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Over seventy households rally to release asylum-seeker from detention, in less than 24 hours

Friends,  I share this perhaps overly detailed story of my weekend to say how much I appreciate each of you, who have done so much to “welcome…” just one “stranger.”  We  CAN rally with kindness to shut out hatred, despair, and apathy.

On Thursday, December 22, 2016, I received a call from Shalok, an asylum-seeker from Hondruas who had been locked up in ICE detention centers since mid-October, first in Del Rio (Val Verde County) and Pearsall (Frio County), Texas, and then in Otero County, New Mexico, and finally back to Pearsall again. Shalok was calling to tell me that the Asylum Office had found Shalok to have a (positive) credible fear finding of persecution, should Shalok be forced to return to Honduras.  ICE had set a bond of $1500.  Shalok was eligible for release, and a cousin, Jennyfer, in New York, would welcome Shalok.  Release would not mean asylum or the right to stay in the U.S., but temporary release from detention in order to pursue their claims for asylum, withholding of removal, and protection under the Convention Against Torture (CAT) in immigration court.  But Shalok had no money to pay the bond or to travel to New York.

Kind people from the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project had enthusiastically agreed to help Shalok when I’d written the organization several weeks earlier, but at the time I’d spoken with Jamila Hammami, I didn’t know when we would need help (we had no idea when the Asylum Office would render its finding), what kind of help we would need (bond and travel money, or support to obtain a reversal of a negative credible fear finding), or — if we would need bond money — how much we would need.

Shalok had told me that most people in a similar situation — asylum seekers with no criminal history who were in the U.S. for the first time — were getting $1500 bonds, but Jamila warned that QDEP nationally had seen that bonds were at least $7500.  Too, I’ve known the San Antonio ICE to set much higher bonds or no bonds at all.

The nervous, not-knowing had kept Shalok, Jennyfer, my colleague Victoria, and me on-edge.  I was especially afraid that if the Asylum Office failed to find that Shalok showed a credible fear of persecution, I’d have to accompany Shalok to a judicial review of a negative credible fear finding, reviews for which there is often little or no notice.  Also, although I’ve been in the San Antonio immigration court frequently, I hadn’t been in the Pearsall immigration court in well over two years (since ICE began detaining families in Karnes City in August 2014).  I don’t know the judges, and that, too, is nerve-wracking. The only thing I could actually do to prepare was to find, read, and amass articles on the persecution of queer people in Honduras.  That task takes a toll, and No, I’m not used to it. 

The answers Thursday brought were happy ones, at least happy in the immigrant-detainee-advocacy-world.  Positive credible fear!  Only $1500!  But the timing was bad: QDEP and other friendly non-profit organizations from which I might have sought help were closed for the holidays.  We were on our own.

On Thursday, I thought it would be difficult, if not impossible to get Shalok out of detention before Christmas, but worth trying.  Where were we going to come up with $1500? I started awkwardly trying to explain the situation and encourage my friends to help us out, but had no good idea as how to do so.  People were offering to send checks or drop money by the office, but I couldn’t see it all coming together in time.  I wanted to keep my pessimism to myself, but it seemed that neither PayPal and Venmo would work (these were options I barely understood, anyway), and I was GoFundMe seemed dubious.  My suspicion seemed to be validated by my first starts, when GoFundMe replied with harsh messages that I seemed to be violating their conditions.  Apparently, “bond” and “prison” (even when modified by “immigration”) are dirty words to GoFundMe.  (We need to work on this, friends — ending detention for those without money and abolishing or drastically limiting prisons, private or public or combinations thereof.)  

I was about to give up when Liana Hudson Fixell (my soon-to-be-daughter-in-law) followed up an earlier inquiry with How’s it going? She encouraged me to keep trying.  Nakay Flotte, the friend who had introduced Shalok and me to one another, posted an appeal with a photo, which I immediately borrowed.  By about 8 pm — five hours or more after I’d started — I finally launched the campaign titled “Get Shalok from Pearsall, TX, to New York.”  I hated the phrase and the punctuation but had to work within a character limit.  Soon the first donation showed up on the GoFundMe site.  It was from Liana: sweet! I fell asleep on Thursday feeling grateful and hopeful on many levels.

Still, I was not prepared for what happened overnight.  In the morning, I was astonished and gratified to see the many donations, mostly small, and kind words that had been pouring in.

I checked the ICE website and saw that ICE processed bonds at certain locations, including the South Texas Detention Complex in Pearsall, from 9 am to 3 pm on every work day.  Though we didn’t yet have enough money for the bond, Tom Kolker (my husband) and I headed south for Pearsall; we knew it would take us two or three hours to get to Pearsall and several hours to process the bond.  Fueled by faith in family, friends, and community, Tom drove (thank you!) and I watched the GoFundMe page as donations rolled in, and kept in touch with Jennyfer, who was even more anxious than I was, and other good people by phone and texts.

As we neared Pearsall, we realized we really were going to make our goal.  We didn’t know when we would be able to get Shalok on a plane to New York, and I started thinking about how to show hospitality to our guest for however long we needed to do so, but we knew we would be able to pay the bond that day.  The donation that carried us to our bond goal came from Camille Owens, who is also, at least functionally if not in my name, my daughter-in-law.  Sweet!

We pulled into Pearsall right around noon, and by about 12:30, I’d filled out the required “Obligor” form and handed the two money orders (redacted-bond-money-orders-for-shalok)to the GEO (private prison) staff to give to ICE.  And then I heard, “No more today.  The ICE officers want to go home.”

