JOURNEY TO TEXAS: Making Connections With Immigrant Families

Kaz Naganuma shares his story about being imprisoned at the Crystal City Department of Justice camp during World War II before the Mexican American Legislative Caucus at the Texas State Capitol building.

Third of three parts

By MARTHA NAKAGAWA, Rafu Contributor


Some pilgrimage members assisted the Interfaith Welcome Coalition in San Antonio (IWC) in their bus station ministry, which is headed by Sister LaRock. Shoshana Arai and Mari Matsumoto organized this event.

Sister JT Dwyer said this all-volunteer ministry was started in 2014 to assist immigrants who were coming out of the Karnes and Dilley detention centers with the logistics of traveling to their destination.

“We help them read their tickets,” said Dwyer, who noted that many of the immigrants do not speak or read English. “They will not automatically understand that they don’t necessarily get off every time the bus stops, so we show them, usually by highlighting with a yellow marker, ‘Okay, this is where you need to transfer for your next bus.’ We show them how they can see on the ticket how long that stop is supposed to be and how long they’ll have to wait.

“We also give them information in case they get approached by human traffickers. We give them numbers to call. We do the best we can to orient them to the trip they’re going to make.”

Each immigrant family is also given a backpack that includes toiletries and snacks. Just for the month of February, Dwyer said they’ve given out more than 2,000 backpacks.

The pilgrimage group helped prepare some of the backpacks. Matsumoto shared that when she saw the boxes of diapers, she noticed that there was an enormous amount of diapers for one-year-olds, so she asked one of the Sisters whether a lot of babies were being born. She was told that many of the babies were so malnourished that they were underweight for their age.

Matsumoto had one encounter with a little boy who broke down when she gave him a bag of arare. “He was so overcome when he tried to say gracias,” said Matsumoto. “The tears just started flowing.”

When she asked one of the volunteers if she had done something wrong, she was told, “No, when they break down, it means they’ve been abused and are releasing some trauma.”

Dwyer said they have volunteers who assist for about 8-10 hours per day, 365 days a year. The volunteers go through orientation and a criminal background check before participating in the program.

The IWC also has an airport ministry at the San Antonio International Airport, but Dwyer said they get a fifth of the people going by airplane.

A few years ago, Satsuki Ina was able to participate in this program with Sister LaRock. She was told that volunteers are able to identify newly released immigrants because they usually arrive at the bus depot or airport carrying only a brown paper bag.

At that time, one family did not have a bus connection until the following day. In such cases, Ina said the volunteers take the family to a Mennonite Safe House, where they are provided with food and a bed.

“There was a young boy I sat in the back seat (of the car) with who you could tell was traumatized,” said Ina. “I learned that he came with his mother and sister but because he was over eight years old, he was separated from them to be, I don’t know if he was in the men’s unit, but he was separated from them.

“He had the very detached look of a traumatized child and didn’t talk. He had, just moments earlier, been reunited with his mother and sister. I don’t speak Spanish either so I tried to make eye contact but he was gone. Then, my iPhone rang and his eyes lit up, so I showed him my iPhone. We started looking at games or whatever it was and then, we got to the Safe House. It was nighttime, and I’ll always remember the moment the door opened. There’s a bright light just emanating from the door and the smell of tortillas and beans.

“The family got out of the car, and by this time, this young boy just had tears streaming down his face. We came in. We sat down, and all these volunteers had come. They get the phone call, and they come start cooking.…

“The boy’s hand was on the table, and I reached over and just gently put my hand on his. He asked me. There was a translator sitting with me and he said, ‘Are you Chinese?’ And I said, ‘No, actually I’m an American.’ And then he quietly reached over and opened that brown paper bag, which was everything he possessed.

“He took out a bracelet and tied this bracelet on my wrist. I said, ‘Did you make that?’ He said, “No, my friends, the night that my family was leaving, my friends came to say goodbye.’ They had made these. He had a whole bunch of these wristbands. They had given them to him and said, ‘Please don’t forget us.’ And so I told him, ‘I promise that I won’t forget you either.’”

Those who would like to make monetary donations are asked to write a check and send it to: University Presbyterian Church, 300 Bushnell, San Antonio, TX 78212. In the memo line, write “Interfaith Welcome Coalition.”

Other than monetary donations, Dwyer asked that supporters pray for them. “This is never-ending,” Dwyer said. “And then we go home at night and we turn on the TV, and we see more hate. It’s discouraging. It’s discouraging but just pray that we can keep on helping the people.”

The group stages a protest, holding signs and origami cranes.


Another group of pilgrims drove down to the border city of Laredo and met with asylum seekers and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients and various organizations, including with members of the Laredo Immigrant Alliance and the No Border Wall Coalition.

The bilingual meeting was held at the Holding Institute’s Community Center. According to Rev. Mike Smith, the institute was established in 1860 and was named after Nannie Emory Holding, a Methodist missionary. He noted that they serve more than 6,000 people every year and provide everything — hot meals, clothes, basic health care services, mental health care services and adult literacy classes.

Just from January to March 15 of this year, Smith said they provided 4,500 warm showers. “Not hot showers,” said Smith. “Because at that rate, the hot water won’t last.”

He thanked the pilgrimage group for visiting. “When you’re living with less, it affects you,” said Smith. “Poverty impacts us daily. Sometimes we feel powerless, but at the very least if you all can do is offer hope, then that is good enough.…

“So your presence here today, of sharing your stories here with us is part of that offering hope to our community because many of the people you see around you, your presence offers them hope.”

Kiyoshi Ina, who was born in Topaz, noted that when their family was released from an American concentration camp, they were given $25 and a train ticket. “But I want to tell you that there’s hope after you leave. We had hope, and we flourished, and I’m just glad to be here. It’s wonderful what you’re doing.”

Akemi Ina, who was also born at Topaz, said she thought about her own parents’ struggles and sympathized with the plight of those coming over. “I’m very proud of these parents, who’ve sacrificed everything to bring their children here and I’m really sorry for the treatment you’re receiving.”

Becca Asari, from New York, whose grandparents were in camp, was able to speak to the group in Spanish. “We are here with you to fight alongside you,” she said. “We want to know what is needed and what we can do. We also want to say that you all are incredibly powerful, perhaps more than you might feel.”

Like Asari, Lauren Sumida is from New York and had grandparents in camp. They were in Tule Lake and Rohwer, and her grandfather was also in the Missoula, Mont. DOJ camp.

“It’s very devastating to see this happening again,” said Sumida. “We have the experience and knowledge of having gone through this so we need to build those connections and to show up for these folks and build solidarity.”

Grace Morizawa shared that she was a former principal at a San Pablo, Calif., school where most of the students and parents were undocumented. “We are a sanctuary city and school, so ICE was not allowed.”

Kay Yatabe, a retired doctor from El Cerrito, Calif., said she saw many undocumented patients. “The hard thing was to reassure people that it was safe to come, especially the pregnant women.”