of Lutheran Social Services Southwest.

As part of Judge Dana Sabraw’s reunification order, the government is supposed to drop off families at intake centers run by local nonprofits, like Lutheran Social Services in Phoenix. On July 12, according to Philips, the government called LSS and asked if it would be able to do intake for reunited families; by July 13, it was ready to go.

LSS didn’t actually get its first families until a few days later. And the pace has been erratic — one day last week, the center processed nearly 90 people; one day this week, it processed only four or five. Between that and the lack of advance notice, Phillips says, “we have to be ready all the time” — even if some of that time is just waiting. Disproportionately, families are sent to them in the evening — often as people at the office are packing up, they’ll get another call.

Lutheran Social Services isn’t typically staffed for this; it doesn’t usually work with people apprehended at the border at all, much less 90 of them in a day. But it quickly mobilized staff from Phoenix and Tucson, and a small army of volunteers — from the existing volunteer network, congregations LSS partners with, and people who were outraged by family separation and wanted to help.

“People just … responded,” Phillips says. Anyone who spoke Spanish was mobilized — “even our HR manager, she speaks Spanish, so she’s over at the hotel” where families stay for the night. Others were put to work scanning documents or driving shuttles to carry families from the intake center to the hotel, or the hotel to the airport.

Donors are bringing in three meals a day — “everything from spaghetti to beans and rice” — to feed families and staff, at the intake center and at the hotel where families are sent to stay the night.

Volunteers work two shifts, Phillips says: 6 am to noon, and “noon to … end.” At the intake center, the “end” doesn’t come until the last families have been processed and driven to the hotel; at the hotel, it doesn’t come until the last families have cleared out of the meeting room volunteers have claimed as a “communal space” and everyone has been checked in for the night.

But “we don’t want to hurry” anybody, Phillips says. “They’re so raw” — some families have been together for an hour or less by the time they arrive at the intake center. “Hotel rooms can be pretty lonesome.”

ABQ Americans are stepping up to show reunited migrant families there’s more to their country than TrumpCourtesy of FWD.us
In one New Mexico hotel where recently reunited families are being housed, staff and volunteers set up a “welcome stage” with toys and coloring books ready for children.

Questions about everything from ankle bracelets to hotel key cards

Intake staff is supposed to make sure the families know where they’re going and provide them with information about legal representation. But in practice, it’s clear that families need so much more.

“There’s an immediate need for a change of clothes, underwear,” Phillips says, ticking off the list. Men may want a shave, so they’ll need to have razors. Adults and children alike may have had their shoelaces removed while in detention — to prevent self-harm — so they’ll need replacements. They’ve been awake for a long time, shuttled from detention center, to the ICE processing center, to the intake center, and they’ll need a meal.

They’ll need to know how to charge the ankle bracelets the adults are wearing, or whether they can wear them in the shower (a question that a FWD.us staffer at a hotel texted Garcia, in DC, in a panic). Many of them have never stayed in a hotel before; they might need to be told how to use the keycard to get into the room, or how to turn on the television.

They might want to talk about what happened to them to an understanding ear, or even a priest or pastor. They might want to call the family they’re going to meet in the US to tell them they’re on their way, or the family they left back home to tell them they “got out.” They might simply want to be together, as a family, for the first time in a while.

They probably won’t ask for any of these things. “These people are very reserved, very quiet, very compliant,” says Phillips. “We have to say over and over again that ‘we’re here to help you,’ because they’re very suspicious of us.” They are, in a word, traumatized. “I’ve had children ask us, ‘Are you going to take my mom or my dad away now?’”

So the hotel meeting room, set up by a group of ACLU staffers who’ve traveled from San Diego to Phoenix to help reunited families, has become a space where families can find what they need, even without asking. For kids, there are coloring books and stuffed animals — which they cling to, desperately, like security blankets. For adults, there’s pastoral care: Spanish-speaking pastors from some of the congregations Lutheran Social Services works with in the Phoenix area, who have volunteered their time.

ACLU volunteers are able to answer legal questions. They’ve set up a station with accounts on prepaid phone cards for the most popular call service to Guatemala, so that Guatemalan families can call their relatives back home.

On Sunday, a local ACLU staffer brought in a projector. Someone else brought a Bluetooth speaker. They had an evening movie screening on the meeting-room wall: Coco, Disney’s 2017 film about a Latino boy looking for a family member in an unfamiliar world.

As the family separation crisis dominated the news, I heard from people who had been unable to watch Coco because of the resonances. But for families celebrating their first night together, Alida Garcia of FWD reports the next day, “it was a hit, I would say. It was a moral victory.”

“These are families who’ve been separated. We’d like them to sit together on their flight.”

FWD.us is an advocacy group run out of DC and founded by Mark Zuckerberg and other tech donors. But since mid-July or so, it’s been moonlighting as a travel agency — booking flights for families, the day after they’re reunited and processed, from wherever they’ve been dropped off to wherever they need to go.

“These families have gone through enough. Putting them through a 30-hour, three-stop cross-country bus trip is not what they need right now,” says Garcia. Not that all of them could even afford a bus ticket — at least one family in Texas ended up stuck at a shelter after reunification because they had no money to leave town. (Migrants tell ICE where they’ll go once released, and ICE sets a check-in location at the nearest field office — but knowing the name of the town where your cousin lives isn’t the same as having a way to get there, or even knowing how.)

Many of them don’t have a lot of time to spare, either. ICE is scheduling check-ins for seven to 10 days after it releases families in Phoenix, with little regard to how far the location of the check-in is. Miss your check-in and you’re presumed to have absconded — another example of what the Trump administration pejoratively calls “catch and release,” even though there’s suggestive evidence that many families are ordered deported despite trying to comply with the rules. For some families, FWD.us president Todd Schulte worries, travel by bus — with its complicated itinerary and risks of breakdown that could make a days-long trip all the longer — “could put them in legal jeopardy.”