Yikes!  We’d just made it.  Had we arrived even fifteen minutes later, Shalok would have had to wait until Tuesday to get out.  Fine people who walked in right after we did were told, “No, no more bonds today.”  What!?!?  There’d been no notice of a change in hours.  I was struck by the unfairness, stung by the disappointment in the eyes of family members.

And then I started to hear GEO employees tell arriving family members and lawyers that they wouldn’t be able to see the people whom they’d come to visit, because there was a flu going around in the prison and some (many?) people were quarantined.

I am ashamed to say that I didn’t stick up for anyone else.  It was wrong — but I just wanted to get Shalok out that day.  I was single-minded.

At about 2:30, I signed the contract with ICE for the bond (redacted-bond-receipt-for-shalok-on-23-december-2016). The officer confirmed that Shalok was not in one of the quarantined units.  That was a big relief.  The ICE officer told me Shalok would be getting out around 5:00 p.m., but when I walked back out into GEO-territory, the staff said, No way, it will be sometime between 7 and 9 p.m.  Everyone advised us to go to lunch, and we did.

Returning to Pearsall and waiting those last hours, I received a call from Donna Blevins and Elvia Arreola, who offered their Southwest Texas travel points to fly Shalok to New York.  Whoa!!!  This exciting, generous offer made me cry out in joy.  I must have making a lot of happy noise: GEO staff made me leave the lobby.

Hours more of waiting.  At just about 8:00 p.m., Jennyfer texted me to ask if there was any news, and I had started to answer, Still just waiting.  Then I turned and saw and ICE officer with four tired but happy looking people, Shalok among them.  The faces of everyone else blurred.  Shalok and I hugged, I introduced Tom, and we walked out of the detention center into the mild, soft air.

!Estoy alegre!  !Estoy super-alegre! Shalok kept saying.  We stopped twice: at the Pearsall HEB for a little nourishment (strawberry yogurt for Shalok), once for gas somewhere, and at the Seguin Starbucks (forgive us).  I sat in the back on the way home, relieved and delighted to hear Shalok’s laughter and that of Jennyfer via Face-time.

On Saturday, Shalok and I shopped*  at Savers on Burnet Road and Target, stopping in between for lunch at Sarah’s Mediterranean Grill and Market. There, our hosts remembered me from earlier visits and correctly surmised that it was Shalok’s first time.  The complimentary baklava they used to say “welcome” to Shalok, and “thank you for bringing your friend here” to me tasted particularly sweet.  At last Shalok could experience the graciousness of our United States.

Meanwhile, Elvia, Donna, and Tom were figuring out flights.  We’d collectively decided — Shalok most emphatically — that we needed to find a flight where Shalok would not need to change planes (redacted-southwest-flight-reservation-for-shalok-25-december-2016 ).  Reservations made, we repeated a refrain so often that it became a joke.  Just DON’T get off in Nashville.

Many kind people offered to include Shalok in their Christmas Eve and Christmas Day plans… services at St. James Episcopal Church, a welcoming lunch, pies…..  What a beautiful community we live in.  Shalok had dinner with Gus Bova, his family visiting from Kansas, and friends including other Honduran refugees.  They ended their evening singing Christmas carols, in many languages, at Casa Marianella.

By the time kind Gus delivered Shalok back to our house, I’d already crashed.  (Tom and I had gone to a wonderful Hanukah party at which Shalok also would have been welcome, but we figured Shalok would enjoy Christmas festivities more.)   We all got up at 4:30 on Sunday morning, leaving plenty of time to explain why Shalok didn’t have the same kind of government-issued, color-photo ID card that the security folks at the airport would demand.  (ICE takes, and keeps, the passports and IDs of refugees and immigrants it arrests.)  The Southwest airlines employees could not have been sweeter or more accommodating.  As this was Shalok’s second flight ever (the first being an involuntary trip from detention in Texas to detention in New Mexico) they offered Tom and me “gate passes” to accompany Shalok,

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees, I have to assume, were unhappy to be working at 5 am on Christmas.  It wasn’t pretty.

But yesterday, as Tom and I left our house for a glorious “3rd Annual Jews and Muslims Eat Chinese Food on Christmas” event, my phone lit up with a face-time video from Jennyfer and Shalok, together in a car leaving LaGuardia Airport.

Seventy-one households donated money to get Shalok from detention in Pearsall to family and (relative) freedom in New York, and there were many additional generous people who donated their time, labor, expertise, and material goods along the way.

Shalok has not yet earned asylum.  And life is difficult for recently-arrived refugees, or those who are just getting out of detention.  They don’t yet have employment authorization, and few of their families are well-off.  The struggles are far from over.  But I feel so hopeful at this moment.

Ugly 2016, you’re in the rearview mirror.  2017, you don’t scare me.  Fling your hate, your bigotry, your xenophobia.  Most people are exceedingly generous, given the opportunity.  Community is more powerful than hate.  Love is more powerful than fear.

* Friends, I set up the fund saying we would use the money for bond, air fare, and a donation to the Queer Detainee Empowerment Project (QDEP).  Thanks to Elvia’s and Donna’s donation of Southwest frequent traveler points, we didn’t have to pay the air fare, and enough of you had donated $ with the message that I should use it as I see fit.  So I used part of your contributions to  outfit Shalok with clothes and necessities before the trip to cold NYC.  Here are the receipts, receipts-from-savers-and-target-24-december-2016-shalok.  If any of you objects, I’m happy to send refunds for your donation, or forward yours directly to QDEP.

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