HOUSTON—Isabella and her three children stepped off a bus at the downtown Greyhound station just after 1 on Sunday afternoon, carrying everything they owned in a few tote bags.
It had already been a long day. The family boarded the Greyhound at 6 a.m. in McAllen, on the Texas-Mexico border, where Isabella had been detained and temporarily separated from her daughter, 15, and older son, 6. (Her 2-year-old son stayed with her.) They left Nicaragua weeks before, fleeing paramilitary death squads targeting opponents of President Daniel Ortega. When she was arrested at the U.S. border, Isabella said she was applying for political asylum.
“Students and children are being killed,” Isabella told The Daily Beast. (Isabella is a pseudonym to protect her identity.) “Two days after I left Nicaragua, they went to the house of my neighbor and took everyone. That’s what they do, they take people from their houses and they disappear. Then later the bodies are found in a mass grave somewhere.”
Houston was merely a waystation for the family, which was heading to Indianapolis to reunite with Isabella’s husband, the father of the two boys. The trip to Indiana would take another 27 hours of travel, including bus transfers in Dallas and Memphis, Tennessee. If there weren’t any delays they would arrive in Indianapolis the following evening.
After jailing, prosecuting, and taking children away from parents, the U.S. government is now releasing them with little more than an ankle monitor and a bus ticket.
“I’m very happy to be back with my children,” Isabella said. “The day they separated us, I cried and cried. My son was screaming.”
Upon being released from detention, Isabella had been fitted with an electronic ankle monitor the size of a deck of cards; she has to charge the batteries twice a day. Once she arrived in Indianapolis, she would have to check in regularly with the local ICE office. Eventually she would have to appear in immigration court to defend her asylum claim.
Isabella was just one of five Central American mothers, each with young children in tow, who arrived on the same Greyhound bus from McAllen on Sunday. All were en route to meet up with friends or family elsewhere in the country. They were met at the station by volunteers from Immigrant Families Together, a national nonprofit founded to help reunite migrant families separated under President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy. Greyhound employees had allowed the group to set up in one of its break rooms, which was now filled with donated supplies.
Beginning on Saturday evening, volunteers had been on site to meet each bus arriving from the Rio Grande Valley. It was easy to identify the migrants by their ankle monitors and the packets of court documents they carried. Some mothers carried their infant children on their backs in a pouch.
“The government is just putting them on a bus with a ticket,” explained Dionne Ukleja, who helped organize the effort. “They’re exhausted—they’re hungry, thirsty, confused.”
After introducing themselves through a Spanish interpreter, the volunteers provide each migrant with a care package of sandwiches, snacks, and water. There are diapers and baby formula for the children, and medicine for anyone who needs it. Mothers of children under 4 are given a car seat and instructed that they must use it when riding in a taxi or other vehicle. (The volunteers have heard reports of police issuing “child endangerment” citations to migrant mothers who don’t properly strap in their children.)
If they wish, the migrants can provide their names and ID numbers so that Immigrant Families Together can arrange a pro bono immigration lawyer for them at their destination city. None of the more than 100 migrants who came through Houston this weekend had lawyers, Ukleja said.
“It’s not over for them,” she noted. “Lawyers tell us it takes about five years to go through the whole asylum process, and that’s without any roadblocks in the way.”
Several of the Immigrant Families Together volunteers compared their efforts to help the Central American migrants to the massive Hurricane Harvey relief effort last year, when highly motivated individuals all over Houston leveraged their social media networks to set up sophisticated relief operations. The group’s core organizers in Houston, Ukleja and Aly Fitzpatrick, first connected through a secret Facebook group devoted to the television channel Bravo. Other volunteers connected through the Houston chapter of Indivisible, a grassroots progressive group.
“When you’re trying to find people to help, where do you go?” Ukleja said. “You go to your like-minded groups.”
After Harvey, a group of Houston volunteers set up a Google Forms page to match up food donors and food recipients. Ukleja and Fitzpatrick helped adapt that page into ayudafamilias.org, where people across the country can either request or provide help for migrant families. Each migrant passing through the Houston bus station is given a business card with the website address and a hotline number for Immigrant Families Together.
Houston-based immigration attorney Ruby Powers, who has been working with Immigrant Families Together, said migrants are finally being released from jail and reunified with their children.
“The migrant families are being dispersed [around the country],” she said. “They’re traumatized. They have to reunite with their children after being separated. They have to find a school, they have to navigate their legal options. They need clothes, food, cell phones, finances.”
As for Isabella, she’s just happy to be with her three children on her way to Indianapolis to meet her husband. As if to remind me why the family is fleeing, Isabella asked her 15-year-old daughter to show me a photo on her smartphone: a dead baby covered in ash.
On June 16, six members of the same family were killed in an arson attack in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. The government blamed the attack on ordinary criminals, but opposition leaders accused a pro-government militia of starting the fire.
“The baby was killed in a fire set by a government death squad in Managua,” Isabella insisted. “My daughter found it on Twitter.”