A photo of the bridge across the Texas-Mexico border.

Fighting for Asylum Seekers at the Border

TFA alumni are working tirelessly to advocate for families impacted by shifting immigration policies.
Friday, June 22, 2018

After the zero-tolerance policy on immigration went into effect in April, more than 2,300 children have been separated from their parents upon crossing the US - Mexico border. Many have traveled for months, seeking asylum from dangerous and violent living conditions. While the recent executive order rescinds the policy of forcibly separating families, it doesn’t include a plan to reunite families or end the detention of children; the chaos and heartbreak for asylum-seekers continue.

Long before the recent news on immigration policy, alumni from across Teach For America’s network have been on the ground, leading efforts to support families coming across the border. For many, their dedication to this work comes from a deep place—seeing firsthand how issues around immigration policy, DACA, and border security have a direct impact on students and their opportunities to pursue a better life. Their work didn't start with the news about family separations in April, and won't end when the current crisis passes. 

The following are just two of the countless stories about alumni who have stepped up their efforts to advocate for children and families seeking asylum in recent months as the immigration debate has intensified.

Robert Lopez (Rio Grande Valley ‘15)
Community Engagement & Outreach Coordinator, Texas Civil Rights Project

Robert Lopez started volunteering last year with the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), a legal advocacy organization that empowers Texas communities and creates policy change. Soon after joining the TCRP staff last February, he found himself thrust into the chaos caused by sudden changes to U.S. immigration policy, helping asylum-seekers who have been separated from their children. 

Since 1990, TCRP has provided legal aid to expand voting rights, reform criminal justice practices, and advance racial and economic justice for Texas citizens. 

When the zero-tolerance policy on immigration was implemented, TCRP attorneys moved quickly to intensify their work to protect the rights of asylum-seekers. The organization filed an emergency request to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to stop family separations and has responded to the influx of undocumented families being brought into court by working around the clock to help reunite parents who were separated from their children at the Texas Border.

Robert currently serves as the Community Engagement & Outreach Coordinator for TCRP, an all-hands-on-deck kind of role. “Since the family separation crisis unfolded, I’ve been helping out ad hoc with anything that I can,” Robert said. “I schedule press interviews, manage all the volunteers going to the courthouse, and make sure we have a voice out there—sharing the story of what’s going on.”

Since mid-May, Robert has supported the legal staff at the TCRP while they interviewed hundreds of families who have been separated by federal agents, working in a small, packed courtroom in McAllen, Texas.

“Parents arrive in court with their hands and feet shackled to a chain around their waist,” Robert said. “Our attorneys carve out a corner against the wall and try and talk to each parent quickly for five-to-seven minutes and then move on to the next one.”

The team has worked tirelessly to record the stories of as many parents as possible before they and their children disappear into the system. Many parents are inconsolable, having been separated from their children for days or weeks, with no means of communicating with them. In many cases, the parents were not told that their children were being taken. 

“Over 350 parents in McAllen, Texas, alone have been separated from their children,” Robert said. “That doesn’t include the number of parents detained in Brownsville, Laredo, and other places.”

The organization provides pro bono legal counsel to assist families with their immigration and asylum claims in hopes of reuniting them as soon as possible. 

McAllen is one of several ports of entry along the U.S. and Mexico border in south Texas. Since the zero tolerance policy went into effect, TCRP has received news that some asylum seekers are being blocked from entering the country.

“What we’re hearing is that people are being turned away at the border,” Robert said. “Individuals will go and try to do it the right way and border patrol officials will say, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t have enough space. You have to come back in two weeks.’ These are individuals who have traveled for 20 to 30 days. Then they get here and they are told to just hang out. Some ports of entry have been cleared out. Even if we wanted to advocate for these families seeking asylum, some of them are gone already.”

While the policy of separating families at the border was rescinded on June 20th by president Trump’s executive order, a recent press release from the TCRP points out that the decision doesn’t really change the experience for families seeking asylum in the U.S. Families are reunited, but must remain together in jail cells for an indefinite period of time.

While there is no shortage of stress and uncertainty around the fate of the families seeking asylum, Robert, who taught high school math in the corps, remains committed by keeping his former students at the heart of his work. “That is what’s driving me forward right now—my students.”

