My experience at a migrant processing center | Opinion – NJ.com

By Vanessa Jean Louis
When I saw the image of the Haitian baby sleeping on a piece of cardboard under the Del Rio Bridge in Texas, I instantly began looking for ways to help.
I am a child of Haitian immigrants and I work in a community that has a high immigrant population. We’ve recently seen an influx of migrant families, so many of my friends, family and co-workers banded together to send money to various organizations to provide relief to the Haitian migrants who traveled from places like Chile and Brazil.
Haiti’s political instability, lack of employment, gang violence, kidnappings, and natural disasters forced many Haitian families to relocate to countries in Central America. As employment opportunities dried up, many families decided to stake their chances for survival in America.
I began connecting with grassroots organizations in Texas to see if there were opportunities to volunteer because the monetary contributions didn’t feel like enough. Houston Haitians United connected me with the National Association of Christian Churches (NACC) Disaster Center and I was approved as a volunteer.
The NACC had processed approximately 2,000 Haitian migrants since the influx happened in September. Upon my arrival, I spoke with the manager of the NACC who warned me to manage my expectations because they hadn’t received a bus with migrants for over five days. I went back to my hotel disappointed because I didn’t want my trip to be in vain.
A few hours later, she called me and said there was a migrant bus on the way. At the hotel, I met a fellow New Jerseyan of Haitian descent who was also on a mission to aid the migrants. We traveled together to the NACC to await the arrival of the migrants and met other volunteers from all over the United States who gave us a quick briefing on how to assist the families.
Haitian Americans volunteer to help process potential Haitian refugees at a migrant processing center in Houston, Texas.
I was so excited to begin assisting the families, but that excitement briefly faded when I realized the bus that arrived had migrants from Honduras and not Haiti. However, once I began helping them settle into the shelter, I almost forgot they weren’t Haitians. We were separated by language, but we were connected by the universal needs that make us all human. I desperately wanted to hear their stories but because of the language barriers, I had to rely on what interpreters were able to tell me.
The truth is I wasn’t prepared for the emotional toll that seeing small, emaciated children would have on me. I kept myself busy so that I wouldn’t break down and cry. The children were no longer a picture on the internet, but very real little people in front of me.
There was a little boy, approximately 2 years old who had saliva dripping down his face. His mother was carrying him because he was unable to walk. We took him to the bathroom and realized that he was covered in diarrhea. The migrants often run out of food and water and are often forced to drink from outdoor bodies of water, which often leads to severe illness. We helped his mother give him a bath and when he was all cleaned up, I started playing with him and he smiled. He had the sweetest little face that I will never forget.
I met a young woman, her husband, and their 1-month-old baby girl. I held her as they ate. They traveled on foot from Honduras while she was pregnant. Due to the enormity of the experience and the danger to their survival, they named their baby girl Milagro which is Miracle in Spanish.
A family from Honduras kneels in prayer at a migrant processing center in Houston.
I met a single mother who made the harrowing journey with her 8-year-old daughter and her 14-year-old son. They traveled on foot for 15 days. I caught her kneeling to pray with her children filled with gratitude that they were one of the lucky ones who got to stay.
On my way back to New Jersey, I began pondering how comfortable we are as Americans and how much I’ve taken my life here for granted. I also felt the utmost gratitude that my parents emigrated here from Haiti. Although they worked blue-collar jobs, they pushed us to take full advantage of what this country has to offer. I am an elementary school counselor, and my younger sister is a clinical pharmacist at an Ivy League teaching hospital.
Immigrant stories of upward mobility are not unique to us alone. I also ruminated on our culture wars around the language we use to describe the people who take this dangerous journey. Our labels for them are often contingent upon who we choose to curate our news. Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary recently stated with pride how the Biden-Harris Administration doesn’t use the word “deport” — their preferred term is “expulsion.”
Army green cots lone the wall of a migrant processing center in Houston.
While the American people continue to be gaslighted by this current administration, I can’t help but think how inconsequential her virtue signaling is, as if the migrants care what term is used when they’re expelled from our country.
Although the Biden-Harris administration campaigned on setting a different tone on immigration, they have been deporting thousands of families back to Haiti. Daniel Foote, the U.S. Special Envoy to Haiti recently resigned in protest due to the mass expulsion of Haitian migrants.
Vanessa Jean Louis combs a young child's hair at a migrant processing center in Houston.
On my last day at the center, a single father from Honduras asked me if I could braid his 4-year-old daughter’s hair. As I was forming the small braids, the child leaned in on me as if I was familiar to her. I didn’t see an illegal alien or a border invader, I saw someone who will be a part of our American Dream.
Vanessa Jean-Louis is a second-generation Haitian American who was born and raised in New Jersey. She works as an elementary school counselor and considers herself a recovering partisan.
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