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!