Migrants at the Border Have Lost Their Dignity

We can help them find it by treating them as people again, with all the messiness that entails.

Illustration: A woman offers soup to a man and child with butterfly wings, while another man bandages one of the injured wings.
Franco Zacharzewski

At first, my family and I had planned to fly to the border together. It was days after Christmas, and the plan was to fly to El Paso, Texas, from Denver where we had spent the holiday at home, to volunteer with Annunciation House. But then our plans began to fall apart—each of them dropping out one by one. Somehow, I continued to exchange emails with the volunteer coordinator. I sent in clearances and arranged housing. And finally, I bought a round-trip ticket for two weeks in El Paso.

I had prepared for the trip thinking that, fully equipped with intermediate Spanish and an academic rhetoric surrounding issues of immigration, my experience would transform me into a good person. But when confronted with the idea of actually going—of packing the right clothing to sustain two weeks without laundry, of cramming a 12-pack of granola bars into my suitcase, of electing which books to bring as I stayed in a house with mostly nuns—I started to get nervous. What was I going to do there?

My first morning, I learned quickly that most of the tasks at the shelter are menial. I was assigned to Centro San Juan Diego, a family shelter that functions as a part of a large network of volunteer-run shelters along the border in El Paso under Annunciation House. Sue, the volunteer coordinator, described it as a “travel agency/bed and breakfast” for immigrants recently released from detention centers. People immigrating from predominantly Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala would emerge from government buses and enter the walls of the old recreation center. Most were unsure of where they were or who we were. Some came in with a plastic bag of their belongings, but most came in empty-handed—whatever possessions they had brought had either been left behind on the journey, or confiscated at by border security. Upon their arrival, whoever knew Spanish would explain that we were all volunteers, separate from the government, there to give them food, a shower, and a place to stay while we figure out their next steps.

During the morning shifts, I woke people up at 8 a.m., made breakfast, and served them. I made care packages filled with food, snacks, water, blankets, and toys for younger children for the one-, two-, or three-day-long bus rides they were about to undertake. I answered phones for family members who had purchased tickets for other family members, trying to bridge communication gaps. I responded to guests’ questions in my poor Spanish and made soup in anticipation of our new arrivals. I said goodbye to the people I had met the day before as they departed for the Greyhound or Tornado bus stations.

On the first day, I encountered a new group of guests arriving at the center. We greeted them with colorful signs reading Bienvenidos.1 I served soup to a silent group of 50 people who looked like prisoners. They had trackers on their ankles. Fatigue slowed their movements. A crust seemed to have dried around their red, swollen eyes, and on their faces—perhaps from infection or residue from crossing the flooded river, maybe from tears. Almost every family, upon exiting detention, required medical attention. Almost every volunteer, after a week at the center, required this same attention.

One child under 3 years old contracted pneumonia there. He became septic, and we called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. He remained there for a week as he was treated for what the doctors said was the worst pneumonia they had ever seen in someone his age. Later, we put him and his pregnant mother on a Greyhound bus to North Carolina—per her request, and against the doctor’s recommendation—because she was afraid they would miss their court date and be deported.

I walked over to the clothing center with one man and his daughter. He looked as if he would begin to cry at any moment. I attempted to lighten his mood by asking about the soup he had received upon his arrival. He responded, “Esa sopa fue la sopa más rica de mi vida”—that it was the best of his life.2 He told me that he hadn’t eaten during the nine days he had spent in detention. The few meals he had received, he had given to his daughter. She would rip the tortilla off of the frozen, rock-like burrito and leave the icy clumps to melt.

I later learned that most people remained in the detention centers for more than a week, often without eating at all, or eating sparingly. The officers did provide food, often one to two meals for the day, but the consistency of food allocation didn’t seem to depend on anything more than the will or memory of whoever was on duty. As they distributed burritos from the freezer to the families—who had been waiting in lines outside of the detention centers for days, with or without food—the migrants’ hopes for satiation fell. Many parents gave their burritos to their children, hoping that at least they would be satisfied. Most children ate only the frozen tortillas.

