Commentary: The Las Cruces Response To The Refugee Crisis

Apr 28, 2019

Credit Peter Goodman

Commentary: Hosting 2,200 refugees in two weeks is an unexpected challenge. Our community is responding beautifully. 

For months, nonprofits and churches have been helping a steady influx of Central American refugees. Then the feds started releasing so many that the City made Meerscheidt Rec Center a temporary shelter and authorized substantial expenditures. 

Fleeing grave dangers, the refugees are applying for asylum, legally, under U.S. laws and treaties. They have court cases elsewhere, and family or volunteers waiting to house them. Some stay here 24 hours or less. Most are families. Many are children. 

Firefighters, church members, city employees, and volunteers cheerfully cooperate on logistical problems including food, housing, clothes, medical care, and travel. 

The refugees spent Easter weekend at Las Cruces High. At around 6 p.m. Saturday, firefighter Nicolas Palma showed volunteer Kari Bachman around gyms full of cots. Kari, whose Spanish is impeccable, would spend the night. Palma, who would return early the next morning, had been there all day. So had the school principal – and at 7 p.m. she was sweeping a floor. County Treasurer Eric Rodriguez was handing out bottles of water. Outside stood a Salvation Army “emergency kitchen” truck, overseen by Salvation Army ministers Michael and Norma Evans. A woman rushed to hug them, recalling their past disaster-relief efforts. (She's an FBI agent, but was volunteering here.) The school's computer lab was a travel agency, ably managed by a retired FEMA employee.

Kari said of her 14-hour night, “Being in charge was kind of daunting. But the other volunteers were incredible. We had fun, laughed, and worked well together. Best of all were the asylum-seekers. They were amazing. There were 174 of them overnight, and to a person, they were extremely kind, personable, and calm.”

She didn't ask about their suffering, but heard moving stories anyway. One woman returned from the hospital with her young son. While fighting off an attacker in Mexico, she'd fallen on her two-year-old son's leg, breaking it. 

“They were really warm and engaging, would always share a smile and talk. I was moved to tears so many times through the night. Watching a sick kid smile, and the mothers cuddling with the kids and reading little books to them. It was powerful.” One “very spiritual” indigenous Guatemalan man kept saying how grateful he was they'd made it and that he just wanted to be in a place where he could work without fear.

Sunday morning, Chris Van Inga and Phinneas Phogg (parrot-at-large, familiar to farmers' market denizens) put sudden smiles on the faces of kids and adults alike, as Phinneas barked, meowed, somersaulted, played dead, and perched on the palms of little hands. Former federal prosecutor Peter Ossorio (serving as “towel boy”) remarked that he wished national media could see how dangerous these people are. He pointed out a table in the corner where the owner of Trini's Nail Creations was doing refugee women's nails – on Easter.

There's no end in sight. Thursday the City leased the old armory to house refugees, and authorized spending up to half a million dollars. 

Las Cruces didn't ask for this challenge. But in working together on unfamiliar problems, and meeting wonderful people, Las Crucens have found satisfaction and even joy.

But this ain't sustainable. We need an administration in Washington that can comprehend the problems forcing people to flee their homes and will deal with those problems – or at least stop exacerbating them.


[Internet storms over the city's involvement in this refugee problem have been a little puzzling.  I get it that some folks want a border patrol, and/or hate on sight anything the city council does; and I think our laws, policies, and procedures need serious re-examination; but on the immediate issue of what the city council should be doing, I've posted a simple question: given that the Feds proposed to dump 150 people a day here, what ought the city council to have done?  Ignored these people, which not only would have been inhumane but would likely have exacerbated the impact on the community and cost us more in the long run, as many of these people lacked language skills, funds, cell-phones, food, adequate clothing, routine medical care, etc., and would have stayed longer and needed more services?  Most of these folks have court dates and friends or family and, with a little help, could be on their way quickly.  So should we have ignored them?  Started a gun-battle with the Feds?   Put them all in jail for vagrancy? Left 'em on the street, vulnerable to sexual predators, pederasts, and violent nut-cases?  None of us takes great joy in seeing half a million bucks leave our treasury; but what was the viable alternative that was better?]

[Make no mistake: the situation in Central America and the influx of asylum-seekers is a problem.  A federal problem that needs a federal or international solution.  But we won't help solve it by spreading lies and myths that these refugees are inherently bad or dangerous people.  Two dominant themes in talking with folks who've worked with the refugees: wonder at the cooperative ways they've solved problems and, above all, respect and even affection for the refugees.]