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ABQ agency to help reunited immigrant families


Volunteers Phyllis Harper, left, and Neva Beasley sort through items donated for immigrant families who are being reunited after being separated at the border and held in federal detention facilities. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — An Albuquerque refugee relief agency is playing a key role in the government’s effort to reunite families who were separated at the border and helping them to move to new locations while awaiting future hearings.

Lutheran Family Services in Albuquerque was expecting up to 300 immigrants from families that have already been reunited to pass through its doors this week.

The first group of immigrants was expected to arrive at Lutheran Family Services on Monday, where they would stay for a day or two in most cases, before being provided transportation to the locations they were originally trying to get to when taken into custody.

Michelle Melendez, director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion for the city of Albuquerque, said “the city was notified last Friday that several hundred people who had been separated from their families, might be coming through Albuquerque on their way to a final destination.”

These are families that have been reunited after their separation, she said.

“Our role was to contact the local organization (Lutheran Family Services) that coordinates with these families and helps them resettle, to see how we could be of assistance,” Melendez said.

Local representatives of Lutheran Family Services had little information from the federal government, other than to expect the immigrants, perhaps as many as 300 in total, to arrive in groups between Monday and Friday.

They did not know whether the immigrants were adults being held by the federal Department of Homeland Security, or children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the federal Health and Human Services Department. Neither did they know if or how many of the refugees were coming from detention centers in Otero County or Cibola County in New Mexico, both of which housed adult immigrants detained at or near the border.

The LFS representatives asked for privacy for the families and declined to give any details.

In the meantime, word of the refugees passing through Albuquerque began spreading on Friday, and pleas went out through various religious organizations, neighborhood bulletins and political parties, to name a few, asking for donations of backpacks and other items for the refugees to take with them as they leave Albuquerque.

Danielle Bernard, director of communications for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, speaking by phone from Baltimore, said “we have been asked by ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to help support families once they’ve been reunified — and we’ve been doing this work for the past couple of weeks for both kids under age 5 and the over 5 reunifications that started last week.”

A federal judge in San Diego, Dana Sabraw, on June 26 blasted the Trump administration for what he called “a chaotic circumstance of the government’s own making,” and issued a preliminary injunction requiring that nearly all children younger than 5 be returned to their parents within 14 days and that older children be returned within 30 days. The deadline is Friday.

“What we are doing in conjunction with our partners on the ground is making sure families have access to the support and services they need once they’ve been released and reunified,” said Bernard. “We’re making sure they have a place to stay, a hotel room for the night if they need one, food, clothing, cellphone access or a phone card.”

The federal government is providing transportation of the refugees to Lutheran Family Services in Albuquerque, at which point LFS will use donor funds to pay for their transportation to the locations that they were intending to get to when they were detained, she said.

Bernard said she did not have information on the total number, gender or ages of the refugees being sent to Albuquerque, nor in which detention facilities they had been held.

The city made an Albuquerque Fire Department station on Gibson, just east of Interstate 25, available as a drop-off location for donated items. On Monday, a stream of people stopped by the fire station to drop off backpacks, travel size toiletries, snacking foods, clothing, teddy bears and gift cards to various stores where people can get items to help them resettle.

Volunteers then separated and placed the items into backpacks, which were ultimately to be delivered to the Albuquerque offices of LFS, Melendez said.

“I got an email from the Democratic Party of Bernalillo County saying the refugees were in need of food, and personal items and things like that,” said Susan Brake, a retired music department administrator at the University of New Mexico, who was dropping off items.

“They said it was for families being reunited, and I have a lot of (stuffed) bears left over from people giving them to me and thought they need some love.”

A woman who identified herself only as Nancy O. said she learned of the need for items from an email circulated by the North Valley neighborhood coalition. “It said people would be coming through and we should come to this fire station with donations, so I brought some gift cards from Walmart.”

Los Lunas firefighter Matt McKay learned about the collection drive from fellow firefighters. “I brought in clothes for kids and adults, and some kids’ toys. These people (refugees) don’t have anything and can’t afford to buy things, so I’d rather bring it here than go to Goodwill where they will sell it.”

While every item donated is appreciated, not all of them are suitable for the refugees, particularly used clothing. “We simply don’t have the time or the resources to sort through it, wash it all and repair things that need to be fixed up,” Melendez said. Items that are not given to the refugees will be donated to city clothing banks, she said.

“This whole situation stinks and it was unnecessary,” said short-order cook and sometime student Rob Ramirez. He and his wife purchased a few inexpensive backpacks and toiletries from a local store to donate to the refugees, he said.

“Deporting them back to their own countries is one thing, if that’s even necessary, but separating kids from parents — that’s just mean. And most of them were seeking asylum, which as I understand it isn’t even a crime, so why were they treated like criminals? I just don’t get it,” Ramirez said.