Patricia Okoumou

Activist Patricia Okoumou, who climbed the Statue of Liberty, participated in direct actions with the Tornillo Occupation Coalition in February in Texas.

After hearing the heartbreaking stories of children in inhumane and unsanitary detention centers — that experts are now deeming concentration camps – many St. Louisans have been asking what they can do.

Local advocacy groups agree that the most important things people can do is to be informed about the immigration process and to send donations to groups that are providing legal support and aid for asylum seekers at the border.

“How we respond as a community to what is happening in these camps is a reflection of our values as a society,” according to a statement from the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates (MIRA).

“We should be collectively outraged and appalled. We ask our allies, and community members, that recognize the tragedy that is unfolding before us, to respond by contacting their elected officials and join us in educating friends and families.”

Here is what several local groups are doing and ways you can plug in. 

MIRA, ACLU, IFCLA and more 

After President Trump announced recently that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents would be rounding up and deporting families en masse, the local immigrant community was quite shaken, advocates said. The president then he decided to delay the deportations.

MIRA is holding an immigration workshop, “The facts and how to help,” on Wednesday, July 10 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at 2725 Clifton Ave. The local immigrant community has expressed a need for more education around knowing their rights — and for the general public to support them by also knowing them as well, said MIRA’s Amanda Tello.

Recently there was a Facebook post about ICE agents going into the Bevo Mill area, Tello said, which caused a big stir in the immigrant community.

St. Louisans can help by learning how to observe and document situations like this. MIRA hastoolkits and videos on its website: https://www.mira-mo.org.

MIRA is working with the ACLU of Missouri, St. Louis Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America (IFCLA) and the Scholarship Foundation to host the July 10 training and other such initiatives. 

St. Francis Community Services 

The human-services agency St. Francis Community Services assists unaccompanied children who are asylum seekers when they come to the St. Louis area. With the president’s announcement of mass deportations, it now has many “terrified clients” who fear that they will be picked up and their children left alone.

“We continue to try to plan with those families to make sure they have a power of attorney in place, so that someone can make decisions and take care of children,” said Karen Wallensak, executive director at St. Francis Community Services. “We continue to provide youth programming and mental health counseling, especially for unaccompanied minors who have experienced trauma on their journey here.”

Youth programs give the children something to take their minds off their worries, she said.

Although Wallensak said she gets many calls from people who want to sponsor an unaccompanied child, there is no way to do that. The children come to St. Louis to stay with an identified family member or friend, and the organization works with that family.

“Cash donations really do help because it allows us to expand our capacity to help more families, through hiring professional counselors to assist folks,” Wallensak said. “Gift cards also help.”

In April, the agency sent a group of its staff, including lawyers and social workers, down to San Antonio to work right at the border.

“That increased our understanding of the trauma and the experience they had getting here,” Wallensak said. “It helps us deliver better services.”

The group helped at welcome centers that help the families when they get out of the detention centers and are awaiting their asylum hearings.

“People are being put on a bus, no idea of their next steps,” she said. “Most people have what they are wearing and nothing else. Most of them haven’t eaten or slept well for a long time. The centers give them a place to relax and clean up and regroup.”

Volunteers also review their paperwork and make sure they get the legal support they need.

If you are looking to give to those working on the ground, the groups the St. Francis team worked with in San Antonio were:  American Gateways (http://www.americangateways.org/), Catholic Charities in San Antonio (https://ccaosa.org/), The Interfaith Welcome Coalition (https://interfaithwelcomecoalition.org/), RAICES (https://www.raicestexas.org/).

St. Francis can be found here: https://sfcsstl.org/ 

Artists 

In December, activists and organizations throughout the country staged a 10-day occupation, campaigning against the child detention center in Tornillo, Texas, near El Paso.

“The children inside Tornillo, who ranged from 13 to 17, described horrendous conditions that are similar to those that news outlets are now calling concentration camps,” Tello said, who attended.

The action was led by local El Paso advocates and a Ferguson activist group known as the Artivists, who created protest art that was displayed around the camp. They even flew kites with messages of hope for the children. This united effort formed the Tornillo Occupation Coalition and purchased a house a block from the border bridge now called Casa Carmelita. There, they are doing “food not walls” and assisting people who are being released from the “hieleras,” which translates as “ice box.” These are the detention centers that are being shown on TV with people needing blankets because they are cold and packed with people, advocates said.

The Tornillo Coalition is asking people to donate to the Casa Carmelita at Paypal.me/borderresistance as well as the Fianza Fund, Fianzafund.org, who are working to get families out of the detention centers.

“This has been going on for a long time, and organizers all over the country are trying to harness the new energy,” said Elizabeth Vega, leader of the Artivists and part of the Tornillo Occupation Coalition. “Keep your focus on the grassroots folks at the border.”

The Latinx Arts Network St. Louis is also exploring a community mural project and other projects in St. Louis as a way to invite the community to express their anger and sadness at the current situation through art. For more information, contact the network here: https://www.latinxstl.com/contact.

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