Interview With Angry Tía Joyce Hamilton

Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley is a group of South Texas residents working to provide aid to families seeking asylum along U.S./Mexico Border. Joyce Hamilton, 68, is a retired college reading instructor, a grandmother, an environmental activist, and a founding member of the seven-woman coalition.

 Photo Credit: Denise Cathey // The Brownsville Herald

“In June 2018, we discovered around 40 people sleeping and living on the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge waiting to request asylum. This is when metering was happening. At the time, we didn’t even know what to call it. People were sleeping on the U.S. side.

This was the beginning of our formation. It was before they were being pushed back to the international line, and also before the collective realization that people were not being allowed in to request asylum.

The situation was brought to the attention of one of my friends who is an attorney. A group of us from Harlingen, Texas decided we should get a group together to take supplies to them. We didn’t know what they would need, but we would go find out.

We took ice chests with us because the weather was extremely hot. It was probably 100 degrees and it was miserable. We figured that they needed water, ice, snacks, and maybe some diapers. We piled up whatever we could think of.

Not long after, we realized that it was also happening in Brownsville. We started going to the various international bridges.

Within about 10 days of the date we started, asylum seekers were shoved past the international line, into Mexico. It has been about a year and a half and nobody can get past.

Beginning in mid-June 2018, Border Patrol was placed at the international line. That was a totally new concept. Before that, if you lived in the Valley, if you lived along the border, you never experienced being stopped at the middle of the bridge.

With ‘zero tolerance’ came the beginning of a whole new approach to the asylum process which would not allow refugees to get past a certain point.

At the same time that people were pushed back across the line, metering developed. These were arbitrary regulations on who and how many would be allowed to cross that line and go down to the end of the bridge and request asylum.

Over the summer, we were finding people on the bridges in Progreso, which is this tiny town. No one had ever seen people waiting for asylum on the bridge in Progreso.

That was a big shock. We realized that there was a growing number of Cuban asylum seekers.

We started providing food, water, and supplies to the roughly 100 people. That effort ended in August when everyone was finally metered across.

The Mexican government removed everything from that end of the bridge. All the infrastructure, the ice chests, the shower structures, were gone as soon as the last Cuban crossed.

No more people were allowed on the bridge. We’ve seen that happen with Mexican migration, where they stop the flow. Our Tía Jennifer Harbury has been very clear about the coordination between U.S Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Mexican migration.

We’ve observed all of the changes over a year and a half and it has been amazing, shocking, and disturbing. Every time there’s a new development or policy change, we have to shift our energy in that direction.

Matamoros, Mexico is of course the most recent development. This community has suddenly developed over the past six months, even within the past 3-4 months with the implementation of Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) in Brownsville.

Before, there were maybe 65 to 75 people camping out right there on the bridge. There was a great big chart listing people’s names and who was first, second, third, etc.

People and volunteers were crossing and taking food. Team Brownsville created the whole food program. And they actually were a group that started from us. A year and a half ago, we started filling backpacks to take to both the bridges and the bus stations.

When the bus station drop-offs began in Brownsville- in March of this year – the numbers were so large that CBP expanded to handle the flow of refugees. These were people being released from processing. At one point, there were 800 to 900 drop-offs a day.

It was just unbelievable, the incredible level human suffering that we were seeing. In Harlingen, it was like that for about three months.

Well into June, we had a daily operation going on in Harlingen with a group of volunteers and we were assisting roughly 75 people a day.

Families were being dropped off with absolutely nothing, right from the processing stations. They had no shoelaces, no ties, no belts, nothing to eat, no money for their trips.

Susan Law, one of our Tías in McAllen, has faithfully gone to the bus station every day of the week for over a year. In the past few months since the implementation of MPP, there have been days where no one is dropped off at the bus station.

She shifted her focus to the respite center, operated by Sister Norma Pimentel in McAllen. In the past two weeks, it’s Haitians and people from African countries who are being dropped off in fairly large numbers at local shelters.

. . .

We began our efforts on June 13, 2018. I figured out the date about a month or two into all of this.

We were going so rapidly and so constantly that I couldn’t remember when it had all started. One day, I pulled my car over to a curb because we were going all the time, everywhere. I had to get this straight in my head.

By then, there were three of us who were very involved. That was Cindy Candia, myself, and Nayelly Barrios, who joined the day after the first bridge visit. Others started joining.

Jennifer had been contacting me through another friend to say she had been following what we were doing and she wanted us to meet, so we all got together.

We decided that we needed to have a fundraiser, but we didn’t have a name. Jennifer sat back in her chair. She has this really deep and resonant voice, and she said, “Well, you all seem like a lot of angry tías to me.”

And everybody sat back and went, “Well, yeah!” In Mexico, in Central American countries, and in other hispanic cultures, ‘tía’ (aunt) has certain meanings.

I just knew what tías were and I knew we were angry. About two weeks later, we added abuelas because we realized that three or four of us were also grandmothers.

Our formation was in response to our shock and anger over the fact that our country was doing this to people – seeing babies, mothers, and children sleeping on cardboard. This mix of people who were desperate and couldn’t go back.

It was also in response to zero tolerance, which ordered the separation of families. Almost within a day or two of going to the bridges we knew that the people we were seeing would probably be separated from their kids.

We were very angry. And we continue to be angry at injustice and cruelty.

. . .

In Matamoros, one of our main functions right now is purchasing supplies for people in the camp. We’ve organized “free stores” – tents where we take the donations rather than trying to distribute supplies in the middle of everything.

We learned a few months ago to never try to do that because it creates a potentially dangerous, and certainly undignified situation, even with a well-planned distribution strategy.

