Mention “the situation at the border,” and people immediately understand what you mean: the chaos and heartbreak unfolding as thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans attempt to cross over from Mexico into the United States. From January to February of this year alone, U.S. Customs and Border Protection apprehended more than 100,000 undocumented migrants.
It’s admittedly mind-boggling. Yet rather than throwing up their hands in despair, area activists are putting their boots on the ground, marshaling resources and trying to ease migrants’ suffering. In hopes that others will join in, the Westchester Jewish Coalition for Immigration hosted “Border Report: Children in Need,” a countywide Zoom presentation, Sunday, June 6, at 7:30 p.m. via the link at www.wjci.org.
During the event, speakers will share ways in which people can help support immigrant children. Among the presenters will be Scarsdalian Marti Michael, who since 2018 has worked extensively to assist immigrants.
“I’ve always been a political activist one way or another — I’m a child of the ’60s, so I protested the Vietnam War, et cetera,” Michael, 69, said. After a 40-year career in community service and her retirement as executive director of the Riverdale Y in 2014, she embraced volunteer work.
In 2018, news broke of the Tornillo Detention Camp, established by the U.S. government in the Texas desert. “They had big white tents and they had thousands of people detained there indefinitely,” Michael recalled. Infuriated that asylum laws were being broken, she went on Facebook and found Arizona Jews for Justice, a group assisting released detainees.
In late 2018, Michael visited Phoenix to help the organization. “ICE was releasing a parent with a child, sometimes two, into Phoenix, at the bus station downtown,” she shared. “Now it is Phoenix, but it is still cold — 50 or 40 degrees — at night. And these people … had no money, and ICE took away their belongings. So they were wearing flip-flops and shorts and T-shirts and freezing, and just wandering around the streets.”
Eventually, ICE began dropping released detainees at Hispanic Catholic churches instead. There, they were greeted, fed and sheltered. After spending a week watching and assisting the process, Michael was determined to do more.
She began returning to Phoenix monthly, bringing funds she had raised from like-minded friends. In part, she used the money to book a couple of extra hotel rooms during her visits, for immigrant families.
“We would check into the room and then I would take them shopping,” Michael recalled. “We would go to Walmart and I would buy them new everything — new shoes, new clothes, new coats because it was winter. I’d get some toys for the kids and buy them dinner.”
In the morning, she would take the families to the Phoenix bus station, where they would board buses that would take them to their sponsors. “I would load them up with all the things they would need for their journey, including some cash,” she said.
In 2019, a change in immigration protocols ended the Phoenix influx. Instead, migrants were forced to wait in Mexico for their asylum hearings. “They ended up with thousands of people along the southern border in Mexico,” Michael recalled. “It started with people sleeping on the sidewalk near the border crossings with no shelter, no food, no money. Gangs were around, and it was quite dangerous. People were kidnapped, people were raped. Everybody was robbed.”
Michael turned to Facebook yet again and found a group, Team Brownsville, which was helping these asylum seekers. By late 2019, she began making monthly trips to Brownsville, Texas, to assist. Along with other volunteers, she would cook dinner and walk it across the border to Matamoros, Mexico, site of the largest camp of asylum seekers. Team Brownsville also supplied much-needed toiletries.
“Eventually, people in my circle started to say, ‘I want to come with you,’” Michaels said. In January of 2020, she shepherded 13 people to Brownsville. The next month, she brought a party of four.
Then March arrived, and the coronavirus with it, and the trips ceased. Yet Michael didn’t abandon her efforts. She is active with Grannies Respond, an organization helping to smooth immigrants’ bus journeys to meet their sponsors.
After learning the group needed volunteers in Columbus, Ohio, Michael arranged for social justice students at Manhattan College to run a drive for necessities, such as toiletries and food, which they then bagged. Michael then stuffed her car with the bags, drove to Columbus, and spent a week meeting immigrants disembarking from buses. Each received one of the assembled kits.
“The members of the Grannies Respond group in Columbus now have become wonderful friends,” Michael said. She’s currently on the steering committee for the group’s New York contingent, focused on meeting buses at Port Authority. (In addition, she is on the board of the Westchester Jewish Council and the Manhattan College Holocaust, Genocide and Interfaith Education Center.)
Michael is hopeful that the immigration crisis will ease under the current administration. “These are good people now,” she said. “I totally trust what they’re doing, and that they’re doing the best they can as fast as they can.”
Yet there are no quick fixes, she acknowledges. So for the foreseeable future, helping immigrants will remain her focus — a vision she hopes others in our county will also come to share. These immigrants, she contended, are exceptional: “They’re strong, they’re smart, they’re focused on a better life for their children more than anything else,” she said. “They’re exactly who built this country, and who we want here to help continue.”