U.S. immigration detention facilities released an unusual number of Central American asylum-seekers this past weekend, and many of them ended up in a downtown San Antonio bus station.
Meanwhile, local nonprofits scrambled to provide assistance.
At the Greyhound bus station in San Antonio, a group of 30 migrants just released from holding cells and detention centers in Dilley and Karnes counties waited for their bus to Dallas and transfers to cities all over the country.
An impatient toddler pulled on his mother's arm, knocking over the suitcase with Buzz Lightyear hanging off the handle.
The boy’s donated novelty T-shirt said, “Ladies, I have arrived.”
Perhaps that incongruous decal would elicit laughs in another context. Here, it was somehow poignant.
The mother pulled on the suitcase and shuffled to the next place in another long queue.
The boy held Buzz Lightyear’s hand and fidgeted in place.
Around mid-morning the next day, the Interfaith Welcome Coalition was set up, ready to face throngs of families being released on the border.
This week, they are seeing twice as many families on any given day. Why now? It’s a confusing motive some believe is part of the Trump administration’s creation of optics to help generate mid-term anxiety for potential Republican voters.
Some think the releases will make room for the caravan of migrants coming from Central America.
According to a statement from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the releases are part of its efforts to hold to its own imposed limits and laws regarding the number of people it can reasonably accommodate.
The only reality for Sister Denise LaRock, bus station coordinator of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition in San Antonio, is that the families arriving at the bus station need help.
The coalition offers snacks and toiletries. They help interpret the English on the bus tickets to the newly-arrived-about-to-depart-again for parts north.
On this day, the team of volunteers sets about to review tickets of those on the latest bus to arrive — all women and children from the detention center in Dilley, Texas.
Those with connecting buses leaving immediately are sent to the front of the line — perhaps the only time these families have ever been at the front of any line, literally or figuratively.
Those with longer layovers line up in another part of the bus station where volunteers announce that they will be escorted to the Travis Park Methodist Church, where they can momentarily escape the cold, the noise and chaos, the unpleasant smells of institutional cleaning product mingled with exhaust, and the funkiness of the well-used bus station.
Sister Constanza, a new arrival from Mexico herself, tells the group to brace themselves.
It will be cold inside the church. She hugs herself and goes "brrr" — the mime meant to show the children what to expect. It is another motherly warning of what to anticipate to make the unexpected and unfamiliar easier to bear.
A few mothers squint up at the sun, warming the group.
But when we walk the short hallway and enter the playroom, no one notices anything, distracted instead by the magical ways the children, once quiet and clinging to their mothers, come alive, move away from them, start laughing, talking to each other, pulling toys off the shelf, hugging dolls and teddy bears, building towers of blocks, connecting magnetic train cars together and make that universal choo-choo sound for train cars, or vroom-vroom for cars, or pshoo-pshoo for tiny rockets.
The other volunteers continued the work of translating the information on the bus tickets for the women but among this particular group of volunteers, only Constanza spoke Spanish and asked for my help to translate.
When I approached, this mother tried to dissemble the fact that she was crying. “¿Que le pasa?” I asked. “No. Nada. Nada,” she insisted.
After some prodding, she finally nodded toward the middle of the room.
“Mi niña,” she said. In Spanish, she added, “Look at how skinny she is. She hasn’t eaten in four days.”
I looked across the room at the girl about 4 or 5 years old. Thin and pale she was, assuredly.
“At least she is smiling now,” added the mother at the sight of the girl playing with a small doll.
A volunteer leaped to her feet and escorted the two to the lunchroom. She said she would see about supplementing the meal with a nutritional drink.
“Surely now, her appetite is back,” we said, smoothing the weeping mother’s shoulder, patting her arm and leading her out into the hallway.
Before I left the playroom, I noticed that all the mothers sat together on the floor, resting their heads against the wall, closing their eyes for a few minutes. Here they were in another large room to hold them all in. But, this time, they are all together: mothers and children.
While they wait for the next bus that will carry them to another city, they will eat a real meal, the children will watch a Disney cartoon. The room is not too cold. No one minds that there are no chairs to sit in.
There is no crying.
There is only the sound of children, comforting smiling dolls and chubby bears, pushing trains along invisible tracks, winning all the races, stretching arms up toward the sky, guiding the rockets to infinity and beyond.
Yvette Benavides is a regular contributor and commentator for TPR. She is a professor of creative writing at Our Lady of the Lake University.