I Hide Illegal Immigrants In Plain Sight: 6 Secret Realities
It's an election year again, which means your social media will likely be full of people airing their very strong feelings about immigration. But regardless of which side's posts you're sharing on Tumblr, everyone can probably agree that the current immigration laws are fucked. Torn between the choices of "Build a huge Donald Trump border wall!" and "Let these poor bastards in!" America picked a horrible middle ground in which lots of people sneak across the border in hopes of finding something better, only to wind up in a truly shitty situation on the other side. They're human beings, and there aren't many places they can go for help. So some of them turn to illegal shelters, such as "Immaculate Home" in Texas. We talked to someone who worked at Immaculate Home to find out what it's like to operate this kind of outlaw charity. He told us ...
They Hide In Whatever Gray Areas Exist In The Law
On the south side of a certain Texas city, blocks away from a courthouse and international consulates, stands a two-story red brick building. The building has no sign. It does have a website, which calls it "Immaculate Home" and says that it shelters the poorest of the poor. But if you go inside, you'll find exactly one kind of poor sheltered there: people who are in the country illegally. Officially, Immaculate Home can't reveal this, because illegal immigration is of course a federal crime -- and so is harboring illegal immigrants.
In real life, Pa and Ma Kent would have to sell their farm to pay for legal fees.
However, their mission is really an open secret locally. "I hesitate to say 'secret' at all," says Alex, who worked there as a volunteer. The town is one of several "sanctuary cities" in Texas, where police generally don't enforce immigration law and the general public is aware of what's happening and most seem to be okay with it. (And again, this is in Texas. Stereotypes are made to be broken.) Through word of mouth, some of these immigrants hear that Immaculate Home is a great place in which to lay their heads. The shelter is funded almost entirely by local Catholic churches.
Early on in his time there, a coordinator told Alex that he had to hide Immaculate Home's true purpose from all outsiders. "I repeated that idea to another volunteer or administrator," he says, "and they laughed. Everyone who might care already knew what we did." And yet whenever he received a phone call from officials asking about specific immigrants ("guests," as the house calls them), his official instructions were to lie and deny any knowledge whatsoever. It's illegal in the sense that downloading a copy of Photoshop off BitTorrent is illegal -- no matter how many people have done it, if anyone comes asking about it, you better play stupid.
"'Rodriguez?' No. We do have a Freedom Jones and a Liberty Smith, though."
So while local police don't go out of their way to check people's immigration status, there's still a constant fear of la migra (the immigration police) among those who stay in the home. And once, years before Alex's time, a guest opened the door and accidentally let in an officer from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Every guest in the house was arrested and deported.
So today, the volunteers refuse entry to police and lie to officers on the phone. And if that means breaking the law, well, why stop there?
They'll Help Immigrants Sneak Across Borders (Within The US)
Even after an immigrant has entered Texas via Mexico, often having trekked from Central America or farther still, their journey still isn't over. They could, if they choose, take their chances sticking around in a sanctuary city -- the local policies make it easy, and there are enough Spanish speakers to make it feel like home. But to get jobs, which was kind of the reason they made their way here, they have to go farther up and farther in. That usually means north and east, which means hitting more border crossings, because there's a whole network of internal border checkpoints within the US to catch them.
The final goal is to replace 75 percent of farm land with walls.
So how do you cross an internal border? The same way lots of people get across the Mexico-US border: by stowing away on freight trains. And hopping on a train becomes a whole lot easier when you have some friends from Immaculate Home driving you to the jump spot and guiding you on how and when to make the leap.
"Those drop-offs could be considered beyond the pale," says Alex, "in terms of harboring unauthorized people passively vs. actively enabling further crimes." So each person in the house has to make an individual decision about how far they're willing to go in doing this. One volunteer got a scholarship to law school, and he figured that if this offense is ever linked to him, he could kiss his dreams of being an immigration lawyer goodbye. "He did drive young men to jump on the train," says Alex, "but drew his own line in the sand." He'd drive them to a certain point but declined to take them all the way up to the train. He gave them instructions but didn't specifically yell "Jump!" when the time came.
He'd just play Van Halen when needed.
