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Beyond Capacity Building

Tucson VISTA Member Galen Hunt recounts the harrowing experience of a woman helped by the organization for whom he serves as a Volunteer Coordinator. While, as VISTAs, our members focus on building the capacity of local non-profits, many dedicated Arizona Serve members find their years of service most defined by interactions such as this.


My name is Galen Hunt, I am an AmeriCorps VISTA partnered with Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona. My program, called Alitas (little wings), is a support system for immigrant families that are released from detention with Border Patrol with a humanitarian parole stamp. Everyday, between 1 and 6 families, mostly young moms and toddlers, are dropped off at our location. We furnish them with water and a hot meal, food for the trip, clothing, shoes, showers, and whatever else they may need to make it safely to their various destinations across the country.

Our system works; we have a 100% bus/plane/car boarding rate. Everyone gets into some kind of vehicle and on his or her way at some point. But by nature the program is reactive, and therefore, uncertain. I never know who is going to walk through my door. This is the story of Rosa (pseudonym), which illustrates just how open and adaptive we have to be, and how when pressed, the span of services we can provide is pretty extensive.

4 families, 10 people were released to me by border patrol. I had been about to walk out the door to go home and watch Always Sunny. The volunteers on shift were perfectly capable, but I felt that I should wait around just to see if there were any problems, after all, 10 people is high for us. In the chaos of bringing everyone into the room and getting situated, it is often easy to lose the individuals in the crowd, but after a few minutes we noticed that something was clearly wrong with Rosa.

She was clutching her back and wincing in pain. We asked her what happened and she launched into a story. She said she paid about 2,500 to a coyote to bring her from Guatemala to the border, though he originally requested 5,000. She kept saying, “I can't believe it 2,000 to almost kill me.” The man played with death she said. He was supposed to be the responsible one, she said. They walked to the wall along the U.S. Mexico border at night, told her to climb the rope stairs over. She didn't want to, but everything was moving so fast, had the baby (1year, 1 month) on her back. At the top of the wall, the very last metal stair breaks, she holds onto the side. The man throws her a rope, but it breaks also. she grabs onto it and Falls 27 feet according to doctor, and loses consciousness.

She awakes in the Hospital in Douglas with a fractured lower lumbar. The baby survives without a scratch, a miracle from God, in her words. They release her with medications, which are subsequently taken and not returned to her by Border Patrol.

When this woman is released to me, she is in agonizing pain and we have no idea where her meds are or what she had been given. I had them fax me her records from the Douglas hospital, which took a great deal of navigating a system of patient privacy requirements foreign to me. I then took her to the ER.

After 4 hours, she was finally treated and re-prescribed her medicines. But we had another problem on our hands. This woman was trying to travel to Maryland, a 3 or 4 day bus ride. Although the doctors had cleared her for travel, there was no chance that this woman could sit on a Greyhound bus for 4 days. We had to get her a flight, but there are issues with that as well. TSA will not let these migrants board, even though they have immigration documents, because they do not have a valid ID.


Rosa ended up staying with me at the Alitas house for 1 full week while I appealed to the Guatemalan consulate for an emergency passport. Once she had her medicines, her condition began to improve. She insisted on cooking, she said that she hated feeling like and invalid, useless, that she is normally very strong and this whole helpless situation made her very uneasy. She cooked empanadas with chicken, potato, lettuce, tomato and cheese, and took great pride in them. During the week, I played with the little baby, which is something I'm not accustomed to. I am learning though, not that it's all that tricky. She seemed to grow 2 inches in the week she was here.

Her cousin in Georgia purchased the tickets. The consulate delivered the passport personally the night before the plane trip. I woke up at 5:00 to see them off. One of my very dedicated volunteers agreed to bring them, thank god.

I got a call from her as soon as she walked in the door. I could hear the baby crying in the background. She said that she arrived safe and was with her cousin, that she was thankful and she couldn't wait to heal so she could try to find work.

Ultimately, I don't know what happens to these folks down the road. I know some of them are deported, sent right back where they came from, where the debt they put themselves in for the journey will most likely drive into a downward spiral of poverty from which they will never recover. Some of them will stay here, begin the long, windy road to citizenship. I love seeing little kids that are still learning to speak, because I know that they will most likely grow up bilingual.

I won't go into the horrific stories that she confided in me, but if Rosa plays her cards right and finds a lawyer, she will most likely be granted asylum via the protection of women act.

Now, most of the time I don't say anything about whether or not I think these folks should be allowed to stay. The program's function is to, in my boss's words, “provide a direct humanitarian service without taking any form of political stance,” and I respect and like that policy. However, in Rosa's case I can say that I would like very much for this woman to be an American.

Published on October 10, 2014 by Molly Sheehy.

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