For many of us concerned with social justice, the situation that has been unfolding at the US-Mexico border is highly concerning. In this “tales from the trenches” account, we focus less on our usual practical tips and tools to hear some a-has and takeaways regarding how nonprofits are responding to one of the most disturbing issues facing society today.
In July 2018, I visited McAllen and Brownsville, Texas, in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) as part of a study group seeking to learn more about the current administration’s approach to border security. As board members of a national foster care nonprofit, our initial focus was on children and parents who were routinely separated from each other by ICE personnel enforcing laws that prohibit entry into the US by unauthorized persons. Ultimately, we learned little beyond what the news had already reported about border enforcement. Instead, our most surprising lessons came from observing (and participating) in the nonprofit community’s response to this complex and occasionally stupefying approach to policy and law enforcement.
Lesson 1: This Is Bigger Than It Looks!
We attempted to visit Casa Padre, a migrant youth shelter run by Southwest Key, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas. This shelter is housed in an old Walmart building in Brownsville, TX and at that time held approximately 1,400 immigrant boys in federal custody, 5% of whom had been forcibly separated from their parents. The other 95% were detained as children “who lack lawful immigration status in the United States, who are under the age of 18, and who either are without a parent or legal guardian in the United States or without a parent or legal guardian in the United States who is available to provide care and physical custody.”
So, while jaws drop at the fore-grounded horror of children and parents separated by U.S. law enforcement, in the background lurk thousands of children and youth in custody for undetermined lengths of time as well as millions more in places (speakable and un-) across the planet. According to UNICEF, in 2015, the number of international migrants globally reached 244 million; 31 million of them were children under the age of 18. In the years between 2011 and 2015, more than 247,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended inside the United States alone (Kandel, William A. Unaccompanied Alien Children: An Overview. January 18, 2017. Retrieved from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/R43599.pdf). The practice of family separation lifts up a much larger question about immigration in today’s world: what in the world is happening to, for, and with all of these children? Who knows? Who cares?
Takeaway: In addition to direct services, nonprofits have an important advocacy role to play insuring the rights and safety of children and youth. For example, partly as a result of this trip, the nonprofit I serve has adopted an aggressive advocacy agenda, in addition to its work in foster care.
Lesson 2: Help Happens One Person at a Time
Individuals—adults and children—are at the center of a storm within the storm they are already enduring because of the “choice” to immigrate. The uniqueness of each case came home to us clearly during our visit to the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights in McAllen, Texas. Part of a national nonprofit, the Young Center is a champion for the rights and best interests of unaccompanied immigrant children, making sure that wherever they land, they are safe.
We also visited Catholic Charities RGV Humanitarian Respite Center (Center) in McAllen. The Center opened in 2014 to respond to the increasing number of immigrants crossing the border with insufficient access to food, transportation, or a place to rest. Offering all three, the Center serves approximately 200 cases—individuals, families, and children—each day. Because these people have crossed the border legally, ICE calls the Center when people need assistance, which sends a bus to pick up the person or group of people being released from custody.
Again, these staggering numbers translate into individuals. There was a young woman, eight months pregnant, who had been released to travel to her brother in Brooklyn, who sponsored her appeal for asylum. She had worked her way from Honduras to the border by working as a manicurist in various locations in Mexico and now had a bus ticket for the last leg of the journey, thanks to the Center. A young mom from El Salvador pointed her two daughters out to me: one was reading and the other playing with a group of young girls. They would reunite with her husband in Colorado once travel arrangements were made. In the meantime, they would spend the night at the Center sleeping on the pallets stacked by the wall to make room for people meeting with volunteers who help with their plans. In most cases, such plans depended on contact with a sponsor inside the US: when this did not happen, the Center transported those in need to long-term housing. While the Center clearly was crowded with folks seeking help and caring volunteers, each person’s story was unique as, one by one, people helped people find a way to a better life.
Takeaway: Well-informed advocacy and individualized action can be more helpful than broadside attacks on bad policy.
Lesson 3: Ill-Considered Policy Compounds Wicked Problems
Immigration and the border present what some call “wicked” problems—difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Of late, such problems have been compounded by unjust policies, old-fashioned corruption, and malign intentions that ratchet up the scale to national and international proportions.
As a result, nonprofits working in the RGV must tread a narrow path between advocacy and law enforcement, as they seek to offer principled and high-quality services to their clients. The organizations we met were staunch advocates for the rights of immigrant children and their families; at the same time, they cultivated strong working relationships with the authorities, which allowed them to take on the responsibility of ensuring a safer passage for people entrusted to their care. It’s a double bind: the stronger your advocacy the more you endanger the relationships that make that advocacy possible. Unfortunately, news coverage of the border tends to focus on the notoriety of exceptions (e.g., warehousing children, no basic supplies, profiteering off government contracts, etc.) rather than the hard won, albeit incremental, victories of those who succeed.
Takeaway: Hats off to the people whose nonprofits take on the dual challenge of advocacy and service, and who, for the most part, manage to prevail.
Lesson 4: What Goes Around Comes Around
I’m a child of the sixties who attended countless meetings of folks seeking to ensure civil rights and end U.S. imperialism. At 70, I was the second youngest member of the group—our driver and coordinator Sara was an elder-to-be, in her mid-thirties. All of us sought paths to engagement despite (or perhaps because of) our seniority.
Our search was rewarded in many ways; here are a few highlights:
- We met the folks who stood vigil at Break Bread not Families: every day volunteers fast for 24 hours to witness the suffering of children and families in detention. Their goal was to have 2,400 individual fasts in honor of the 2,400 children in custody at that time. And each day people came to the town square to stand with those who fasted.
- We sat on the floor in a planning meeting at RGV No Border Wall Unofficial Coalition, a grassroots effort that included local organizations as diverse the Democratic Socialists and the Butterfly Center. The meeting was to plan an August demonstration against the wall; at the same time, folks struggled to honor individual issues, such as food for flood victims in the town across the border to concerns for the rights of LGBTQ detainees.
- The most direct connection was meeting with community organizers at LUPE (La Union Puebla Entera), founded by family members of Cesar Chavez, whose union of agricultural workers historic support via a nationwide boycott of grapes was an inspiration for our own work in communities.
So perhaps our old boatful of ideals is still afloat. As elders, we were glad to see that happier vision affirmed by young people of inexhaustible energy and vision who work every day to make life better for people on both sides of the border. As advocates for children and families, we also realize that this work has been going on for a long, long time and will continue well into the future.
Takeaway: While the shape may change over time, nonprofit approaches to social challenges is critically important in times when the U.S. government is less than helpful and sometimes outright malicious.
It takes fire to forge steel. So too does incredible pressure and difficulty forge nonprofit commitment, collaboration, and impact. More than anything, our time at the border taught us that whenever the world faces challenges, and whenever the government fails to act or in fact is the source of the problem, then nonprofits of all sizes and shapes will step up and maintain the balance and compassion we seek in society.
Until retirement, Janet Rechtman co-led Fanning Institute’s nonprofit leadership development and capacity building practice. Janet has a doctorate in the field of Leadership and Change from Antioch University, a Masters from York University in Toronto, Ontario, and a BA from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Her dissertation, On Being a Nonprofit Executive Director, documented the lived experience of nonprofit executives, and is the foundation for her work in leadership development in the sector. Janet lives in Chico, California, where she continues to be engaged with the nonprofit sector and that community’s recovery from the devastating Camp Fire.