They Came for Refuge, but Received No Mercy: A Report from the US Border

Medical volunteer Ashtyn Tayler went to the Texas border to offer care for asylum seekers being held in CBP detention. Here is her first-hand account of what she saw.


Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

– “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus, as inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. 


Ashtyn Tayler’s self-proclaimed mantra has always been, “have reason, will travel.” It was this ethos, combined with what she perceived as a moral imperative, that sent her to the Texas border in late June. Not a medical professional by any means, the 24-year-old Dallas pre-med student was nevertheless determined to do what she could to help asylum seekers who were reportedly being held by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) near McAllen, Texas. She wasn’t sure what she would find, and was not prepared for what she saw: Disease. Dehydration. Untreated wounds. Confusion. Fear. Desperation.

I interviewed her about her experience. Tayler’s observations about how the US Government is treating asylum seekers from Central and South America are documented in detail below.

The Interview

Nick Knudsen:

Thanks so much for speaking with DemWritePress about your experience in McAllen, Ashtyn. The American people are extremely concerned about the treatment of asylum seekers at our border. For our readers’ reference – an asylum seeker is an individual seeking international protection because of immediate, impending danger in their home country – basically the homeless, tempest-tost as inscribed on Lady Liberty. Asylum seekers can request asylum. If it is granted, they become known as refugees.

To your knowledge, what was the immigration status of the people you encountered in McAllen who were held in CBP detention?

Ashtyn Tayler: 

Thanks for interviewing me about this experience, Nick. To answer your question, every single person I spoke to and treated was an asylum seeker. Many of the women coming out of CBP detention are survivors of domestic violence, fleeing abusive husbands. One woman had an eight inch scar from where her ex-husband had attacked her with a knife. Many others were fleeing gang violence. The people who made it to McAllen were the remnants of broken families, having lost others to murder by gangs and crime syndicates. For the people I saw, coming to America was not an attempt to enter the land of opportunity. For them, this treacherous journey, riddled with uncertainty, was their only hope for safety. Coming to America was an attempt to find refuge.

Nick Knudsen: 

Based on the pictures you’ve shared and our initial conversation, it doesn’t sound like they found what they were looking for when crossing the border. Let’s come back to that. First, I would like to take this chronologically so people can get a sense of your experience.

So, you left Dallas and headed to McAllen because you knew there was a CBP detention facility there. Did you have a plan? What did you find?

Ashtyn Tayler: 

All I had was determination. I arrived early on June 22nd off a tropical highway route intent on finding the CBP detention facility. Due to the torrential amount of rain that had occurred the previous night, many of the roads had been completely flooded.

The detention center in McAllen, Texas is not easily accessible. Internet searches for the “Ursula” facility redirect to The U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station, which is a few miles away from the actual building where immigrants are being detained. A Wikipedia page gives an address that, when searched, appears to be a gated warehouse in a rural area. There is no signage among the other ordinary businesses and shipping warehouses. I should note that several of the roads here in McAllen had been blocked off. I tried several routes and was told to turn back by police blockades, which made it difficult to navigate. Given the inclement weather, it took some time to find the building, but I did.

Nick Knudsen:

What did you find there? How were you received?

Ashtyn Tayler:

Well first I had to actually get to the building. I parked on a side street and waded in floodwater up to my knees to arrive at the Ursula detention facility: an off-road building among warehouses and little else. The Ursula center is large, with perimeter fences and floodlights. I saw white U.S. Border Patrol vans with tinted windows, filled with what appeared to be immigrant passengers partitioned in the back. Other than these white vans, I saw no one going in or out.

As I walked the area to try and access the building and take photographs, several white vans converged. One asked me what I was doing. I told him I was trying to see if I could speak to an official, in hopes of volunteering.

The next thing I knew, I was inside one of these white CBP vans.

cbp
A view from inside the CBP van. Photo by Ashtyn Tayler

It took me to the front gate of the center. I was not allowed entry into the door, but two men met me outside. There was no din I could hear. For all the people I’d seen shuttled in, the front of this place was very, very quiet.

Ursula_(detention_center)_2
Photo provided by Custom and Border Protection to reporter on tour of Ursula detention facility in McAllen, Texas. Reporters were not allowed to take their own photos. (Via Wikipedia)

The official I spoke to, who would not give his name, told me that there were absolutely no outside visitors or volunteers allowed, and was aggressive in his demeanor. He told me to leave the facility and became hostile when I asked repeatedly if he knew of other places where I could provide assistance. I asked repeatedly if there was information available to see who is funding the facility and where the funds are allocated. I asked repeatedly to know the conditions inside. He provided no information about how to render the aid that CBP had reportedly been “accepting” when speaking with news outlets. I had to leave the grounds.

