A Paducah woman spent a week earlier this month at the Mexican border, witnessing firsthand the immigration tumult that has made national news.
Missy Eckenberg, of Paducah, was invited by her daughter, Sarah Hendley, to join her in doing volunteer work at a shelter in Laredo, Texas, during the first week of August. Hendley works with Catholic Charities USA in its Peer Navigator AmeriCorps Program.
"There has been a true longing in me to move beyond the rhetoric and understand the truth and the humanity of the issue," said Eckenberg, a Paducah Rotarian and former Rotary district governor. "Sarah sent me the book, 'The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches From The Border,' by Francisco Cantu and recommended that I read it to understand some of the issues involved."
Soon after receiving the book, Hendley told Eckenberg about an opportunity to join her group at La Frontera, a Laredo shelter set up to help those seeking asylum in the United States. It works to provide a secure place for people seeking asylum as they travel to their sponsor families.
"Records from July indicated the largest number of migrants for this shelter were coming from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador," Eckenberg said. "The largest number we served in one day was approximately 90."
Eckenberg worked in the donations room, coordinating clothing, toiletries and other donated items.
"While I was there, the volunteers were from Kentucky, Washington, D.C., New York, California, Massachusetts, Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania and Missouri," she said. "Many were bilingual, although for those of us who were not, there was support work to be done, and my focus was dealing with donations of clothing, food and supplies."
Eckenberg said those coming into the U.S. seeking asylum were placed in detention centers.
"During their stay, everything is taken from them -- even shoelaces, hair ties, belts and cellphone charging cords -- to prevent suicide and potential harm to others," she said. "When they are released, they may be able to reclaim money or cellphones, if they can be located."
Asylum seekers were given water and children were given Pedialyte. The first stop inside the shelter was the intake room, where families waited to have their name, home country, sponsor family location and phone number entered into the computer system.
They were then given an opportunity to use a cellphone to call their sponsor family, and volunteers worked with the sponsor family to secure bus tickets for each family member.
Each family then went into the "Ropa Room," where donated clothing was displayed. ("Ropa" is Spanish for "clothes.") Each family member was able to "shop" for one full outfit of clothes, including shirt, pants, a belt, underwear, socks and shoes.
"The guests had just come from detention, and their current clothes were not clean," Eckenberg said.
"They had not had a shower in some time, so they were asked not to try the clothes on until after a shower. If the clothes did not fit, volunteers helped the families find better alternatives before they continued their journey. This became my specialty."
After the Ropa Room, the asylum seekers were given an opportunity to take a shower, wash their hair and brush their teeth. All of the hygiene products were provided by donations to the organization.
During their stay, families were able to get rest and spend time together. There was a dedicated children's room where Eckenberg interacted with the children.
"While in the room, the children spoke to me at length and I listened and smiled intently, even though I did not understand until one boy exclaimed that a certain toy was 'squishy,' which I understood and could nod and agree that it did, indeed, feel squishy," she said.
Eckenberg said she went to Laredo hoping to find the humanity in a situation she had just heard about through news and commentary.
"It's in the news almost every day," she said. "So, the question was: What is the reality of it? Many times, we'll hear numbers, but where was the face of humanity in it? I hope any change comes through wisdom and compassion.
"There is still so much to understand. There are many issues, and I don't have the answers. But, I saw the faces, I saw the people and I saw the goodness in these people. That was very important to me, to see the humanitarian part of it."