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Austin Responds to the Refugees

As the Central American refugee crisis unfolds, an Austin movement to offer aid is playing out quietly, behind the scenes.

By Tony Cantú, Fri., July 25, 2014

Lauren Peña of LatinWorks sorts through donated items.
Lauren Peña of LatinWorks sorts through donated items.
Photo by Jana Birchum

As the Central American refugee crisis unfolds, an Austin movement to offer aid is playing out quietly, behind the scenes. In stark contrast to the virulent response of some lawmakers and communities, where the frightened migrants – including approximately 57,000 unaccompanied children venturing primarily from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – have been met with animosity, there has been a groundswell of support from the Austin community.

Employees at LatinWorks – a Downtown Hispanic advertising agency – leapt into action. The 137 employees have collected toiletries, first aid kits, shoes, clothes, coloring books and toys. As of earlier this week, four trips had been made to the Greyhound bus station in Laredo, where refugees are dropped off after being released from detention centers to the custody of relatives while they await deportation hearings.

Lorena Portillo, a LatinWorks translator who first proposed the donations, drove the three hours to Laredo, her Nissan Sentra loaded with supplies. "They arrive with nothing," Portillo says. "We have survival kits for them – toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, towels. They're shy at first, but once they know we're there to help they'll say something like 'We really need socks,' or 'We've been wearing the same shoes for weeks.' A bar of soap is like gold to them."

By now, Portillo knows the drill: Arriving at the bus station early on a Saturday morning, she took the supplies to a storage area set aside for the refugees. Then she waited. Soon enough, a busload of some 60 refugees – women and children – pulled in. Immigrant men are taken elsewhere, probably to undergo greater scrutiny, she surmised.

In East Austin, community activist Angelica Noyola helped organize a supply drive from among the local artistic community, reacting to a call for action raised by Houston-based rapper Chingo Bling. In her outreach for supplies – undergarments, blankets, socks, etc. – she shifted the issue from "immigration" to repercussions if the refugees were to stay in their violence-ridden homelands. "You have to take the immigrant label away, because that's how you criminalize them," she says. "They face violence, torture, and rape if they stay. People hate the word 'rape,' but you have to put it out there for people to understand."

In Central Austin, parishioners at Trinity United Methodist Church have also opened their hearts by means of a second, dedicated collection: On a recent Sunday, they contributed about $800. Pastor Sid Hall ensures all donations are disbursed through the United Methodist Committee on Relief, guaranteeing 100% of the proceeds are applied charitably, rather than a percentage going to administrative costs. Hall goes beyond calling for donations, urging his roughly 400 parishioners to take active roles in advocating for immigration reform.

"I'm a liberal activist on just about every cause, including this," Hall says proudly. "What I try to do is have my congregation certainly involved in charity, the food pantry, and stuff like that, but I want them to work politically for change. I want them asking the deeper questions."

Dr. Adam Rosenbloom, a pediatrician at Dell Children's Medical Center, drove with his family to McAllen during the Fourth of July weekend to provide medical care. Upon his return, he described a scene quite different from the hysterical scenarios appearing in much of the U.S. media, of organizational chaos and rampant diseases. "Most of what I saw were common complaints you'd see from people – coughs, colds, and sometimes stomach bugs," Rosenbloom said. "A lot of people had been traveling for two to four weeks in a bus ... so I saw kids who were hungry and a little dehydrated. There were some cases of scabies that I see in a lot of clinics in Austin, too. Nothing more than what is running rampant in any given preschool in this country."

Contrast these eyewitness reports to headline political and media reactions, driven by bigotry or pandering rather than knowledge. "Our schools cannot handle this influx, we don't even know what all diseases they have," proclaimed U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas. Fox News commentator Cal Thomas demanded proof of vaccinations and claimed the refugees carry "mumps, measles, rubella, polio, tetanus, and diphtheria." Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Georgia – a retired physician – raised the fearmongering ante, predicting "illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus, and tuberculosis." Yet UNICEF estimates that 93% of children in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are vaccinated against measles – better than the 92% rate among kids in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control also contradicted the feverish narratives of the rabid anti-immigrant crowd. In an email exchange, CDC spokesman Llelwyn Grant described measured steps in reaction to the influx of refugees. "CDC is providing consultation to federal partners leading the response to the increase in unaccompanied children entering the United States," Grant writes. "CDC's support includes consultation on medical screening and providing disease surveillance screening tools, which is being directed by the Administration for Children and Families."

And unsolicited, the CDC spokesman offered this: "We can state that CDC does not believe the children arriving at U.S. borders pose a public health risk to the general public or U.S. population."


For information on how to assist the refugee aid effort, contact the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition at 512/476-2472, or go to www.austinirc.org. Donations can be made to St. James' Episcopal Church, 1941 Webberville Rd.; Jewish Community Center, 7300 Hart; Catholic Charities of Central Texas, 1625 Rutherford.

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