Processing Refugees at Annunciation House Locations
Refugees arrive at one of 10 Annunciation House (AH) sites in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) buses from the El Paso detention center. Ours was the Soluna Hotel. AH would contact our coordinator, alerting him of the imminent arrival of a bus and how many persons were coming, the majority from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, with others from other countries.
Helping refugees with initial registration process
First lunch, something to eat and drink. All sorts of emotions are displayed, but particularly crying, hungry children and weary, weary adults, all needing showers and clean clothing. Volunteers dispense a slice of pizza per person, and depending on a second bus arrival, may allow for “seconds.” Insufficient chairs are available so people sit wherever they can, mostly down the hallway leading toward the registration table. Once lunch is over, volunteers begin to process families, one at a time. A form used to document arrivals is completed, and contacts are made with U.S. family members who then make bus or plane reservations. Families call the AH volunteer back providing confirmation of reservations, enabling staff to plan for the duration of their Soluna Hotel stay, ensuring reunions within days.
While families stand in line, a volunteer cuts off the ICE identification wristband, and when possible, gives a pair of shoelaces and a toothbrush per person while supplies last. Once supplies are exhausted, refugees go without. Shoelaces, belts, all extra clothing, jewelry, phones and money are confiscated upon entry to the detention center, although jewelry, cell phones and money are returned. Shoelaces and extra clothing are discarded.
Awaiting calls from family
Once initial registration is completed, families are placed in Soluna hotel rooms, usually two families (usually one parent and one child) are assigned to a room using queen size beds, or one large family to a room with a king size bed. Instructions are given to keep the door unlocked during the day because no refugee family has a room key, the sink water is safe to drink, toilet paper is all that goes into the toilet (perhaps even a demonstration of how to use the toilet), and very importantly, placing the shower curtain inside the tub when showering. After cleaning up, refugees await calls from family members with transportation information.
‘Families are allowed only one change of clothes per person, and if nothing fits or there are no donations, doing without.’– Rosemary Casey
One hotel “supply” room has both medications stored and dispensed from the bathroom, and limited supplies of donated clothing, Pampers of all sizes, baby wipes, baby formula, bottles, pacifiers, some donated clothing and basic supplies stored as is possible. Families are allowed only one change of clothes per person, and if nothing fits or there are no donations, doing without.
Trying to ensure all are fed
Dinner, usually fried chicken, green beans, potatoes, macaroni and cheese and rolls, get portioned out by volunteers to ensure everyone is fed. Dinner generally arrived between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m., though it could also arrive later. People wait patiently until they’re able to eat, and then help clean up the area, sweeping, taking out trash and wiping down tables.
Back on the road again
Departures usually occur late afternoon, evening and early morning. Drivers take family information from the bulletin board, with destination and confirmation numbers, pick up prepared bags of PB & J sandwiches, snacks, fruit and a bottle of water per person, and one or more families for delivery to a bus station. Airport departures also receive prepared food bags but don’t get water because of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requirements. Instructions are given regarding destinations, changing buses or airplanes and sometimes TSA walk-throughs at the airport. Within 72 hours of arrival at Soluna Hotel the refugees are gone.