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Safe haven in Deming

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

DEMING – Lucas Geronimo’s two nights at the City of Deming’s shelter for migrants seeking asylum were the first nights he slept without fear in days.

For him and his 7-year-old son, Juan, their brief stay provided them with the first real meals they’d had in weeks.

Rosemary Navarro, right, and her 16-year-old son, Brian, wait anxiously as volunteer David Riker makes a call to secure their bus tickets to Virginia. The Navarros were staying at the former National Guard armory in Deming. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“My son told me, ‘Look Dad, I’ve lost weight,’ when we were on our journey here,” said Geronimo, a cab driver fleeing violence in his home country in Guatemala.

“Thank God, we made it here,” he said. “They’ve given us clothing, shoes.”

Lucas Geronimo, right, and his 7-year-old son, Juan, embrace after Juan received donated stuffed animals. Father and son fled Guatemala after gangs threatened their safety. They were staying at the shelter set up at the former National Guard armory in Deming last month. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

And more importantly to his son, children were given toys to take with them on their journey. Juan seemed content with his stuffed shark and dinosaur.

Deming City Administrator Aaron Sera said he has heard words of appreciation many times since the small desert town began the task of providing temporary shelter for asylum seekers.

“They let people know how appreciative they are of what people are doing for them,” he said.

Deming, a city of about 15,000, sits some 40 miles from the Mexican border and has cared for roughly 10,000 migrants since May 12, Sera said. Border Patrol drops off asylum seekers almost daily. Several months ago, the Border Patrol began dropping off migrants in towns across southern New Mexico from their facilities in Deming, Lordsburg and El Paso.

Most of the migrants dropped on this day in late July were young women and children.

Sera said the numbers had decreased dramatically since May.

“It’s hard to tell why,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s stuff the Trump administration is doing with Mexico, or the Mexico National Guard not letting them across.”

Mexico deployed thousands of troops in June at both its northern border with the United States and its southern border after being pressured by the Trump administration to try to stop the asylum seekers from entering the U.S.

In May, at one point, nearly 700 migrants were staying at the fairgrounds in Deming and at a World War II-era airplane hanger. The shelter has since been relocated to the old armory, and on this day, the number of migrants was fewer than 100.

Migrants at the former National Guard armory in Deming have lunch in late July. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“Overnight, we had 85 here, and we sent 30 on their way already (to sponsors),” Sera said. “We’ve got about 50 people here right now. Border Patrol brings them. We went through a spell of about three days where they didn’t bring anybody. At one time we had three people here, and that lasted about six hours and then 80 people showed up.”

On Friday, Serra said the numbers were starting to increase again. The shelter is now housing between 60-80 migrants a day.

Deming responds

Funding was something Sera worried about in the beginning. He spent $500 on food one day, then donations started pouring in and state funding was approved.

He said the city has spent about $100,000 of the $250,000 it received in grant funding from the state after it and Las Cruces both declared states of emergency.

But, “we’re not having to buy any food,” he said. “Donations are covering about 90% of what we need.”

The shelter is manned by 10 employees hired by the city and volunteers from around the country.

“We’ve had a ton of volunteers,” Sera said. “They come almost every day. Right now, we have one from Oregon, three from New York, California and Texas.”

Twenty volunteers were helping out on this particular day.

Variety of donations

The donations haven’t been limited to just food. Clothing is dropped off nearly every day from individuals, churches and nonprofit organizations – and it is needed.

Migrants like Rosemary Navarro and her two sons, Jeremy, 2, and Brian, 16, from Guatemala said their belongings were stolen on the journey north.

A Guatemalan child at the former National Guard armory in Deming entertains herself by blowing bubbles. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Volunteers like Leila Riker, from New York City, sort through the donated clothes and provide migrants with what they need.

“If they ask for shirts or pants or the whole package – underwear, socks, some sleepwear – I then bring it out to them and give them brushes or toiletries,” she said.

Sera said immigrants are given three meals a day.

“For dinner, they get some kind of rice and beans,” Sera said. “That seems to be the staple for a lot of them. That’s an easy dinner to make. We have oatmeal for breakfast.

“When we had tons of people here, we got real quick and easy stuff where we could get the basic nutrition to them. When there’s only 50 of them here, the cooks want to do something special, like tacos one day. They figure it out.”

Sera said the migrants also receive medical attention almost from the moment they are dropped off by Border Patrol.

