Mary and Rosa stepped off buses in Larimer County this past winter with no contacts, shelter, food, or coats. They were part of a larger group of about 80 migrants, mostly from Venezuela, who were bused rather randomly to an unfamiliar town after surviving harrowing journeys that were undertaken – and this is important – because their lives were at stake.
To put it mildly, there was no real plan in place to receive them, because, as a whole, governmental agencies are largely unprepared for the immigrant crisis that is occurring and will intensify with the lifting of Title 42.
Luckily, nonprofits and individuals are more nimble, and with just a few days of notice from the Larimer County Office of Emergency Management, the nonprofit Alianza NORCO quickly organized: Volunteers gave up holiday breaks, gathered food and clothing, and established emergency shelters.
Alongside Alianza NORCO, other groups such as Foothills Unitarian Church, Fuerza Latina de Fort Collins, ISAAC of Northern Colorado, The Family Center/La Familia and their volunteers provided transportation, food, medical care, warm clothing, and housing. They had to move lightning fast, out of necessity.
And they rose to the occasion. Patricia Miller, executive director of Alianza NORCO, summed it up on their Facebook page: “our beautiful staff and volunteers showed up with gifts and clapped as the newcomers entered the intake building in Loveland. We celebrated the courage of their journey, their arrival in our region, and the talents and dreams that they brought with them, along with their humble plastic bags carrying their few possessions.”
While this generosity and dedication should certainly be celebrated, it’s also worth noting that the situation is incredibly haphazard and fragile. Regardless of one’s opinions on immigration generally, one thing we can agree on is that the system is broken. “There is no infrastructure in our towns, cities, or states for this sort of humanitarian crisis,” Miller, who is an immigrant herself, told me. “Our organization’s efforts are tiny compared to what is really needed long-term. NGOs are already doing too much with too little — our government agencies need to fund a coordinated response to integrate immigrants into our communities through an ongoing and intentional effort, collaborating with community nonprofits and churches. Immigrants’ contributions power our long-term cultural and economic vibrancy. The way a society integrates its most vulnerable members is an important measure of its success, and currently we are failing.”
Mary and Rosa, however, are succeeding. They’ve found work and now share a rental, though they did not know one another in Venezuela and met on the bus here. Both recounted incredible journeys and their reasons for leaving, and though their journeys varied, they share a common motivation: The dire conditions in Venezuela are real. People are starving, people are dying, and they fled for their safety and their lives.
For example, Rosa, who is 32, told me that she graduated from college with a degree in business administration. But conditions were desperate, and so she traveled with her sister to work in Colombia, then Chile. But things deteriorated there, too. She wasn’t seeking luxuries — only to remain alive and make enough money to support herself and her disabled father. So, for the next three months, she and her sister and a friend walked and hitchhiked north with, she said, “my heart in my hands.”
Peru. Ecuador. Colombia. Panama, where they foraged for food in the jungle with los animales, with bloody and cut feet, with fevers. Inflamadas, she says, showing me a cell phone photo of her legs, swollen with bug bites and cuts. But onward they went — Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico. Eating fruit from trash cans and bread offered by strangers. Finally, they made it through Mexico and arrived in El Paso a few weeks before Christmas, and then were on a bus to Denver, and from Denver to Larimer County.
Since then, they’ve found jobs and are working hard, have received medical care, are paying their rent, are learning about life in Colorado. Fleeing humanitarian and political chaos, gangs and the cartel, these brave women have walked thousands of miles leaning on their strength, determination and the kindness of strangers all along the way.
As we know, they are not alone. There will be more fleeing for their lives as conditions deteriorate worldwide. And I fear that nonprofits and individuals will not be able to meet this need. Across the political divide, we can agree that one large-scale solution lies in stable economies and governments, and another lies in clear and mindful immigration policies. Everyone has different opinions on what a measured response looks like, but we can surely agree that in the meantime, people will do what they can to survive, and they will come. Which is why our cities, states, and country need to come up with a plan for intentional and well-organized support.
It seems to me that one of the most useful immediate solutions would be for emergency management offices to appoint, organize, and fund an immigrant welcome center. Then, with an overarching system in place, and someone in charge, the efforts of individuals and nonprofits can have more impact.
Mary and Rosa each told me numerous times how grateful they are to be here. How grateful they are for everyone who reached out to offer a helping, humanitarian hand. But they do not want handouts. They want to work. They want to live. They are not alone in that desire — and we should prepare as best we can for the others who are coming.
Laura Pritchett is the author of five novels and winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction, the WILLA Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the High Plains Book Award, and several Colorado Book Awards. She directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University. More at www.laurapritchett.com.
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