Nick Knudsen:

So you weren’t actually able to get into the CBP facility. Where did you go next?

Ashtyn Tayler:

I felt helpless as to what to do, and decided to try my chances in town. It was only then that I happened into Old McAllen and found a Respite Center. They are run almost entirely on a volunteer basis, with the exception of a core cadre of dedicated staff who’ve aided in restoring dignity to immigrants for years now. Here, they shelter, bathe, eat, and rest, until they can be shuttled somewhere else in the country. I asked when I could help out. They told me to show up the next morning at 8:00 AM, so I did.

Nick Knudsen:

So this Respite Center is where they bring asylum seekers when they are released?

Ashtyn Tayler:

Not exactly. To my knowledge, once CBP deems the immigrants seeking asylum “processed,” they are loaded up onto buses 100-150 at a time and dropped off at a local bus station in McAllen, each of them tagged with an ankle bracelet. The lucky ones are abandoned here because they have a relative somewhere in the United States to stay with, though these former detainees will still have to fight the uphill legal battle against their deportation. The unlucky ones are bound for immediate deportation, I imagine.

Here at the bus station, however, they emerge disoriented…but standing. More than I could hope given the circumstances.

IMG_0857.jpg
Released detainees arrive at the McAllen Bus Terminal. Photo by Ashtyn Tayler

Mostly all you hear are shuffling steps, hacking coughs, and the cries of frightened children. The feet that step warily into the bus station are encased in tattered shoes, fringed with torn pants, and caked in dirt. The only thing shiny and new are the black ankle monitors that I see at every leg – they are primed and polished.

Bus 3
They put this woman in quarantine in a “cold box,” (“hielera”) with her daughters for 5 days. She was fleeing an abusive husband. They came from El Salvador. Photo by Ashtyn Tayler

Each adult clutches a manila envelope with a destination written on it in permanent marker. This is the only English that most of them can read. Their relatives must arrange travel for them and purchase tickets. Once off those buses, but for the watchful presence of the ankle monitors, they are all but abandoned.

Nick Knudsen:

OK, so these detainees – as you say, the “lucky ones” – are dropped off in the bus terminal by the hundreds. What happens to the ones that need medical attention? What is the clinic like that you volunteered in and what was your role?

Ashtyn Tayler:

That first day when I arrived, I didn’t know what to expect. I showed up at 8:00 am. There was a “Clinic” sign taped haphazardly over a white door. I asked who the attending clinician was, hoping that I could help scribe, or maybe take peoples’ temperatures. The volunteer coordinator said, “You are.” We looked at each other for a moment. She was entirely serious. I explained that I was a pre-med student. “The buses will get in in about 45 minutes.”

This was one of the defining moments in my life. I looked around, trying to process what was about to happen, what I was about to try to do.

The clinic is a converted office space with the original walnut desk still in it. In the periphery, an examination bed has been crammed into a corner, no sanitary paper to cover it.

IMG_0820
The “Clinic”. Photo by Ashtyn Tayler

The shelves are scant, but there are over-the-counter medicines to work with, sparingly. Small miracles. Of the basket of thermometers, there are no disposable probes, half of them do not work, and the remaining half that do can only read in Celsius. No joke.

By the grace of God, a retired RN named Gail had come into town to help at the Respite Center. She prepared what little we had with an orderliness of a hospital OR. I slipped nitrile gloves onto my trembling hands. Together, we triaged 40 patients our first night. I went to bed that night unable to stop hearing the noise.

Nick Knudsen:

So these asylum seekers had been detained at the CBP facility for roughly how long by the time they got off the bus and were taken to the Respite Center?

Ashtyn Tayler: 

The minimum amount of time I heard of was 4 days. And a maximum of 12.

Nick Knudsen:

So what kind of condition were they arriving in after 4 to 12 days in US custody?

Ashtyn Tayler:

Well, first: they were all dehydrated. At the bus station, children and adults drank Pedialyte like they hadn’t seen a drink in their lives.

Toddler-w-Fever.jpg
A toddler with a 102 degree fever drinks Pedialyte at the McAllen bus terminal. Photo by Ashtyn Tayler

In the clinic, the respiratory infections were so severe that we had to refer a number of people to a hospital. I personally raced to a pharmacy after hours for an albuterol inhaler after a mother had told us that ICE took and confiscated the one meant for her child.

