Earlier this summer, after immigration lawyers visited detained youngsters, news broke of terrible conditions inside a US Border Patrol station housing unaccompanied migrant children in Clint, Texas.
According to the visitors, hundreds of children at the Clint facility (which opened in 2013) were sleeping on the floor, hungry and crying, unable to bathe or wash their clothes, and suffering from conditions like chickenpox, shingles, the flu, lice, and scabies.
Compelled to act
I have seen a great deal of inhumanity in my life and work: the abuse of women and children, youngsters chained or starving, drug-infested homes and rats as large as kittens. But these situations were isolated. I never thought leadership in my country would allow hundreds of hungry children to live in filth in cages, where they slept without bedding on the floor. I needed to do something.
I have no leadership position in any professional or political organization. But I do have a list of more than 200 colleagues whom I have worked with in myriad grassroots efforts over the years. When I added my friends and relatives, that list grew to more than 300 names. On the morning of June 24, 2019, I sat down to write an email.
I said that the back-and-forth blame game between our politicians about this dire situation is beyond comprehension, and it calls for common sense and action from regular people. I asked my contacts to put toothpaste, toothbrushes, and soap in packages marked in bold letters FOR THE CHILDREN and mail them to the US Customs and Border Protection Center at 13400 Alameda Avenue, Clint, Texas, 79836.
Some people responded wondering why I asked for toothpaste, toothbrushes, and soap when so much more is needed. I answered that these items are simple to obtain and deliver. Sometimes the only way to keep our sanity in the face of mass injustice is to hold onto some tangible thing, however small, that we can do.
Other people asked what assurance there was that the packages would be delivered. None, I said.
And without that assurance, or collaboration with a charity or established organization, why was I asking folks to do this? I answered that there wasn’t time for red tape, and that “we have to try.” If our country’s leaders refuse to receive basic supplies on behalf of suffering children, what kind of message does that send?
My contacts are from all major political parties, including several independents and Republicans who (either quietly or publicly) support Donald Trump. Their articulated reasons for this vary, but include a lack of secure jobs and benefits for their families and a determination to protect their earned assets. Discussions about the terrifying actions of the Trump administration had not changed any minds. Here was an opportunity to try to get supplies to suffering innocents, but it was also an opportunity to show Trump supporters in my circle of trusted friends and colleagues that the president of the United States and his administration are dangerously devoid of morality and totally corrupt—and do not care about protecting our jobs or wealth.
Return to sender
So what was the result of our project? I began hearing reports of supplies coming from folks all over America, and I knew our modest efforts were among them. But there were also reports that packages would not be accepted. Soon we had the evidence for ourselves.
A good friend in Hawaii worked with her foster son to pack and send a box of soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste. Later, she wrote me an email. “I tracked my package through USPS, only to learn that it had been refused,” she said. “This is not America. This is inhumane.”
More responses came in, including from a neighbor, a retired judge, whose package to Clint was returned. And others described their emotions as they joined the effort.
“As I wrapped packages for children shut up in cages away from their parents, I thought of my own children and grandchildren. I am outraged. These children could be ours,” one said.
“I see terrified parents who want something better for their children,” another said of these asylum-seekers. Another referenced the heart-stopping image of a young father and daughter drowned in the Rio Grande: “[It] will never leave me. Never!”
A new light
I also received messages and calls from Trump supporters who are now seeing our leader in a different light:
“Not to provide children basic needs through volunteer efforts that do not cost the government anything?” one wrote, upon learning about the returned packages.
“The border situation is a mess, and something has to be done to deal with vast numbers,” another shared, “but the faces I see are not those of murderers and rapists.”
“That man we supported for president does not care about human beings, and this also extends to me and my family,” said a third.
A sports fan who enjoyed the recent US women’s soccer triumph said, “I’m glad that our winning team will refuse a White House invite. I never took the time to see what a horrible man Donald Trump is.”
Some folks on my list mobilized their own groups in response to the children’s suffering: “The majority of the members of my faith community are Republicans,” one said. “I have asked that our minister address this immediately.”
Troubled by the allegations of mistreatment, the Border Patrol quickly moved hundreds of children out of the Clint facility and made the unexpected decision, soon after the news broke, to open its doors in Clint to a bevy of reporters, albeit without cameras.
The journalists ushered in didn’t witness the previously reported level of traumatizing squalor, but did describe kids (from toddlers to teenagers) living in prison-like cells; sleeping on thin floor pads; playing on gravel or concrete next to portable toilets and chicken wire; and subsisting daily on one packet of instant oatmeal, one cup of instant noodles, cereal bars and juice, pudding, and a single burrito for dinner.
Stories matter. Real stories. They matter very, very much. And this is a living story, still unfolding, telling itself.