Saturday, March 30, 2019

Month 27: Breaking Down Barriers while Building Walls

One of the central campaign promises of Donald Trump was that he would build a wall to “protect” America from illegal immigration. Oh, and Mexico was going to pay for this wall. Fast forward to 2019 and this ridiculous wall has caused government shutdowns, Congressional stalemates, inhumane detention centers, and a stain on the heart of America.  Of course Mexico is not going to pay for this wall, and Trump has engineered a fake emergency to gain funding for a wall or barrier or whatever they are calling it these days.  Meanwhile, asylum seekers are left in limbo, families are separated, and many of us are left scratching our heads about what on earth can be done to get out of this mess. 

The only advice we can give to address the big picture is to put on your activist hat and continue the hard work of replacing those in Congress (as well as State legislatures, particularly in states that border Mexico) who support this wall.  

More immediately, how do we help the actual human beings who have walked through the desert to seek a better life?  How do we support our fellow men, women and children who are fleeing dangerous situations?  How do we use our American privilege (ONLY granted to us on the backs of our ancestors) to help other people?  (Side note:  the ancestral piece is far from simple…. all of us in this country have a complicated history embroiled in some sort of racism, persecution, imperialism, or other dark story. American soil is drenched in stink and to pretend otherwise explains exactly how we got here.  However, that’s another whole dissertation that I’m not qualified to write).  Anyway.

Through Together We Will Northern Arizona, we became aware of an underground effort in Phoenix and Tucson that assisting asylum seekers who come across the border.  Churches and activists throughout the state have worked to collect needed items for these families.  Everything from clothing to sleeping bags to food and water is needed.  The activists created an Amazon wish list from which interested people can easily send needed items.  These efforts are mostly anonymous.  Churches are not listed, location drop-offs are passed through networks of trusted individuals.  Threats of violence are real, and those involved are working hard to avoid incidents and keep everyone safe.

Flagstaff is 300-350 miles from the US/Mexico border.  Our community is fairly liberal.  Legal as well as illegal immigrants are woven deeply into the fabric of our town.  I imagine that every citizen in Flagstaff knows a family who has been affected by the immigration issue.  Personally, I know more than a few. I reached out on Facebook to hear stories from some friends.  I had many responses of caring people and the experiences they have had.  There are so many to share, and I hope to do that at some point. 

For now, I want to share the story of the Eckhoff family.  Kelly and Matt Eckhoff fostered unaccompanied minor children in Phoenix in 2015.  Rather than paraphrase, I will share my Q&A with Kelly, in her own words.

Cristy:  Tell me about the work that you did in Phoenix, Kelly.

Kelly:  Over the course of 2015, Matt and I were licensed foster parents for children who had crossed the border without a parent or legal guardian (unaccompanied minors). Some were caught by Border Patrol; others turned themselves in in hopes of being granted asylum. The kiddos we had in our home ranged in age from 3-12; children over age 12 were not eligible for foster care but instead were sent to huge detention centers, namely Southwest Key facilities in Phoenix. With the exception of a set of siblings from Romania, all the kiddos we had were from Mexico or Central America. All had a parent, aunt, or uncle already in the US who the children were coming to reunite with. Therefore, we only had each kid for 1-3 weeks while their relative was being screened for safety, then the children were flown to their family in other states.
 For more info, here's a link to a (super embarrassing) interview we did back in July about the unaccompanied minor foster care program:

Cristy:  Any idea about numbers of children?  I am guessing you were in the pre-Trump era mostly? 

Kelly:  I don't have exact numbers, but in 2014 there was a huge surge in the number of unaccompanied minor children detained at the border. In response to this (and in line with the Obama administration's desire to move away from essentially jailing children), the feds poured resources/funding into programs that employ a foster care model for unaccompanied minors... hence the creation of the Refugio Phoenix program that we fostered through.

Cristy:  What were the biggest needs you saw with these children/families? 

Kelly:  As cliche as it sounds, the children who came through our doors (as well as their families) were extremely resilient. Having little ones of my own, I can not even imagine them making the journey these kids made to try to reunite with their loved ones. They were so nonchalant as they told us about their dangerous journeys, about being robbed at knife point, about having not eaten for 3 days, or about how they hadn't seen their mom in 8 years because she came to the US before them.  And yet they were such "normal" kiddos.... they loved to be read to, to cook food from their countries, to swing on our backyard tree swing, and to plan surprises for me for Mother's Day. Mind-blowing.

Every single kid we had told us they fled because it was too dangerous in their country and their families feared for their safety OR their relative left because they were no economic opportunities in their country and now the kids were coming here to reunite with them. So meeting high level needs would mean investing not in a longer/taller border wall but rather in the economies and security of the countries people are fleeing from.

Cristy: Personally how did this work affect you?  What called you to this work?

Kelly:  Since undergrad my interest and focus of study has been on migration around the world (stateless populations, refugees, asylum seekers, etc).  As a couple, Matt and I have always enjoyed traveling, studying Spanish, and learning about new cultures. When we heard about the opportunity to foster unaccompanied minors, Charlie [Matt and Kelly’s son] was one, so our travel adventures had come to a screeching stop, but this felt like a meaningful way to be able to use our Spanish and continue learning about other cultures- all from the comfort of our Phoenix home. Fostering unaccompanied minors broke our hearts, filled us with unimaginable joy, made us angry at the policies that created these children's reality, and made us squeeze our little Charlie a little tighter each night. If there was a similar program here in Flagstaff, we would absolutely do it all over again... in a heartbeat!

Thank you to Kelly for sharing her story, and to her entire family for making the world a better place. The Eckhoffs continue to foster children in Flagstaff, although their path has taken them to a more traditional foster care route these days.  

Bottom line, what can we do to help?
  • Again, put your activist hat on. Let your elected representatives know how you feel about the Trump administration’s policies around immigration.  Let them know that you do NOT support the wasteful and ridiculous wall.  Resistbot is a great way to communicate quickly and easily with your representatives.
  • Consider making a donation through the Amazon wish list to support asylum-seeking families.
  • Do you know a family that feels isolated, scared or alone?  Reach out to them in some way.  Let them know that they are a vibrant and important part of your community.
  • Remind yourself daily of the values of America, and don’t be afraid to speak out and remind those who may have forgotten. Use your privilege as you have it to help other people.

We hope to have more stories to share soon.  Feel free to comment and share your own.

-Cristy Zeller

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