I looked through the coats, trying to find one the father would like. But he gestured to his dirtied jeans and said that all he really wanted was a new set of pants. He had walked through the Rio Grande in his jeans, he said, and afterward they had frozen to his legs. Only the day before had they thawed.

Many families told me that the detention centers themselves always remained colder than the outside temperature. El Paso, in this week in January, fell to temperatures in the teens; snow fell; ice coated the roads. Among many stories, the one of this man and his daughter has stuck with me. But there is no singular immigrant experience.

I fitted three boys and their mother for new shoes; they needed new ones because they had spent the final months of the year walking to the United States from Honduras. I disinfected a woman’s rotten-smelling shoes after she had walked through multiple bodies of water on the way from El Salvador. Each day, I sewed one woman’s pants back onto her body because she had to rip them off in order to click on her tracking device, over and over again.

Often, when I was in charge of hygiene product distribution, children would come up to the table and just talk. Ten kids at a time would stand in front of the lotion and shaving cream, making up funny reasons why they needed different products. (“Mi madre lo necesita para su pelo, por favor,”3 or “Mi hermano no recibió cepillo de dientes. ¿Se lo puedo traer?”4) They would tell me they wanted to help hand out products, and then I would find them giving each other Mohawks with coconut oil.

As I sat at this table, I taught kids how to Hula-Hoop, how to spin a top, and how to draw different animals. Later, they would rush up to me as I came out of the office, yelling “Mírame, mírame, Isabel” as they kept the Hula-Hoop up for longer than they had the day before; spun the top down a hallway; or drew dozens of pictures of hearts, swords, and animals for me to see.5

The night of our largest intake, I got to spend time with children in the cafeteria once we had finished most of the bookings in the office. I drew with them and taught them words in English, writing words on sticky notes and labeling items in the room. We made silly faces, a universal language. We laughed a lot, but were often interrupted by a child throwing up on the art they had just created.

Multiple children, in the span of a night, would have fits of throwing up. I would guide them to the bathroom to clean up, wipe the floors, and hand wash their clothes. I would talk to their mothers or fathers, then bring them to the nurse’s office. In the span of an hour that night, I guided four children.

The nurse approached me. She said they didn’t have the flu. They didn’t have a virus. They had contracted no form of food poisoning. They had simply been starved for so long that when they finally ate, their bodies rejected the food.

On the ride back from the shelter, smelling vaguely of vomit, I thought of the many ways these families had suffered—so much so that they couldn’t even accept relief of this suffering when it was offered.

But the most difficult part of my experience to process was not the starving, the sickness, the physical suffering. It was witnessing how the message—that as immigrants, they were inherently degenerate, undeserving, and less than human—had started to become part of them. I watched this shame attach itself to their psyches as I received children apologizing for their sickness, adults scolding their family members for assuming that they would receive three meals at our center. I saw the devaluing of this population’s existence become so strong that they began to devalue themselves.

I asked myself again, Why am I here? I talked to some friends on the phone. Looking around my room, I felt overwhelmed seeing my full box of granola bars. Knowing I had the luxury of a shower. That I would return to Denver. My friends gave me validation of my work. They told me that I was a good person.

But I didn’t care about being a “good person” anymore. I didn’t want to engage in an exchange that relied on this assumption of me reaching down to those perceived as less than I am. I needed to bring these people close to me, to bind myself to them, to eliminate the distance caused by my privilege—the distance caused by my education, my status, my race, my citizenship. I wanted to stand in front of them, bare, human, and equal. To do this, I realized I had to make myself vulnerable to them, just as they were to me.

I acted as a server to those who could offer me no tip. I snuck extra bread to children, and they would laugh in delight. They didn’t know that I snuck bread to all of the children, but letting each of them know they weren’t invisible was important to me. I taught English to those who only spoke indigenous Central American languages. I sat at the dining hall table, surrounded by children, mothers, and fathers, teaching the alphabet to many who had never seen it before, pronouncing common phrases. Hello. How are you? I am doing well. We also practiced useful phrases. I am from Honduras. My English is not very good. Is there someone here who speaks Spanish?