And right about here is where some of you lost sympathy for what the home does. Why would they take the extra step of guiding these people through the illegal and dangerous train-hopping process? The answer is that it's more dangerous if they don't help. The freight train running the length of Mexico into the US is called el tren de la muerte because of how many migrants die on it (sometimes by decapitation), and the train within the US is even harder to board because it runs faster. A little less assistance or vaguer instructions from buddies at Immaculate Home can mean a few extra immigrant heads rolling on the train tracks.
It's kind of like how many parts of the world have come around to the idea of supplying clean needles to heroin addicts (not that we're equating illegal immigration and drug use). On one hand, yes, you're helping people continue to break the law. But if you're trying to save the lives of people already living outside the law, then everything is a gray area.
People Fake Being Undocumented To Get In
Check yourself into Immaculate Home and you get a place to sleep, with the unspoken deadline for your departure a long while off. You also get food and some companionship. It's more fun than a homeless shelter. They don't kick you out during the day, for starters, and they don't shut the doors in your face if you come back too late at night (either measure would leave guests far more likely to be deported). In fact, if you have nowhere else to go, it sounds like a good option even if you're not an illegal immigrant. So when Alex vetted potential guests, he had to check whether they were in the country legally, and then turn away those who were. Which is the opposite of what happens almost everywhere else.
Now, to do this, he could never make them prove that they were here illegally. "How could anyone prove a negative?" he explains, "That they DON'T have papers?" Instead, he'd have to talk to them, get a handle on their situation, and follow his intuition. Maybe the person would be chronically homeless. Maybe they'd appear to be the victim of domestic abuse, or have some similar reason unrelated to immigration for seeking a secret shelter. Maybe they would just come across as legal, which is a distinction we don't exactly get, but which he understood with experience. Alex would have to turn all such people away by lying that the home had no room.
"Oh, that bed is being used by ... a ghost. See? You really don't wanna stay here."
"It felt weird to be told to lie when I was working for a religious organization and felt like I was doing something for the 'greater good,'" he says. He couldn't tell them the real reason he was rejecting them. The official story is still that the place takes in anyone who needs help, not only those here illegally. So he'd routinely spend 15 or 20 minutes on the phone with someone, listening to their tragic life story, before saying "Sorry, all our beds are full" and naming nearby shelters that could take them in.
If this sounds like madness, keep in mind that those other shelters likely turn away illegal immigrants. The idea is to keep spots open for those who truly have no other options. In fact ...
Even ICE Will Occasionally Drop Off An Immigrant They Can't Handle
ICE holds tens of thousands of immigrants awaiting deportation or hearings in 200-odd specially dedicated lawyer-free detention centers. They're required by law to keep 34,000 beds ready, and the inmates there learn to seriously question their decision to sneak into America when detention offers such joys as hunger, inadequate medical care (leading to penis amputation, then death), sexual abuse, and an epidemic of suicide.
It's worse than jail, and is for those charged for no crime.
Now get this: Once, Alex answered the door and a saw a couple of ICE officers standing there. This would usually be a cause for alarm, considering the status of everyone in the house, but they weren't there to pick anyone up -- they were there to drop someone off. She was from Central America, she was eight and a half months pregnant, she'd been in detention, and they had no idea what to do with her. So they palmed her off on Immaculate Home. "Little bit of genuine compassion in the law," sums up Alex, "and a little bit of 'We don't want to deal with her giving birth here.'"
The official reason for the release was "humanitarian parole," but this hadn't been explained to the woman, who seemed to think she was being transferred to a new, disarmingly domestic jail. "I tried to comfort her as best I could," says Alex, "but it was clear that as a white male in a position of authority, she did not trust me." We'll never know how the home would have dealt with her giving birth, because within a week, she managed to get on a plane to fly to family elsewhere in the country.
You know someone is uneasy when they choose to deal with the TSA over you.
