A message comes in. Twelve new people seeking asylum are waiting on the Brownsville/Matamoros Gateway International Bridge. Who can check it out?
A couple of hours later, another notification pops up— eight parents are scheduled to be released later today from Port Isabel Processing Center. Can someone pick them up? They could be released anytime this evening between 7 PM and midnight. Another bing. This time, a recently released asylum-seeking parent needs help to get to Arizona, where they think their child might be. Does anybody know how to confirm this? Also, they need help with the plane ticket and other travel logistical arrangements.
Welcome to the group thread of the “Angry Tías and Abuelas” of the Rio Grande Valley.
They are not an established non-profit. In fact, they do not have an office or a written mission statement. Actually, they have only been around for less than two months.
Who are these Angry Tías y Abuelas? They are a small and informal group made up of about fifteen people, mostly aunts, mothers, and grandmothers. And just as their group name states, they are extremely angry about the abuses and neglect immigrants and asylum-seekers arriving at the Rio Grande Valley have been subjected to. Now, they are doing everything they can to do what they know the Trump administration will not.
Like Nayelli Barrios, an Edinburg resident, some of them have lived in the Rio Grande Valley nearly their entire lives. In some instances, previously unaware of some of the extreme hurdles immigrants and refugees just a few miles away from them were experiencing. But the strong national attention that has followed the Trump administration’s immigration policies and what they have seen play out on international bridges with their own eyes has removed whatever filters may have once been in place.
Barrios, who has now visited bridges across the Rio Grande Valley at least 10 times in the last month, told Neta that in the past, she “would go to protests and things like that…but this was the first time that [she decided to be] more hands on.” Barrios simply could not ignore what was happening around her. “It made me so angry,” she said. “And then seeing that there were people stranded on the bridge for days on…I was like, this is really terrible and this is really real and this is really close to where I am…Since I live here, I think I can do something here.”
The Angry Tías and Abuelas are made up of people who think like Barrios. Initially, it started off as a group of just four or five women who received a tip in June about more than 50 people seeking asylum who had been stuck on the Hidalgo County International Bridge for several days. Their mission was simple and humanitarian in nature: deliver food, water, and other basic supplies.
It did not take long at all for the Angry Tías and Abuelas to realize that what they were witnessing was not a one-time, isolated, occurrence; over the next weeks, reports of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers setting up a barrier at the exact dividing line on international bridges between Mexico and the US all across the Rio Grande Valley and the Southwestern border, in general, surfaced.
The alleged reason for this implementation of this new systematic practice? Claims by CBP of limited capacity inside their processing centers. The effect? Hundreds of children and adults prevented from setting foot on US soil to exercise their legal right to request asylum. The Angry Tías and Abuelas’ response? Sound out the alarm to Valley residents and do something.
That is how Madeleine Sandefur, a Laguna Vista resident, became involved in these efforts. She learned about what was happening from a friend who had been part of the initial group that traveled to Hidalgo County.
“I was so angry. When she said ‘We’re going to form an Angry Tías group,’ I said I want to be part of the group. I want to help.” Between work that she now takes on for herself and the coordination of other volunteers, she estimates she is putting in about four to six hours of volunteer work each day with the group.
The group also reached out to Neta asking for help setting up an online fundraiser. Neta obliged. Incredibly, within two weeks, their efforts drew support from donors all across the US and raised more than $70,000. Since then, Neta has managed the funds for the group and disbursed as necessary, always following their lead.
Painful story after another, new faces that stay with you for days, the group’s determination has yet to waver. With time, they have grown their circle and developed informal but effective systems that allow them to monitor (to the best of their ability) activity on the US/Mexico international bridges in the Rio Grande Valley. From whatever items they could carry to organized individual backpacks filled with essential supplies— water, toothbrushes and toothpaste, clothes, snacks, chapstick, and more— gradually but surely the group is learning how to be more efficient.
In Brownsville and Hidalgo, they now have volunteers monitoring treatment of people who are seeking asylum on an almost daily basis. Further support, however, is still needed across other areas of the Rio Grande Valley.
As new developments and information surface each day on national policies and their local implementation and implications, the group’s activity only grows. Following reports of zero tolerance mass trials, for example, the group has now started regularly sending volunteers to serve as observers at the McAllen and Brownsville federal courthouses.
Most recently, following a string of releases from the Port Isabel Processing Center, they have taken an all hands on deck approach with the tedious but absolutely logistically necessary tasks required for family reunification.
They have helped connect women in detention to organizations providing bond money, have waited hours outside of the Port Isabel Processing Center for women scheduled to be released, and transported parents to temporary shelters, bus stations, airports, and, in some instances, even driven them miles away to the city their children are detained in. Many of them have also prepared room in their homes in case shelters are full and a bed is needed. Along the way, they have listened to parent’s stories, learned about detention conditions, and offered apologies for what their government has done to migrant and asylum-seeking parents and their families in their name. Last week alone, they supported more than six parents with various aspects of the reunification process.
Bing. Thursday last week, another request came in. An Angry Tías and Abuelas volunteer had come across confused immigrant and asylum-seeking families and individuals who were at the McAllen bus station trying to make their way to friends, family, and acquaintances throughout all parts of the country. Recently released from detention and new to the United States, most of them do not have sufficient money or food for the long bus trips ahead of them. The people volunteers have spoken to have told them that their tickets were paid by friends or family members. According to the volunteers, the government won’t release them without proof of their ticket and travel plans.
In response, the Angry Tias and Abuelas have given out emergency backpacks and started giving out gift cards to families and individuals who are often penniless upon release from detention centers. They have also sent money to other groups along the border who are doing similar work. Once there, they also distribute leaflets containing the information of organizations and attorneys providing pro-bono legal services, circling the agencies and attorneys closest to the location families and individuals are traveling to.
Cindy Candia, a member of the Angry Tías and Abuelas, spent her entire weekend at the McAllen bus station. Candia told Neta that the 200 backpacks which they and other groups had helped stuff have run out. They’ve placed an order for more backpacks.
Candia worries about the people and families she meets, particularly those with two, three, or four-day long bus trips. The Angry Tías and Abuelas are in contact with groups in Houston and Dallas providing support to families and individuals who will be transferring buses there. She has no way of knowing whether those who are traveling beyond Houston or Dallas will be able to find any support further ahead. With a broken voice, she tells Neta, “On their envelopes, they have a sheet of paper in bold letters that say, ‘I do not speak English. Can you please help me?’ They just have to show that to somebody and hopefully along the road…they’ll be helped and put on the right bus.”
The majority of these women are not immigration experts or lawyers, although a few attorneys are a part of the group and do not hesitate to call on available volunteers for practical logistical support. They do not have the resources available to most nonprofits, much less the government. They are just regular people able and willing to help.
While the government moves slowly to meet minimum reunification requirements, even missing court-imposed deadlines, this organic, grassroots group of women is doing whatever it can to make the lives of those seeking asylum arriving through the Rio Grande Valley a little less painful.
Amongst themselves, the Angry Tias and Abuelas do their best to meet the demands of the moment, but they are keenly aware that the amount of need for accompaniment and support around them is huge. They have put a call out for any other angry tías, mothers, abuelas, and hermanas of the RGV.
Even if it is just a few hours a week that you have available, the Angry Tías and Abuelas say help is needed.
Any individual interested in joining the efforts of the group can do so by reaching out to Madeleine Sandefur at firstname.lastname@example.org who is currently helping coordinate logistics around travel and parental support with Cindy Candia at email@example.com. Especially needed are people fluent in Spanish for help with transport logistics and evolving needs.