We learned to identify asylum seekers within that large, growing community who are leaders, who are responsible and reliable. The ones who are going to be there for a while and don’t have court dates until much later.

It has been family units. We had one family that crossed, so we brought in the family next to them to take over the store. People go to that tent to get what they need – if they’re new to that camp or if they run out of supplies.

We’ve had to create all different kinds of systems to get donations across in small amounts because Mexican customs limits the items you can cross with.

A while back, it took us three whole weeks to get 500 duffle bags across. Then we realized that there’s the Walmart, there’s the Sam’s Club, there’s the Home Depot in Matamoros.

Now, we go over there and borrow a van from Pastor Abraham Barberi of Mission Ministries, or from Glady Cañas Aguilar, our Mexican partner. She has been running her program aiding migrants in Matamoros for years.

Cindy just spent two days shopping. They loaded up the vans and took everything to the tents. We also recently purchased 1,500 palettes to raise tents up off the dirt or concrete, otherwise they flood when it rains.

Another thing we did is donate port-a-potties. Toilets are critical if your numbers are up over 1,000. We fought the port-a-potty thing for two to three months with permits being turned down, or permits being promised and then not given.

The ones that were still sitting there a week ago in the plaza – I was there recently when a truck came and just removed them all.

Last week, we were able to give $5,000 to Global Response Management, a team of doctors stationed in the camp, to pay for 100 doses of flu vaccine. We’re looking at the possibility of being able to do more. We wanted to help them get started.

There’s a medical shelter over there called Casa Bugambilia. It opened 25 years ago, but they were asked by Mexican migration to take in asylum seekers in the past year. And they did that, past their capacity.

We’ve been able to provide them with bedding and supplies to help deal with the influx of families.

We all work from our homes and our cars. We don’t have an office, we don’t have a phone number to call. When those funds come in, we’re able to turn that into aid immediately. There’s a convenience to that.

. . .

Our Tía Madeline Sandefur has been going to the Port Isabel Detention Center since the family separation/reunifications began.

This afternoon, she was at the detention center with a volunteer making arrangements to get a detainee bonded out.

She has done incredible work. We’ve noticed that at this point it’s people from African countries who have the longest periods of detention in ICE custody. She helped one woman get out who had been there for two whole years.

These are people who have never committed a crime. They have been made into prisoners and are unable to leave. There’s razor wire all around them and nobody comes to visit on a regular basis.

Our Tía Jennifer is an attorney and is in Reynosa weekly, working with people in shelters. In that particular town, you cannot have a setup like in Matamoros where people are living in a camp near the bridge. The cartels and the gangs are too active and dangerous.

That’s not to say there isn’t gang-related violence in Matamoros. We’ve heard of kidnappings here. There have been people attacked – we’ve personally dealt with some of that. We’ve heard of sexual assaults.

In Reynosa, people are killed for trying to cross the river on their own instead of going to the cartel to pay fees and get permission. If you try to go outside of their criminal structure, you jeopardize your life and the safety of your family.

There is a large shelter in Reynosa called Senda de Vida and Jennifer has been working with them for the past year and a half. She goes in and helps complete asylum applications.

Over there, it’s dangerous for the people to leave the shelter without being in a secure van to get to the bridge – if they are in fact given permission to go to the bridge.

And of course, there’s no tent court. The tent courts were built in Brownsville and Laredo.

Jennifer has also spent time in Nuevo Laredo helping asylum seekers there.

There is an incredible level of substance in her perspective on this situation. She’s well known for her work in Guatemala in the 80s and 90s and the historical books that she has written.

. . .

My project, for about eight to nine months, was to meet 18-year olds at the bus station in Harlingen as they aged out of the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

This was is their first introduction to the United States in most cases – being dropped off at a bus station. These kids are released from child detention on their birthday because they can’t be held as minors any longer.

We were seeing one to three drop-offs a day. I used to walk into the bus station in the morning wearing a name badge – carrying a shopping bag with a pillow, a blanket and various other items.

Detainees are given a generic, government-issued black duffle bag. All of the detention centers use this same black duffle bag, so that’s a quick identifier. I’d carefully approach them and say, “Hola. Feliz Cumpleañeos?”

In almost every case they would just kind of smile and look at me like, “How did you know that?” And I would explain that I’m a volunteer with two shelters.

My pastor’s wife handmade 45 or 50 birthday cards. They’re virtually all very religious and so she made this little wooden cross on a tie. That was tucked into a little envelope with everything in Spanish.

I’d also bring an envelope with $20 and $1 bills and ask them if they know how to use the vending machine. Usually they’d say no. So, I’d take my own dollars and show them how to put a dollar in. We would practice that.

Then we’d sit down to go over the map and plot their trip. This would take a while. “You’re going to change here in this city, it’s going to be 4:00 a.m. and so you’re going to need to be awake.”

They’d look at me in disbelief. I mean, these are 18-year-olds with a ticket that’s going to take multiple days to get to a city in a country they’ve never been before.

I would try to get them to go to a local shelter with the help of one of the directors if the bus left late at night. Gracie, the director at the nearest shelter, is very fluent, very bicultural. She would even come over and meet us. If they hadn’t been convinced before, they would go with her.

I put a team of volunteers together. About two months ago, they started to text me, “I’ve been here since 9:00 and nobody has been dropped off.”

We found out that CBP started dropping the kids off at local shelters like La Posada Providencia in San Benito. Magda Bolland, the director, said that the shelter has been flying them out.

It’s a way better situation now. No more being dropped off at a bus station to try to figure out if this old lady is trustworthy or not – no food, no money, and a bus ticket. Instead, the kids are given a warm, family setting and a plane ticket that takes them straight to relatives or sponsors.”