McPherson residents Bill and Dayle Toews took a trip to McAllen, Texas, in May, but it was not a summer vacation. Instead, they were traveling with about a dozen others on a Mennonite Central Committee Learning Tour to view the work of humanitarian organizations aiding people trying to cross the border between the United States and Mexico.
"I hear so much on TV, I wanted to see what it was all about," Bill said. "You would think that the United States should welcome people."
The trip spurred Dayle and Bill to lead a donation drive for MCC's Immigrant Detainee Care Kits. First Mennonite Church, located at 1161 E. Avenue A in McPherson, is accepting new T-shirts, socks, underwear, shoelaces, pens, backpacks, washcloths, towels, toothbrushes and other hygiene products. A full list of the supplies requested can be found at http://mcc.org/immigrationkit. The drive will end with a McPherson Chamber of Commerce Connections event at 9:30 a.m. Aug. 29 at the church.
Kris Schmucker, who lives in Goessel, said she went on the MCC Learning Tour to see for herself what was going on and determine which media reports were accurate.
"It's a huge concern," Schmucker said. "What we're seeing, especially about children, is awful. I wanted to see what was being done."
Tour members talked with Hector Zuniga, director of a Southwest Key Programs shelter for unaccompanied minors.
"He gave us a rundown of what (children) do when they come," Dayle said.
Children (mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) who cross the border usually call their relatives back home to let them know they made it, then call their sponsor family members in the United States, Dayle explained.
"Many of them know people in the United States who will be their sponsor," Bill said.
The shelter then gives them food, clothes, toiletries, a shower, medical assistance and a book outlining their rights in their native language — things that adults also receive when they are released from detention centers.
Advocates at Southwest Key Programs work with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to reunify children with their family members. Many children are provided with legal counsel from ProBAR's South Texas Asylum Representation Project. According to the Toews, the vast majority of the time they end up living with family members in the United States.
The tour members were taken to see the border wall between the United States and Mexico.
"Some people had the wall built right in their backyard," Bill said.
They also visited a Mennonite church in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico. The 10 families that make up the congregation work to aid people who are unable to cross from Mexico into the United States.
"I was very impressed with their courage," Schmucker said. "They were dealing with the cartel putting pressure on them and they were standing firm in 'we are helping people and not taking money from you — we are following Christ.' "
At the federal courthouse in Brownsville, tour members watched as the cases of those caught crossing into the United States illegally were heard.
"One woman, who was eight months pregnant, was sent to an immigration camp," Dayle said.
Another woman stated she had a husband and children in the United States.
"The judge was very compassionate ... he said, 'I know the strongest link is between a child and mother, but I can't do anything for you. I've got to send you back,' " Dayle said.
They also saw Operation Streamline cases where six people came in front of the judge at the same time. All pleaded guilty to crossing the border illegally and were given sentences that included fines, probation and jail time.
MCC Learning Tour members saw migrants recently released from detention centers being taken to bus stations and directed to places like Good Neighbor Settlement — a Methodist organization — to get food, diapers, hygiene supplies, blankets and cots.
At Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, the tour members volunteered to sort clothes and saw about 200 people come through in need of assistance.
"We walked in there and there were lines of families with children, just waiting for help," Schmucker said. "There were also very overwhelmed volunteers trying to help them."
"It was good to work with Catholic Charities and to see what all they did," Dayle said. "If I lived down there, that's where I would be every day."
Schmucker said the trip gave her a way to connect not only to the geographical area, but also to those involved in the issue of immigration.
"I have a clear bias," Schmucker admitted. "I want to help these people."
The Toews were surprised and impressed with the abundance of aid given near the United States' southern border — something they said they have not seen reported by TV news stations.
"I could not believe all the humanitarian efforts going on. I was so happy to see that," Dayle said. They are busy there. ... Why are they not showing that?"
For more information about MCC learning tours and how to donate towards its relief efforts, visit https://mcc.org.