The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

Immigration staffers hear asylum seekers’ stories in Mexico

After hard trip, frightened families wait for word at border

Published: June 28, 2018   
Georgina Pena, Catholic Charities Immigration Services - Little Rock
Jennifer Verkamp, director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services - Little Rock (left), speaks to migrant children in Mexico at the border in Nogales on June 2. Verkamp and four others spent a few hours warning parents seeking asylum that they may be separated from their children.

Tears filled a young mother’s eyes as her 2-year-old child rested against her back. In a plain, thin salmon-colored shirt and jeans, she stood by nearly 100 other people sitting on mats and blankets in a covered, but open walkway in the almost 100-degree heat. She had been there for seven days.

“Her grandfather had been murdered; she was threatened to be raped and then her daughter was too. So then they finally fled. She was crying and telling us the story. It was very intense and very heavy,” said Jennifer Verkamp, director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services - Little Rock. “Her 2-year-old the whole entire time was on her back sleeping and I don’t know if maybe she was dehydrated or maybe just exhausted. But in all the stuff that was going on, that looked kind of concerning. She was just quietly telling her story.”

It was unclear the miles the Guatemalan woman walked, though the average journey for migrants is 30 days, Verkamp said.

There was no attempt to run across the border, no skipping ahead in line. The woman was legally waiting her turn to seek asylum, safety from the threat of death or serious harm.

Her tears were not from the exhaustion of her journey, but from the warning given by an immigration attorney that there was a risk she’d be separated from her daughter.

This is the reality for migrants trying to enter the United States. After weeks of separating children from their parents at the border, placing them behind chain-link fencing and in separate facilities, President Donald Trump signed an executive order June 20 that stopped his administration’s policy of separating families. (See sidebar at right).

But for the almost 2,000 children separated over several weeks and those that may continue to be because of the leeway in the order, the future is unclear.

“I think that our country has reached an all-time low when we have decided to punish innocent children. The borders were made by us, not by God, and I do not think that ever tearing a child away from their parent, especially a parent who loves and cares for them and is only trying to give them a better future, is ever OK,” Verkamp told Arkansas Catholic June 21. “I don’t care where you were born. A child is a child, a human is a human, all born with dignity.”


Surprise trip

After the annual Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. (CLINIC) conference in Tucson, Ariz., from May 31-June 1, Verkamp and Catholic Charities immigration specialist Georgina Pena were two of five total out of the 500 attending the conference who were invited to take a trip to the border June 2. 

On the car ride over, they learned they’d be warning migrants who were waiting to be interviewed for asylum, the first step in a lengthy process, that the government was separating children from their parents. After the hour and a half car ride, the group walked across the border at Nogales for $3, a border wall towering between the two countries.

“There’s just a huge group of people and there’s a lot of kids running around,” Verkamp said. “It turns out the people at the very front of the line that were still outside had been waiting for seven days just to have an interview after making that long journey. The people at the very end of the line had already been waiting for two days.”

Volunteers, ranging from concerned Mexican and American citizens to Kino Border Initiative, ran by the Jesuits, provided food, water and basic supplies, Verkamp said.

As Verkamp and Pena watched the attorneys tell migrants about the policy after harrowing journeys, mostly from Guatemala and Honduras, reactions varied.

“One of the attorneys said that a mother of five children started crying, ‘I don’t want my kids to be taken away,’ really upset because she had come by herself,” Verkamp said. “… I think some of them looked shocked, and I think a lot of them just didn’t really think we’d actually go forward with something like that.”

Children ranged from in the womb to teenagers.

“There was a six-month-old, he was just sucking down water; he’s supposed to have formula, which I think they brought him formula eventually, but maybe he was dehydrated,” Verkamp said.

She also saw a woman about eight months pregnant. “I kept thinking, ‘OK pro-life people,’ which I’m pro-life too, ‘we’ve got a pregnant woman here on the border and she’s choosing to keep her baby. What are we going to do now?’”


Remembering the faces

The group was not allowed to see inside the detention facilities. Verkamp said after listening to the woman from Guatemala, the Customs and Border Patrol agents spoke to them at the entrance. Agents interview all seeking asylum to judge whether they have a “credible fear” and their need for refuge.

“They said, ‘People start crying and we can’t believe them, we can’t believe all their stories.’ And I’m just thinking what does it take for you to really believe a story? … You always got people that are trying to take advantage, of course, and I’m not saying it’s OK for people to break any laws coming illegally. It didn’t seem like they were really willing to listen and empathize and really give someone a chance,” Verkamp said, adding it’s not illegal to apply for asylum.

After spending just hours with the migrants, it’s their faces that Verkamp can’t get out of her mind. She has traveled the world, working with people in Central America and seeing extreme poverty. But seeing this in America’s backyard is something she cannot forget.

Upon returning to the resort hotel, “I took a warm shower, had a glass of wine, room service and went to bed, in a comfortable bed and the images, I just can’t get the faces out of my head,” Verkamp said. “… Just the overall picture of why they first left, how long it took, how long they’re waiting and then to have the most precious things in their lives being ripped away, their children, will forever stick with me. I’ve lost sleep over it because I keep thinking about it. I’ve cried about it.”

“I don’t know what has happened with those people. I’m sure some of those kids were taken away. I don’t know what has happened to the parents.”

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