Jenn Morson barely speaks Spanish, but she learned how to say “push” at a hospital’s delivery ward last month when she helped a migrant woman from Honduras count to 10 during contractions.
“Empuje! Uno, dos, tres …”
The two met through an organization called Immigrant Families Together, started by a friend of Morson’s. Julie Schwietert Collazo founded the group this summer with a simple mission: to raise enough money to pay the bond of a woman held at the border. Mothers like Morson and others sent money and offered to help.
Since then, their efforts have grown into not only providing bond for people in detention — they’ve helped 58 altogether — but also supporting them as they await their asylum hearings. Regional teams work in California, Michigan, New York, Arizona, North Carolina and Maryland.
This spring, the Trump administration began separating parents who tried crossing the border from their children as part of a “zero tolerance” crackdown on immigration. Volunteers say they were moved to act by news coverage of migrant families being separated at the border — such as photos and video of children crying.
“I was livid … just livid,” said volunteer Deb Burks, who divides her time between Baltimore, where her grandkids live, and her hometown in North Carolina. She got involved with Immigrant Families Together after reading about the group. Today, she delivers groceries to migrant families in the area.
Morson, 43, a mother of five, gets choked up when she talks about it. “There’s really nothing worse that you can imagine than someone taking your kids from you,” she said.
Among the group’s supporters are “Frozen” star Kristen Bell, who posted about their work on Instagram. The organization — which recently filed for nonprofit status — has raised more than $1 million since the summer through GoFundMe and other avenues. The money has helped pay bonds that can range from $5,000 to tens of thousands of dollars.
“Every cent goes to families,” Schwietert Collazo said, adding that neither she nor any other volunteer draws a salary.
Ten volunteers are helping five families in Maryland — including the woman from Honduras and her now 1-month-old baby boy.
“Maryland has become an incredibly central nexus in our work for a number of different reasons,” said Schwietert Collazo, who lives in New York. Some immigrants move to the state because they have family connections here. Others come because of the Baltimore immigration court’s reputation for having a high rate of asylum approval, Schwietert Collazo said. “We would love to move more families there.”
Many of the Central American migrants Immigrant Families Together works with have faced extortion from gangs in their home countries. “These are wonderful people who are being terrorized,” said Burks. “If they have a livelihood, they are being shaken down.”
The Honduran woman, 28, and her husband, 27, left their village in September, taking a series of buses and cars through Mexico to the border to flee their home country, which has some of the highest rates of violence in the world.
She requested that The Baltimore Sun not reveal her name for fear that speaking to the news media could jeopardize her immigration status. The couple knew the risks, but felt it was worth it. The woman was pregnant; they could provide a better life for their son in the United States
“You don’t make a journey like that, for thousands of miles unless you’re really fleeing,” said Suzanne Martin, president of the Annapolis Immigration Justice Network, which, like Immigrant Families Together, began this summer as a response to family separations. They help newcomers navigate immigration law and raise money to pay legal fees.
After arriving at the border, the woman and her husband were bused to a detention center in McAllen, Texas, the nation’s largest immigrant processing center, where they were separated. The woman says she was taken to “the icebox,” a cramped and cold holding area. She said guards bullied them, accusing them of being terrorists.
While President Donald Trump suspended the “zero tolerance” family separation policy in June, the woman from Honduras said that inside the detention center, children over age 8 were taken from their mothers.
A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said he could not investigate the woman’s claims without knowing her identity. Earlier this month, CBP commissioner Kevin McAleenan testified at a Senate hearing that border detention facilities had been designed to accommodate adult men and were “incompatible” with the recent surge in family asylum requests the U.S. has faced.
The Honduran woman was released after just a few days — dropped off at a Texas bus station, eight months pregnant. Staffers at the detention center told her that her husband would likely be deported. She took a bus to Maryland, where she would be staying with family.
“This was never the plan,” she said through a translator. They were supposed to leave together.
While rates of asylum approval vary widely from judge to judge, the average rate of approval is higher in Baltimore than in cities such as Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C. More than half — 56 percent — of migrants whose asylum cases are heard in Baltimore are granted approval, according to a report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonprofit data research center based at Syracuse University.
One of six judges who hears asylum cases in Baltimore, Judge Denise Slavin, granted asylum to 92.6 percent of the 646 people she saw from fiscal year 2013 to 2018. On the other hand, Judge Elizabeth A. Kessler gave asylum to just 29.8 percent of the 487 applicants she saw during that time.
Asylum seekers can’t always work while they await their hearings, and many have a hard time getting access to food and other resources. For them, organizations like Immigrant Families Together, Catholic Charities, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services can be a lifesaver.
“Everybody’s got to eat,” Burks said. Her latest grocery receipt from Giant runs the length of a table, and the credit card company called to make sure it really was her. She set up a GoFundMe account that’s raised $1,600, in addition to around $1,500 of her own money.
One time, Burks said, she took a migrant family with her to Costco. The refrigerated fruit and vegetable section reminded a woman of the cold border facility where she had been detained. After that, she no longer wanted vegetables, Burks said.
The groceries and the donations have been nice, said the Honduran woman. More important has been the emotional support she’s received from volunteers like Morson. During the labor, she wanted to give up, she said. “Jenn was the strength that I didn’t have,” she said.
The baby spent the first weeks of his life in the newborn intensive care unit at the University of Maryland Medical Center, a bouquet of wires sprouting from his head. Doctors said he suffered a stroke either during the pregnancy or labor, a condition that happens in about 1 in 4,000 babies, according to the American Heart Association.
The mother is able to speak with her husband on the phone. But she doesn’t know whether she will be granted asylum, or whether her husband will be deported. He has become sick in detention, she said, but hasn’t been able to see a doctor.
Once, when the baby was still in the hospital, she held the phone up so he could hear his dad’s voice. His tiny arms reached out for his father.
Her son is healthier now, she says, and cries only when he’s wet or he’s hungry. As a U.S. citizen, he’ll have greater opportunities than he would in Honduras, she thinks.
On a recent evening, Morson sat with the Honduran woman on a couch in the Anne Arundel County apartment where she’s staying. Morson pulled a knit Santa cap from her purse and gently tucked it on the baby’s head while he nursed, safe and warm.
Baltimore Sun reporter Thalia Juarez contributed to this article.