Robert’s experience working in the classroom combined with the recent political climate have fueled his interest in policy. In his role with the TCRP, he hopes to make an impact on the laws and systems that create barriers for students to succeed. “Every day I think about how the work that I’m doing could influence the students that I loved and cared for.”

A group of people protesting in the Rio Grande Valley
People protesting against the family separation policy in the Rio Grande Valley.
Scott Nicol

Stefanie Herweck (Rio Grande Valley '02)
Instructor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley

Although Stefanie Herweck has been an activist in the Rio Grande Valley for more than a decade, she’s kicked her efforts into high gear since the “zero tolerance policy” went into effect.

She and the Rio Grande Valley community are collecting and delivering supplies like water, food, clean clothes, and hygiene products to the families who are being forced by Customs and Border Protection to wait on the international bridges that connect Mexico with the United States. “Asylum seekers who cross at ports of entry are being forced to endure the added hardship of waiting many days on the bridges in the 90° to 100°+ heat, sometimes with their young children, while being told that there is 'no room' in U.S. facilities,” Stefanie said.

Stefanie also helped organize one of the first protests against the family separation policy in the Rio Grande Valley, and continues to work with the press to share stories about the conditions that asylum seekers are enduring.

For over 12 years, Stefanie has worked to raise awareness about how border walls harm the Rio Grande Valley and other border communities, as well the damage the walls are doing to the region’s native ecosystem. Her activism work began when Congress passed the Secure Fence Act in 2006, which mandated the first border walls in the Rio Grande Valley.

These walls not only create a physical rift in the Rio Grande Valley by slicing through neighborhoods, farms, heritage sites, and nature reservesthey tear apart families, as well, including those of Stefanie’s students, whom she taught during her time with TFA.

“All I could think about was my ninth grade students in Donna, Texas, and how they would grow up with walls in their community, with this terrible symbol of hatred and division as a permanent part of their reality,” she said. “Many of my students grew up visiting Mexico frequently, crossing the international bridge on the weekends, spending their summers in Tamaulipas with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. In their minds, there was no separation. But now the United States governmenttheir own countrywas building one.”

A house sitting in the shadow of a border wall.
A house sitting in the shadow of a border wall.
Scott Nicol

Stefanie has hosted events, produced videos, created advocacy materials, and written op-eds about the border walls in Rio Grande Valley, all in an effort to change the national narrative surrounding border communities and to introduce people to the border as a “real place.” But above all else, Stefanie uses her voice to bring attention to the fact that the mistreatment of asylum seekers and immigrants in border communities like the Rio Grande Valley is far from a new issue—rather, it is one that has existed for years and become worse in recent years. 

“What's important to understand is that facility has been in operation since 2014—the cages, the cold temperatures of the facilities, the mattresses on the floor, the foil survival blankets—all of it has been there for four years. Immigrant rights groups have been protesting the conditions there that long,” Stefanie said. “I hope that this attention will lead to changes, not only in the conditions, but in the way people think about this issue.”

“Family separations are horrible, but they are not a major shift in our immigration policy, just an intensification,” she added. “We need comprehensive immigration reform that recognizes and uplifts the humanity of these people and that recognizes the benefits of immigration to our economy.”

Until reform arrives, Stefanie will continue to fight for the community she fell in love with during her time in the corps. And thankfully, she’s far from alone in this fight. “People here are incredibly generous of spirit and highly empathetic,” she said. “I think this is because in the Valley we are collectively much more aware of the challenges faced by immigrants and of the strength that it takes them to live through and overcome the hardships that they are confronted by.”

“Most of us who live here have stories like this which help us see beyond the statistics,” Stefanie continues. “It makes us think about a name or a face when we hear the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric on the news.”

A group of people protesting in Rio Grande Valley
Stefanie Herweck and others protesting against the family separation policy on the border.
Scott Nicol

Are you working with children and families who have been separated at the border? Please share your story with us by emailing editors@teachforamerica.org.


Ways to get involved:

Support local organizations helping separated families in the RGV:

  • The Texas Civil Rights Project is seeking volunteers to help record declarations from families.
  • RAICES - Promotes justice by providing free and low-cost legal services to underserved immigrant children, families and refugees in Central and South Texas.
  • ProBAR - South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project

Volunteer your time:

Are you a lawyer? 

  • The CARA Project is currently recruiting attorneys, law students and paralegals with experience in asylum work. The group asks volunteers to be fluent in Spanish or willing to work with an interpreter.

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