Another time, officers arrived with a guy from East Africa who'd been living in Arizona illegally. They asked if they could come in, which gave Alex the opportunity to cross his arms and say, "HE can come in." They left the man and took off, and Alex felt pretty awesome for standing up to officers with guns. He felt considerably less awesome shortly afterward, when he realized that the home's new guest was schizophrenic. The officers had got him to accept unofficial custody of someone he had no ability to properly care for -- the home stocks no medication, and they'd probably end up shut down if they were caught illegally dispensing any.
It may seem unfair of us to describe the guests as irritating burdens rather than fellow human beings in crisis, but the fact is ...
You Can Get Tired Of These People (And Feel Awful For Feeling That Way)
Immigrants aren't all angels. One guest was chronically homeless (normally outside the home's purview, but they made an exception) and also chronically drunk, regularly coming in with vomit all over him, breaking the house rules against alcohol. Finally, Alex woke him, saying, "Tiene que levantarse. Necesitamos que se vaya. Inmediatamente!" (You have to get up. We need you to leave. Immediately!). The drunk man, who up to this point had claimed to speak only Spanish, slurred in perfect English, "Man, gimme a break ... geez." They'd given him enough breaks -- Alex kicked him out.
"Now you're free to vomit in the streets, like a true Texan."
A 30-year-old guest hooked up with an 18-year-old volunteer (the volunteer was kicked out for that; the guest was asked to leave a year later). Another seemed like what your racist uncle assumes all immigrants are like: She had kids by three different fathers, let them run wild and steal candy, and stayed at the house for years with no apparent plans of doing anything with her life.
Then there was a couple from a Mexico border town whom Alex remembers as being just awful to him. They kept mocking his handwriting, his face, and the way he talked (his Spanish is noticeably American). "Basically, I just knew that they were unpleasant people. I mentioned that fact to the other volunteers, who sort of looked away uncomfortably and never explained." Then he attended an immigrant advocacy event one night, and when the time came for the guests of honor to speak, he was surprised to see the couple take the stage.
He tensed up and prepared for a round of "Let's Roast Alex."
They wore bandanas over their faces to avoid being identified, but he recognized them by their voices. Their story was about being picked up by the police back in Mexico, the charge never exactly explained to them. Police had interrogated them about various people they'd never heard of, and when they failed to provide any answers, the police stuck safety pins into them, lavishing special attention on the nipples. And in the audience, Alex suddenly felt really stupid for judging all these people and "caring that they had been 'mean' to me."
It Can Sometimes Feel Ultimately Pointless
Alex doesn't know what happens to most of the guests once they decide to leave the house. "The fact is, we didn't keep statistics on that, and I assume that this policy was highly intentional. The less we knew, the less we could report to any hypothetical judge / ICE officers who decided to come down hard on us."
They don't think judges use nipple pins, but they don't wanna find out.
He recalls one migrant whom he followed especially closely. Some years back, he taught special ed for a period in Guatemala, and a teacher there later told him online that his wife was setting off solo to sneak into the US. Alex tracked her progress as best as he could through her husband, and she made it across somehow into Arizona. Then she got into Texas, where she was detained by ICE. People from Immaculate Home managed to get in touch with her, and even secondhand, it seemed like the end of an epic quest to Alex. But the woman soon accepted deportation and went right back to Guatemala.
"I remember one of the house coordinators said in reference to guests, 'Well, but, when they get deported ...' and I don't remember the second half of the sentence because I was shocked. 'Don't you mean, IF they get deported?' I asked. She simply shrugged."
And back when she started, someone probably shrugged at her when she asked the same question.
And if that's their fate, you might say that harboring illegal immigrants doesn't accomplish a whole lot. Giving food to the hungry and shelter to the homeless are works of mercy, says Alex. But it seems that much of the time, you're giving people some comfort in the middle of a round trip right back to the same terrible place they were before. In a movie, there'd always be some scene at the end where you meet the person months or years later, having put their lives together, offering a nice "Thank You" for being there when they were at their worst. In the real world, you do your best for people, and then they disappear into the wastelands like Mad Max.
"The reality was, their being deported was completely and utterly outside of our control," says Alex. "We did everything we could to ensure that it didn't happen while they were at the house -- literally while they were inside of the building -- and we advocated in court for those who had a real case. But ultimately, we couldn't stop men with guns from doing their jobs."
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