So instead, when families arrive at Lutheran Social Services in Phoenix, or at one of the other intake centers where most families are being released, FWD.us staff are there to get travel information. They relay that information to their colleagues in DC and on the West Coast, who start booking next-day flights that would be prohibitively expensive if families were booking them on their own.

FWD.us is partnering with RAICES and the Families Belong Together coalition to provide at least $3 million for flights; Delta has provided some local organizations with vouchers, and United Airlines announced Wednesday that it will provide “hundreds” of tickets for reunited families in the coming days. But the work of actually scheduling the flights is still falling to FWD.us staff, led by Garcia, Alexis Sacasas, Daniela Chomba, and Katie Aragón.

At 5 pm on Monday, several staffers in the DC office are circled on couches around a massive whiteboard, calling their colleagues in Phoenix and Albuquerque and getting updates on delayed flights in Denver and Dallas. (Much of the US is facing heavy rain — all flights out of Denver have just been grounded for weather — which is throwing a wrench into many families’ itineraries.) Empty Starbucks cookie bags litter the coffee table; a spray bottle of OxiClean is kept on hand for “the next time we spill something.”

It’s the environment you’d expect for people who, when Garcia says they haven’t slept in three nights, protest, indignantly, that they did in fact sleep — last night. One out of three.

It’s not so simple as finding a flight between two airports. If the family isn’t going to arrive at the hotel until 11 the night before, they don’t want to schedule a flight that leaves at 7 the next morning. They want to make things as easy as possible for parents traveling with younger children.

Not only does a volunteer have to be available to drive them to the airport, but they’re providing “airport escorts” to accompany families all the way to the gate — to help them navigate an airport for what may well be the first time. TSA screening checkpoints can be particularly nerve-racking given families’ recent experiences with high-security environments (and given that they’re traveling with documents provided by ICE rather than standard American drivers’ licenses). Explaining in advance what to expect is helpful — as is the fact that with so many reunited families coming through, says Connie Phillips, “at this point, the airport’s getting used to it.”

The most important consideration might be the hardest to guarantee. Most seats available the day before a flight are single seats. But “these are families who’ve been separated,” Garcia stresses — children who cling to their parents when they go to the bathroom. “We’d like them to sit together.” Delta has assured FWD.us that if the names of travelers are sent to the airline the day before, it will make sure parents are seated with their children on the flight.

The point, says Maria Praeli of FWD.us, is to show support to families “who probably never expected to be treated with such care. Even though I’ll never meet them and they’ll never meet me.”

Families are departing for all over the country — which will make it hard to stay in touch with them

You might expect families to ask to be sent to typical immigrant-heavy cities: New York, LA, Chicago, DC. But Garcia says there’s “no discernible pattern” to where people are headed; it’s incredibly diffuse.

She pulls up a spreadsheet and reads a few entries at random: North Carolina, Utah, a small town in the Plains, a town I’ve never heard of in Kentucky.

By the time the family steps onto a plane, they have contact information for organizations in their area that can provide low-cost or free legal representation to immigrants in deportation hearings. But the biggest problem for families seeking asylum is knowing when their next court date is, and getting there. And FWD.us is already trying to think ahead to how to best coordinate that.

“We’re now trying to get as many people prepaid cellphones as possible, because people don’t have them,” says Garcia. Their early attempts to do this ran into a snag: State laws and store policies keep people from buying more than two prepaid cellphones at a time (due to the association of “burner” phones with street gangs). FWD.us was looking for more like 700 or 800.

They were considering what Schulte called the “Dunkirk plan”: putting out a mass communiqué to supporters. “People of America, buy two cellphones, and send them to this hotel in Phoenix.”

They got help from somewhere else instead. “I got a guy at T-Mobile now,” Schulte boasts with a laugh. “I could get you a couple thousand, if you need.”

But the Dunkirk plan probably would have worked. There are so many people who were enraged by the administration’s separation of families, and who are still enraged by the fact that not every child will be reunited with her parent even after the court-set deadline. They have donated millions of dollars to RAICES to pay parents’ bond so they can seek out their children.

America’s official response to these families — the response of the US government — has been to punish them, either to send a message to other people not to cross the border or simply because they feel they deserve it for crossing between ports of entry to seek asylum. They have been separated for weeks, or often months.

The parents have been sent to cattle-call court hearings where they barely understood they were being convicted of crimes, and housed in federal criminal prisons. The children have been kept in jail-like temporary holding facilities, then sent to temporary caregivers who may not have even known they were separated from parents at the border. They were told if they cried or misbehaved, they would never see their parents again.

They had no idea they would see each other again. The government had no plan to make it happen.

It was only because the American people disagreed with what was being done in their name that family separation is no longer widescale policy. For those Americans, welcoming families after they’ve been reunited is an opportunity to show that the government does not speak for them.

The groundswell of support can’t guarantee that families will ultimately be able to stay in the US. Central American asylum seekers, especially families, don’t have a great track record of ultimately getting asylum — partly because they’re less likely to make their court date, but partly because the things they’re fleeing don’t perfectly line up with what the US government (especially this US government) considers itself obligated to protect people from.

But while the welcoming committee is adamant that families deserve at least the opportunity to make their case for asylum, they’re not doing this simply for the purposes of due process. They’re doing it to show kindness to people they feel have been mistreated in the name of the United States. They’re doing it to show a different face of America.

“The generosity of the community has been amazing,” Phillips says. “These families — we’ve been told this is the first time in the United States that anyone’s been kind to them.”

Author: Dara Lind
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