“When they’re dropped off, the medical staff will meet with them, do lice checks, check on them if they are sick and ask them, ‘Are you hurt?’ Those people will go directly into the medical room,” he said.

The medical room is staffed by personnel from the New Mexico Department of Health and volunteers such as Ray Seavers, a retired physician from Silver City.

“The majority of what we see are fevers,” Sera said. “A lot of that is driven by dehydration.”

Seavers, who is volunteering with his wife, Jane, said a few of the migrants had to be taken to the emergency room.

“I’ve sent people over there when the need for a diagnosis exceeded what we have here,” he said.

The Department of Health staff members and volunteer physicians are at the site from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. An EMT is at the shelter during nighttime hours.

Helping with needs

Volunteers like Jane Seavers, Ray’s wife, set up cots for the migrants to sleep on and provide them with blankets. Showers are also set up in the back of the facility.

“They are provided with towels, soap, hygiene products and shaving kits,” Sera said.

The group Save the Children set up a play area for children. Leila Riker and other volunteers also play with the children, while another volunteer, Owen Fritts, from Santa Fe, sets up art programs for kids by age groups. Toys are also donated.

Volunteer Iris Bloom from upstate New York brought a suitcase full of toddler and baby clothes donated by a Mexican family in New Falls, New York.

The average stay at the shelter is two days, and Sera said many of the immigrants already have their travel arrangements finalized when they arrive.

“Those who don’t have that capability, we call their sponsors for them, and let their sponsors know that we have them,” he said. “We ask them to make arrangements for a bus out of Deming or a plane out of El Paso.”

Sera said sponsors, mainly family members, are asked not to book any flights before 10 a.m.

“That way we can get everyone on a bus and make sure we get there (to the bus station in Deming or the airport in El Paso) on time,” he said. “We’re not leaving at 3 a.m.”

Anayanzi Valle and her son, Christopher, 4, board a van to be dropped off at the bus station. They were heading to New Orleans. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Volunteer David Riker, Leila’s father, is among those helping with the arrangements, making calls to Honduras, Guatemala, Oakland and Falls Church, Va., helping secure travel.

He started helping because he said migrants’ “cellphones were taken by people during the journey, mostly by ‘coyotes’ (human smugglers), just before they arrived at the border.”

“I’m going to have a big phone bill at the end of the month,” he said of the calls he has made arranging travel.

Sera said migrants are given travel backpacks with snacks and other supplies they need, and people such as Bloom give cash donations to those who will spend a few days on the bus.

“Some of them have been robbed by the ‘coyotes’ that took them across,” she said.

Some migrants seem a little reluctant to leave, as was the case with 4-year-old Christopher Valle of El Salvador.

He didn’t seem to want to get into a van with his mother, Anayanzi, on the way to the bus station. Decked out in new clothes, he wasn’t quite ready for another long trip, even if he had toys to carry with him.

He and his mother were bound for New Orleans.

Migrants pitch in

Sera said the city hasn’t encountered any major problems since it began sheltering the migrants.

“These are good, friendly people,” he said. “They are appreciative. They’ll ask, ‘What can we do to pay for the food?’ Every morning when they are here … someone will say, ‘Hey, can we get some help?’ They all jump up, grab mops and brooms and they’ll sweep the floors, mop the floors and clean the showers. They are very willing to help.”

Sera said if the shelter is shorthanded, migrants will also help serve food or sort through clothes.

“They enjoy doing that,” he said, citing one woman who told him that helping out helped her not to think about “all the problems she’s had getting here.”

Sera also appreciates the volunteers, whose reasons for helping vary.

The Rikers wanted to come and see for themselves how migrants were being treated at the border. They plan to share their experiences through a blog or photo presentation with friends once they return to New York City.

Volunteer Leila Riker, 17, of New York City, organizes clothes donated for migrants staying at the former National Guard armory in Deming. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

“It’s amazing how the city of Deming has mobilized,” Leila Riker said. “It’s in one of the poorest states in the country … and out of the blue, they’ve been able to take care of 10,000 immigrants.”

Bloom wanted to make sure the migrants knew there were some who welcomed them to the U.S.

For retired nurse practitioner Jane Seavers, volunteering was a bit personal, because she once lived in Guatemala.

“I’ve been to some of the places where they are coming from,” she said. “I know why they are seeking asylum.”

“I do think they need to be shown kindness,” added her husband, Ray.

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