I approached people who stood in front of a U.S. map in the hallway, just looking. I asked where they were going and pointed out cities on the map. They inquired about the weather and about the people. One day, about 30 adults and children gathered around the map as I explained, in broken Spanish, the different cultural norms of various states. Roughly translated, I told them that “People in California are relaxed,” while “People in New York are busy.” “People in Florida are old and warm,” and “People in Washington like to hike.” I received many nods and looks of understanding. One man took notes.

One day, a group of fathers had gathered around the map. I asked what they were looking for. One of the men looked at me and asked “¿Dónde está Guatemala?”6 I pointed to a spot near the floor, about two feet under the map, and they all began to laugh. I learned, as I approached people looking at the map again and again, that I needed to explain the map was only of the United States. Many people—those who took the bus from Central America, and those who had walked—had no idea how far they had come. They had no idea how far they had to go.

I began to welcome the uncertainty of this job, for which there is no title. My role became not to make sense of the phenomenally unjust circumstances, but to embrace the menial tasks that slowly, and often, only temporarily, restored a sense of dignity to those who had been stripped of it. These families watched me wholeheartedly transform into a waitress, a teacher, a maid, or a geographer. I watched as they remembered how to eat, how to laugh, how to ask questions. I watched as they returned, a little bit, to themselves.

As guests left, we would send them off with well wishes and enough food for their journey. I made a bag for that same father-daughter duo I had walked to the clothing shelter. As I prepared soup for the next group, I saw the father walking frantically through the doors, looking for something. “It’s time for you to go!” I said, pointing him toward the car parked outside. He saw me and ran over. He came close and his eyes began to well up.

“I needed to say thank you. I needed to say something to you: Dios es contigo.”7 He began to cry as he continued to thank me. When the driver came to take him to the car, those words echoed in my head again and again: Dios es contigo. Dios es contigo. Dios es contigo.

My own Spanish is flawed; I completed my studies at university without becoming fluent. But one of the first lessons Spanish students learn is the difference between está and es. In English, they both directly translate as conjugations of “to be.” But in Spanish, está takes on a degree of temporality, while es conveys a sense of permanence. In what I heard as a mistake, this man had told me Dios es contigo: God is with me. God is not fleetingly with me. He is not standing by me, as está would suggest. This man, whom I had met only two days before, suggested that God’s presence within me is more permanent than that; that God is an integral part of who I am.

At one point during my time at the shelter, the volunteer coordinator told me that the majority of people we met would be deported back to their country of origin. This stuck with me as I asked myself, Why am I here? Most of the work I would do would be reversed. Just as much of the soup I made would later be cleaned up from the floors as vomit.

When I returned home and went back to school, I felt broken and uneasy. I thought I had been going to help, to make a difference. In the end, I mainly felt helpless in the face of the multitude of human rights violations going on at the border, violations that are still going on today. I still find myself feeling that way, carrying around a lingering brokenness.

This summer, I attended a keynote presentation by a prominent human rights activist. He argued that “love alone will not save us.” But as I walked back to my apartment that night, I couldn’t help but think of the parts of being in El Paso when it seemed like love, maybe, could do some work to repair what had been broken. I thought of the many small wounds I had watched heal during my time there. There was something sacred, something divine, in the interactions we had at the shelter. There was something sacred between that man and his daughter and me, and among all who had allowed themselves to connect with each other, with the volunteers, with me, during their time there. So many people refused to let their suffering harden them.

Love alone cannot save us, no. We need reform on a level that is much broader. We need to work toward stopping the original injustices that break us. I recognize that my time at the border did nothing to change the legislation that allows these injustices to occur. But when people needed a server, a teacher, or someone to listen, I could become what they needed, if only temporarily. And maybe, for a moment, the world was a bit more just.

Hours after I had said goodbye to the volunteer coordinator, the nuns, and the families who remained, I waited in the Denver airport, alone. I stood as just one person, free of identifiers that suggested anything about what we had just done. Fully lost. Completely vulnerable. Entirely human. And it was so much better than good.

Translation notes

1. Welcome

2. That soup was the richest soup of my life.

3. My mom needs that for her hair, please.

4. My brother didn’t receive a toothbrush. Can I bring it to him?

5. Look, look, Isabel.

6. Where is Guatemala?

7. God is with you.