Shannon Renee Dawson-Neubauer is well-known among border-crisis volunteers and many friends passing through Tijuana seeking asylum in the U.S. from her work early in 2019 running the kitchen at the World Central Kitchen. She remains deeply engaged in working with migrants and asylum seekers. This is the second of three parts of her reflections on her work in the past year.
Shannon Renee Dawson-Neubauer
I had run out of money and donations. I continued caring for and working with two sisters from El Salvador by temporarily moving us in with a fellow activist and her family. Both women from El Salvador had gone through the process of presenting themselves for asylum, spending 4 days in the hielera, and were sent back to Tijuana because of the new “Return to Mexico.”
Staying in Mexico while awaiting the asylum for possibly up to a year or two seemed an impossible feat. How do you afford to work and live in Mexico as an immigrant? How do have money and time off to cross the border to go to your court dates, and how do you receive your mail and notices for court dates?
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I met young Central American waiting in Mexico, trying to work and save money for the process while living in a shelter, who was constantly getting beaten up and robbed because he looked different and carried different identification. After being robbed by the Mexican police, he returned home to the shelter to find that all of his belongings were stolen. This threw an already traumatized man into severe depression.
The El Salvadoran sisters gave up on the asylum process after they got word that their mother’s, who had been ill, was in decline. Their complex and uncertain asylum cases seemed too flimsy to hang their hopes on. Working with a global humanitarian organization, we were able to book flights on airplanes to go back to El Salvador. That was the end of March.
Soon thereafter, through the recommendation of a trusted friend, I moved onto a property in Playas to continue recovering my leg, foot, and overall health while still being of service to the people I had committed to. I was still working with two friends who were in detention. By then, the woman had been transferred from Arizona back to San Diego, and both were now to be at the same detention facility in Otay Mesa.
While they were in the same building the men and women are detained in separate areas; they only saw each other once during those three months. Once they saw each other from across the room in the commissary, the detention-center monopoly that drains cash from detainees. You see, the food that they serve the detainees is less than desirable. I’ve heard first-hand accounts of being served raw chicken and pork, food that smelled rotten and made people sick. The commissary, however, serves better food. For an inflated fee. You can buy condiments, tuna, and the star of the show, ramen. Most people stock up on ramen noodle soups; that’s the best tasting and most comforting food they can find. People eat so much ramen inside, an art project created out of the wrappers keep a number of friends there busy. They made color-coordinated purses and wallets to recycle, to pass the time, to feel purposeful, to feel good. They made art.
In some detention centers, some art classes are available, but you have to buy you own supplies. Of course, the commissary also sells art supplies for an inflated fee. The temperature of the pods (cells where about 20 people sleep) is notoriously very cold. Not to worry. The commissary also sells sweatpants and hoodies.
How can they afford to spend all of this money in the commissary? Each detainee has a commissary account that anyone can deposit money into as long as they have the individual’s location, name, and A-number through Western Union. Again, for a fee.
People who don’t have sponsors or relatives to deposit money on their behalf have another opportunity to buy from the commissary. After a certain amount of time has passed, most people get jobs like cleaning and food prep to maintain the facility. They save up their daily work pay of $1 until they have enough money to go to the commissary on the one day of the week they’re allowed to, and they buy something better to eat.