Yorker volunteers near border as hundreds of asylum-seekers arrive daily

An ICE bus arrives at the Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas with refugees seeking asylum in the United States.

Hundreds of asylum seekers arriving daily at a shelter in El Paso, Texas, are greeted by volunteers such as Carol Stowell, a Paradise Township resident who recently answered her church's urgent call for help.

The local immigrant advocate returned to York County on Thanksgiving after spending nearly two weeks working with the Annunciation House shelter near the Mexican border, helping the refugees with basic necessities as they begin the asylum process in the United States.

"These aren't dangerous people," Stowell said. "They’re desperate people. They're fathers and mothers with young children. They’re not criminals, just people in very dangerous situations trying to seek safety."

Annunciation House has been welcoming refugees since the 1970s, but a recent wave of about 300 per day sent volunteers scrambling to handle the flow.

Simon Jimente Jr., coordinator of San Juan Diego Centre, a parochial school-turned-shelter recently opened by Annunciation House to help manage the volume, said help has been coming from all over the country, with many hearing about the need from social media or religious networks.

Stowell arrived Nov. 10 after hearing about the need from her church, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of York, and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.

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Fellow volunteer David Usher, a retired minister from the San Francisco area, also learned of the need from his  church's service committee. He described the overwhelming experience in a written statement.

"There was no time for me to receive an orientation, as there were about 80 people who had just been delivered and were in need of immediate care," he wrote. "It was a steep learning curve."

Paradise Township resident Carol Stowell (left) and David Usher (right) volunteer at Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, helping refugees seeking asylum receive care and get connected with friends or family in the United States.

Background: The border has been overwhelmed with asylum seekers from Central America since the summer.

More:Undeterred by Trump, asylum-seekers line up at the border

The Central Americans are fleeing unrest, in some cases fueled by the United States, Stowell said, citing President Donald Trump's recognition of Juan Orlando Hernández as president of Honduras after a contested election last December. 

El Paso is an officially approved border crossing, where refugees can apply for asylum in accordance with international law, Usher explained.

But about a month ago, Homeland Security began releasing families when there was no longer room in its family detention centers.

Jimente said between 70 and 80 were dropped off at the Greyhound bus station on a Friday with no food, money or tickets.

"It's quite cold here" Stowell said, and they only had the clothing on their backs.

Police called the director of Annunciation House, who was able to walk them to the shelter — only a half-mile away — and from there arrangements were made for the nonprofit to welcome any additional refugees who are released.

Now busloads from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are dropped off at Annunication House shelters each day.

Seeking asylum: Once there, they receive food, a shower, shelter for a night or two and medical attention, while volunteers connect them with family members who will host them while they wait to report to immigration court.

Asylum cases can last years, and the percentage granted asylum varies based on the judge, said Pennsylvania Immigration Resource Center director Mary Studzinski.

Overall, Syracuse University tracking data from 2012 to 2017 shows the percentage of people denied asylum grew during that five-year period, from 44.5 percent in 2012 to 61.8 percent last year.

Approval rates tend to be higher for undetained asylum seekers, Studzinski said, and international nonpartisan nonprofit Human Rights First shows that at least 60 percent of immigrant families show up for their court hearings — and 98 percent of those  have legal counsel.

Usher wrote that refugees were "fearful, confused, exhausted, but also grateful that at least they had made it this far and were being welcomed by people who greeted them warmly."

The concern from volunteers now is that children will be separated from their families. They have observed the nearby Tornillo Juvenile Detention Center, which currently holds 1,400 teens age 13 to 17, is expanding.

Carol Stowell, of Paradise Township, is volunteering at Annunciation House, an El Paso, Texas nonprofit helping refugees, in November 2018.

Each day about 300 people who can no longer be held in family detention centers are released to the nonprofit to receive care and be connected to family or friends in the United States while they await their asylum hearing in immigration court.

Incredible support: Annunciation House relies heavily on the local community, which has been generous with donations from local businesses and volunteer groups, including food and Uber rides. 

"It’s just incredible what we can accomplish here," Jimente said, adding that it's "not enough people, but we manage."

Volunteers come and go, he said, especially since not everyone is local, and numbers of volunteers are lower around the holiday season, so more help is always needed.

Usher returned home Nov. 18, and Stowell planned to return on Thanksgiving.

To donate or volunteer, visit annunciationhouse.org.