Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bus station hospitality

One of our friends wrote this reflection about her experience of going with community members of the Restoration Project to the bus station last week. Our community house, Casa Mariposa is one mile from the Tucson Greyhound station. Through our work with the Florence Project and with immigrants and asylum seekers being detained, we've realized that sometimes people end up stranded at the bus station over night when they are released. This is part of the response.

I didn’t know what to expect when we walked into the Greyhound station that evening around 8:30. Inside a television played low in the corner. A wall of vending machines and video games including one named “Target, Terror,” buzzed and blinked at us. A few people were dozing on benches under the low ceiling and fluorescent lights. None of the released detainees in sight. Two folks from the Restoration Project, who live at Casa Mariposa in Tucson, Arizona, and I set up camp to wait it out.

An hour or two later, a lone ICE agent raced into the station and headed for the bathroom. Slowly, a small line of people formed in front of the counter. The ICE agent returned, racing as quickly out of the bus station as he had entered, muttering, “Good night, gentlemen” as he blew through the door. We exchanged bemused looks with the released detainees at the agent’s behavior. They each hugged a clear plastic bag stamped with Homeland Security’s insignia. They were quiet and some seemed scared. As they waited for the Greyhound attendant to return from his break, we began getting a feel for the group’s needs. Our small contingent had gone that evening to look for a specific woman who was to be released and stay at Casa Mariposa. Her bus ticket was for the next morning. She was not in the van that evening[1], the others said, so we spoke with them instead.

The group consisted of a woman from Nicaragua, a young man from Ecuador, just 18 years old, and men from Haiti, Mexico, the Punjab region of India, and Eritrea. They were going to Chicago, New York, Minnesota and California. Some had been housed in ICE detention centers in Eloy for just a few weeks, others for a few years. Some were fighting asylum cases, others had been apprehended for other immigration reasons and were being released on bond to continue their immigration cases from outside the prison walls.

Sometimes people the Florence Immigrant & Refugee Rights Project have represented stay at Casa Mariposa between their release and when transportation to their final destination can be arranged. Sometimes it is just overnight. Sometimes for a few days. We’ve met people from Eritrea, fleeing forced inscription and the gender-based violence involved in forced military service. We’ve met people fleeing war in Somalia and political persecution in Ethiopia who have lived in multiple countries en route to getting to the U.S. to seek asylum. These are often torture survivors who are re-traumatized as they are forced to live in the detention center.

Other people are released from ICE custody directly to the bus station after posting bond. It is always at night. Sometimes family members or friends have pre-arranged a bus tickets or wired money that is waiting for them through Western Union. But sometimes people arrive with no clear plan. Sometimes the buses are full and no ticket can be purchased until the next day. Sometimes there are errors that delay a money transfer through Western Union.

The Tucson greyhound station closes after the final bus leaves around midnight, leaving some people outside to wait until it reopens the next morning. In these cases, people who have been in custody for prolonged periods of time have sometimes found themselves on the street or struggling to find an all-night restaurant where they can wait until morning. For some, this is their first experience of the United States outside of the immigration detention center.

The night we went to the bus station, I sat for a long time with the young man from Ecuador, who was able to purchase a ticket to Chicago. He talked quietly and seemed anxious. He asked how many times he would need to change buses before arriving in Chicago. He followed closely behind some of the other men who had taken him under their wings. I wrote down the specific instructions he’d need, and phrases in English he could use to ask for help if he needed it.

At the end of the night, two men, from India and Eritrea, were not able to secure bus tickets. We offered them a place to stay for the evening until they could arrange transportation in the morning. After we had been with them for a few hours, they agreed, and came with us to Casa Mariposa.

Hospitality is not simply the process of opening one’s home to someone in need of a place to go. That in itself is an often radical act. Hospitality is also the process of opening one’s heart and spirit to another, inviting both to share in a common human experience. Hospitality is a willingness to be transformed by the sharing of the other person’s experiences.

This bus station hospitality here in Tucson is happening organically. The next evening one of the community members walked to the station with one of the guests to catch his bus. It was the last one leaving that day. A man from Haiti, just released from the detention center, was there without a ticket. He stayed at Casa Mariposa that night. The next day, before he boarded his bus, the two of them played Bob Marley songs on guitars together in the living room.

Last month a Florence Project staff member was picking up a woman just released from the detention center, and called Casa Mariposa to ask if they had room for several more people to stay. That night four women in all, including an older woman, stayed and shared a meal at Casa Mariposa instead of an all night restaurant or on the street.

Members of the community have gone to the bus station several times over the last few weeks. Most nights everyone gets on a bus and on his or her way. But not always. And so the community and the Florence Project are taking steps to have small groups of people take turns going and waiting weeknights at the greyhound station, just to be present and see what people might need. It is happening in small steps, in each one a careful attention to the spirit of God as it appears in the experiences of people in need.

[1] Unfortunately, ICE dropped her off the following morning at 6 am. The station was closed until 7 am. She had no coat. It was about 45 degrees. She waited outside. They were trying to be helpful since her bus didn’t leave until that day.

Vicki Kline recently moved to Tucson from Baltimore, where she worked with unaccompanied minors through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. In Tucson, Vicki works with No More Deaths, and has greatly improved the beauty of Casa Mariposa through a home makeover of the breakfast nook. She believes the dream of the 90s might still be alive in Tucson.

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