These are photos from my recent trip to Nogales, Mexico and Tucson, Arizona. I visited asylum seekers, heard their stories and wanted to share them for the world to see. I believe that hope, love and the human spirit are more powerful than border walls and these migrants have taught me to believe in something larger than yourself.
Talking About the Wall, Through the Wall
The tires on Rodger Babnew’s truck scratch to a stop, kicking up dust on the tan gravel in the middle of a hill at La Roca. Massive hornets buzz around as men grab donations from the bed of the silver F150. Babnew and the men chatter about food and climb the steep steps the shelter. A task that has become routine for Babnew.
La Roca is a shelter for asylum seekers who wait at the border to be interviewed for their asylum seeking status. Families are given an alien number, many of them confused because they had travelled for months hoping to be accepted immediately into the United States. In their interview, the families must present documentation and a credible threat for why they are fleeing their hometown. According to the National Immigration Forum, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) requires USCIS to schedule an interview within 45 days after an application for asylum status is filed and must make a decision 180 days after the application date. Babnew says only four families are interviewed per day.
Babnew, an Episcopal Deacon and resident of Nogales, Arizona, spends four days a week crossing the border to serve migrant families. For Babnew, the drive home across the border takes up to two hours due to very few port of entries being open. Over time, he has become fluent in Spanish and helped improve La Roca.
“I folded into the culture here in Mexico since I only live ten miles from the border, it became part of my everyday life,” Babnew said. “In the beginning it was hard because I was just a white guy who didn’t speak Spanish.”
Only 15 yards separate the residents of La Roca and the border wall, the migrants live on a hill and can literally see the ground they wish to be walking on. La Roca is unique because the residents can stay at the shelter during the day. Other shelters in the area require the migrants to leave during the day. The bunk beds are stacked four beds high, and the shelter is bursting at its seams. The best thing about La Roca though, is that the families aren’t separated.
On a monthly basis, Babnew brings nurses, doctors and dentists to La Roca. His generosity extends further when he brings special items such as bibles or crayons for them.
“This medical part is new to us since December but it’s amazing what's been happening with it,” Babnew said.
Once a family’s number is called for their interview and passed their interview, they are ready to begin their long journey across the country. Previously they were dropped off at bus stations or Walmart but in December 2016, The Inn Project changed that.
Gretchen Lopez, the director of The Inn Project, began serving migrants after an ICE employee asked for a place where migrants can temporarily live in Tucson, Arizona. Unlike La Roca, families stay at the Inn for a few hours or days. Lopez and volunteers help cook, clothe, entertain and buy bus tickets as the migrants head to their final destinations.
“I think the higher numbers right now are because of the fear of if they will put up a wall, it's the fear of ‘we need to go now,’” Lopez said.
The Inn Project provides for a variety of migrants. Some are the same families who lived at La Roca who were referred by Babnew, some have entered the United States through the desert, turning themselves into Border Patrol Services to seek asylum status. Lopez says the migrants ask why she’s helping them because they had not received the same kindness through their encounters with the border patrol employees, she reassures them that she cares because they are human and they matter.
“I was definitely a different person before taking this job and spending time with these families,” Lopez said.
Simply put, the asylum seekers want to work. The families who come through La Roca and The Inn Project aren’t drug dealers or felons. They are parents escaping violence such as rape, robbery and murder. They’re protecting their children by coming to the United States, what any U.S. citizen who is a parent would do in their situation.
“The strength of the families we see here, their will and compassion keeps me going,” Lopez said. “Meeting these people and seeing that these really are the people I want in my neighborhood, they are the kids I want my children to go to school with.”
According to Welcoming America, there are local government and nonprofit organizations that are communities for all people, including immigrants. There are organizations in almost every state that provide for the migrants in the asylum seeking process. Casa De Paz, an organization located in Colorado, is a place where you can donate money, material goods and time towards migrants to help their time of transition.
In Babnew’s opinion, the status of immigration isn’t changing. He believes that it’s this next generation’s responsibility to change how the country views migrants because the rhetoric about the border and immigration isn’t true and unless you are present, you really don’t know what it’s like.
The asylum seekers, who risked their lives and life savings to reach the U.S. border aren’t people to fear. They are strong souled people who continue to believe that the United States is a safer place to work and reside.
“Surveys have been done that a lot of people don’t believe in religion, they believe in helping others, they believe there’s always something to be done,” Babnew said. “I am led by faith but others are led by their own faith, call it a faith or call it a consciousness.”
Leaving La Roca, Babnew shared his story and why he does what he does. The dust kicked back up as the truck tires hit the gravel. To these migrants and Babnew, it isn’t a ‘goodbye’, it’s a ‘see you tomorrow’.