David Baluarte, a law professor at Washington and Lee University, has worked with immigrants in Central Virginia in dire circumstances and on the ground in Latin American. But those experiences did not prepare him emotionally for his trip to the United States’ southern border with Mexico last December, he said Sunday.
“I don't think anything could prepare us for that mass of people, what that feels like, what that desperation feels like,” Baluarte told a packed room at Congregation Beth Israel in downtown Charlottesville. “… Those were the longest three days of my life without question.”
Baluarte was one of several panelists who discussed their experiences volunteering at the border. The synagogue’s social action and adult education committees hosted the event, which also included representatives from local organizations that work with immigrants and refugees. Attendees were encouraged to get involved with those groups.
Baluarte is the director of the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Washington and Lee, which provides legal representation to immigrants. He made his first trip to the border in December.
“It was the most vulnerable thing that I have ever experienced,” he said of working with people in the middle of their migratory journey.
Mira Levine, a trauma counselor for ReadyKids; Shawn Gewirtz, a licensed clinical psychologist; and Kristin Clarens, an attorney and pro bono coordinator for the Legal Aid Justice Center, joined Baluarte on the panel. Clarens has made and organized multiple migrant aid trips to the border in recent years.
In trips to Texas and California, they provided legal advice and mental health services. Levine described the scene in Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, as “horrifying.”
“There was a prevailing sense of hopelessness,” she said.
Migrants lived without basic necessities and in tents with no protection from the elements, she said. Clarens later described the tents as being held together with masking or duct tape.
Clarens has volunteered in the detention centers but the other volunteers worked with migrants on the other side of the border who were applying for asylum.
Clarens, who has only worked in immigration policy under President Donald Trump, said the challenge under this administration is “the total unpredictability.” Policies change quickly, which makes giving people advice and an idea of what to expect more difficult.
Levine said her trip to the border made her think about the story of European Jewish refugees being denied asylum in Cuba, the United States and Canada at the beginning of World War II.
“We understand too well the deadly consequences,” she said of denying people asylum.
Sunday’s discussion came on the heels of months of reports describing awful conditions at the southern border.
In December, Gewirtz traveled to Tijuana, Mexico, just south of California. He said he was prompted to do so, in part, by news reports and “the regular stream of things that were horrific and saddening to me.”
“You can either punch a hole in the wall or shut it all out,” he said. “… If you don’t do it, you don’t know if someone else is doing it.”
At the border, Gewirtz provided trauma counseling to migrants and helped to address the secondary trauma experienced by volunteers. The need for mental health services is great, he said, but there’s a lack of services.
Despite the trauma and living conditions, Gewirtz said he found beauty and resilience.
“These people are awesome,” he said.
During a question-and-answer portion of Sunday's event, attendees wondered about solutions and how they could help. Baluarte said comprehensive immigration reform is needed.
In the meantime, he called on the attendees to push back on an individual level when someone says something racist or xenophobic about immigrants.
“The state of our conversation about immigration is despicable,” he said. “Everyone needs the courage to stand up and say what’s wrong. … That’s the work we need to do now.”