Hencer Naun Manchame Garcia and his eight-year-old son arrive at the Greyhound bus station in San Antonio holding a sign: “Please help me. I do not speak English. What bus do I take? Thank you for your help.”
They are refugees from Honduras. Their boots are worn and tattered. The little boy, who appears emaciated, is sick with a cough.
“It was a very difficult trip,” Mr Garcia tells The Independent of his month-long journey to the US-Mexico border, where he and his son legally applied for asylum before being bussed to San Antonio with more than 20 other migrant families. “We spent many days without any food, starving. It was hard to keep my son calm during some of the hard times. But we had to keep walking.”
Within minutes of their arrival, the two are escorted to a corner of the crowded bus station, where dozens of migrant families are waiting in limbo.
Fortunately, they’re not alone. If it weren’t for humanitarian volunteers like Mariela Jasso, who awaits arrivals like these on a daily basis, migrant families would be left at the station without a clue of how to get to their next destination, or what steps they need to take in order to receive asylum.
The young volunteer’s eyes dart across the station as we speak. She’s scoping out possible migrants who are lost and confused.
Migrants like Hencer and his son.
“These are the people coming here legally, but people don’t see them like that,” she says. “We want to make sure we provide them a pathway to success, rather than leaving them stranded at a bus stop with no direction.”
Along with the Interfaith Welcome Coalition, RAICES has a constant presence at the San Antonio bus station, providing migrant families backpacks that contain food and water, as well as legal resources and an itinerary for their travels.
A nun provides Mr Garcia’s son with cough syrup while the father tells Ms Jasso he’s headed to Kansas to be with family. As she explains what buses he needs to take in order to complete the final leg of his trek, Mr Garcia notices another father opening up a backpack for his own son. The two men smile at each other.
It’s a scene that occurs on a daily basis: migrant families arriving at the station after embarking on trips that average three days and in some cases extend for months.
RAICES says it’s committed to helping these asylum seekers because, despite the president’s claims about “criminals” in a migrant caravan heading towards the border, the vast majority of people they see arriving to the United States each day are not gang members or rapists.
Instead, they are folks who have made the most difficult decision of their lives, typically with a common reason in mind: providing a better life for their children.
But the next generation isn’t just one of the main causes for family migration to the United States. In order for the US to overhaul its immigration laws and provide a safe alternative for Latin American refugees, RAICES believes the movement must also be led and shaped by the youth.
The group has existed for decades, and yet it only became known nationally under Mr Trump.
Dave and Charlotte Willner, a California couple, launched a public fundraising campaign on Facebook titled “Reunite an immigrant parent with their child”, shortly after the White House administration implemented a zero tolerance policy in May, which began the systematic separation of families legally seeking asylum at ports of entry along the border.
The campaign went viral, raising $4,000 a minute and surpassing its goal of $20m in under a month.
All of that money has since gone directly to RAICES, which has used the donations entirely for family separations, paying bonds for migrants and ensuring family members can be swiftly reunited once released. It also raised awareness about the work being done by activists along the border, causing a surge in volunteers offering their time and assistance.
Before the zero tolerance policy was announced earlier this year, RAICES had nearly a thousand volunteers mainly based in Texas. By November, the group has swelled to over 9,000 volunteers nationwide.
Armed with national recognition, bankrolled by the anti-Trump resistance and flooded with an ever-increasing team of volunteers, RAICES is now beginning its next phase: influencing US immigration policy with the help of young immigrants and activists across the country.
The RAICES headquarters are located just a few minutes away from the bus station, in an old, Victorian-styled house that served as a former orphanage. The interior decor includes old couches, plastic chairs and vintage artwork, along with stickers on the wall reading: “Families belong together”.
The majority of folks coming in and out of the building are in their early 20s, along with Geovanie Ordonez, the manager of volunteers for RAICES. She tells The Independent that the group’s leadership has convened on several occasions in recent weeks to focus on youth engagement surrounding the issue of immigration reform.
“It can’t just be the older generation that fixes this issue,” she says. “It has to be a collective of the youth; of people who are just registering to vote for the first time and being more politically active.”
Their plan is multi-faceted and targets a range of younger demographics, including children. The day we spoke, Ms Ordonez was preparing to head out for a RAICES-sponsored donation drive with 90 local sixth graders (11-12-year-olds). The organisation hopes to teach local youth in the rather conservative region about the importance of activism and immigrants’ rights.
“We want them not to just collect items, but to understand why they’re collecting these items and why it is they need to be aware of immigration,” Ms Ordonez says.
RAICES is also expanding its presence on college campuses nationwide, working with local student groups to throw fundraisers and awareness events that ultimately benefit immigrants attending university.
“We thought that instead of having them come in and reorganise our donation room or print papers, let’s have them do something on their own campuses and have all that money go back to their campus community,” Ms Ordonez continues. “For example, we have a student group right now that is working on doing a fundraiser for [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival] recipients. That money they come up with will go directly to DACA recipients at that university who may need assistance paying the application fee, which is over $400.”
She adds, “It’s about doing the most we can to have an immediate impact on young immigrants, while providing a new, long-term perspective to other students about what it means to be a DACA recipient or immigrant in this country.”
RAICES is also considering ways to engage with and speak to young conservatives, attempting to reach across the aisle for folks who may be willing to have their opinions changed on immigration.
One of those ideas includes hosting “community conversations” on campuses throughout the US to bring liberal and conservative perspectives together, while RAICES facilitates the conversation.
It’s a method youth activism groups have found success with in recent years, including student survivors of the Parkland massacre, who launched the March For Our Lives group to combat gun violence and have since embarked on a nationwide college campus tour.
“We’re beginning to see a spectrum of youth; not just youth who have been impacted by immigration, but youth who are second generation, youth whose parents may have been immigrants; youth who wants to bring about change,” Ms Ordonez says. “The current administration has really fired up a lot of young people who are starting to become more aware of what’s going on.”
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