The Women of RAICES Texas Giving Immigrants a Voice

For her 27th birthday this past May, Lucia Allain traveled to the border. A citizen now, she’d grown up undocumented in New York City, a Peruvian immigrant whose mother worked so many hours and spoke so little English that it fell to Allain to attend parent-teacher conferences for her little brother. Birthdays weren’t really a thing. But this year, as part of the traveling she does for her job, she went to El Paso to collect the stories of asylum seekers who’d come to the United States for refuge. The people she met had been allowed in, for now—the fortunate few who would get to plead their cases. But with court dates far in the future, the migrants had been deposited at a bus station. These were stories not of the triumphant “good immigrant,” who’d started a small business or become a doctor or an engineer. Theirs were stories like her own, which so often go unheard.

Allain is the communications manager for RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. Founded in San Antonio in 1986 as waves of refugees migrated north, farther from the civil wars savaging Central America, RAICES provides legal services to immigrants in federal detention. It now has 11 offices across the state of Texas. The organization serves a range of clients—unaccompanied children, single adults, and families—but its employees are majority female, and women hold most of the leadership positions. Many come from immigrant families themselves.

Marie D. De Jesús

You know them. In April 2018, when the Trump administration instituted its “zero tolerance policy,” referring all adult migrants entering the country illegally for criminal prosecution, the Department of Homeland Security began separating them from their children and transferring children into the care of the Department of Health and Human Services. The nation erupted in collective outrage, and a new sense of urgency transcended borders both physical and political. When a Facebook fund-raiser was set up to help support RAICES bond out parents and reunite them with their children, the campaign took in more than $20 million in just over one week—that’s nearly three times the organization’s 2018 annual budget. It was the largest Facebook fund-raiser ever. Celebrities tweeted. Newspapers ran articles. Politicians took notice. Former San Antonio mayor and current presidential candidate Julián Castro, who’s made immigration central to his campaign, didn’t mince words. In an email he wrote, “At a time when immigrants and refugees are being vilified and attacked daily by the Trump administration, RAICES, and the women behind it, are ensuring the most vulnerable families are afforded their basic constitutional rights.”

It’s been a little more than a year since, and the administration’s assault on the nation’s immigrants continues apace, but so does the work of RAICES. On her birthday, then, collecting stories to help the world better understand that work, Allain wandered through the El Paso bus station, crammed with clusters of families forced into squalid conditions. There she met a young woman, tiny and vulnerable, holding a swaddled baby. Allain could see the journey in her face. The woman—let’s call her Luz—told Allain about the gang violence in Guatemala that she’d fled, and about how she had given birth five days before, on her own. With no one else to do it, she’d cut the umbilical cord herself. Now she needed diapers. She needed to wash. She was hungry but she had no food. Give me your tired, your poor… Allain gave Luz her lunch and held the swaddled baby so she could eat.

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