IMG_0980
Three El Salvadorian sisters: the youngest sister had an ear infection and the middle sister had the flu. Photo by Dalila Reynoso-Gonzalez of Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON)

Sores, welts, fevers, lice, and dehydration were rampant. So many of the women told me that they were not allowed to bathe their babies for the duration of their time in detainment.

IMG_6036
An ankle bracelet has left welts and blisters from digging in too tightly. This was common. Photo by Dr. Norma Bowe, PhD/RN of Kean University

Nick Knudsen:

I am sure there are particular stories that stick out in your mind. Can you give us a few specific examples of conditions you encountered?

Ashtyn Tayler:

Definitely. So many.

One toddler had diaper rash that had become crusted, scaled, and bloodied from thigh to abdomen. She thrashed at her skin as we tried to apply a soothing cream. Her mother told us that we were the first people to be kind to her and her baby girl, and I had to turn away. I could not look her in the eye out of shame, as I felt the mottled texture of her child’s skin in my hands. This would be the first of so, so many like this.

Scalp
A scalp abscess on a young child. This woman was terrified to tell authorities because she said they told the women, “You’ll never see your children again if you make any problems.” A local physician ended up prescribing a vital medication to this child for the bus ride to their destination. Photo by Dr. Norma Bowe, PhD/RN of Kean University

There was an 8-year-old girl with a fever, who hadn’t eaten for days: I had to hold her hair with one hand and her torso with the other, basically holding her up as she wretched, trembling. She is feather-light to me. Her mother hid her face in her hands, crying, apologizing between sobs. We all assured her everything is okay, though I felt like I was assuring myself, more than anything. She purged until my arm grew tired. It was arrhythmic. Bile coated the floor. It coated my shoes. It coated my arm. It was entirely liquid. She had been too scared to eat for days. Her eyes were tearful from vomiting, and something indiscernible. I held her for several minutes, feeling her ribs through her thin lavender shirt.

The scariest was a 6-month-old infant with severe dehydration; she was tiny for her age, with such a high fever that her screams gave way to an eerie quiet as she choked on her own breaths. I will never forget the wet sound of her coughs, how hot she was, as we frantically dabbed at her with cool cloths and prayed that an over-the-counter infant fever reducer would work. We were lucky.

Fani
This young girl came with her father and had chicken pox. She has a hernia and her father cannot afford surgery. Photo by Dalila Reynoso-Gonzalez of Justice for Our Neighbors (JFON)

Nick Knudsen:

How did everyone respond to being treated?

Ashtyn Tayler:

The people were so terrified. Especially if their symptoms were so acute we thought they needed to be transferred to a hospital. To them it may mean missing their next bus, trouble from authorities, or deportation. We couldn’t adequately explain to them that they were “safe” after the conditions they had experienced in detainment. All of my reassurances sound spurious in my own mouth.

Nick Knudsen:

How did they describe detainment?

Ashtyn Tayler:

I did ask them to tell their stories. I asked what the facilities were like. Their faces were ashen. Murmurs of “hieleros” and testimony of little food and water were echoed in everyone I asked. They all told me that they slept on a concrete floor. They told me about the fences, the blinding flood lights, the deafening noise, and the cold. Most of all, the cold. It was pervasive.

Nick Knudsen:

In sum, based on what you saw and on the conversations you had with released detainees (and acknowledging that you were not allowed to actually observe conditions inside the Ursula facility), how would you characterize the treatment of these asylum seekers by the US government?

Ashtyn Tayler:

To hear the cries of frightened children, the wheezes of sick and huddled masses, and to know, within the bowels of these huge, cold, concrete facilities are suffering people who came here, like our ancestors, with nothing to their names but hope… and to treat them as they have been treated, to prolong their suffering, is unconscionable. It is heartless.

Nick Knudsen:

Thank you for providing this eyewitness account of the situation at the border Ashtyn. I understand you are going back to the border later this month. Can I ask if you’d be willing to provide more real-time reports from McAllen as a DemWritePress Contributor?

Ashtyn Tayler:

Absolutely.

Nick Knudsen:

Thank you. We do appreciate your support for these families. Godspeed. We look forward to more reports.


Editor’s Note: The conditions at the border, on the heels of the DOJ’s institution of ‘Zero Tolerance’, requires a persistent national spotlight. DemWritePress is here to provide a platform to any individuals who have inside knowledge of conditions at the border. Please urge your elected officials to pay persistent attention:

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker visit the McAllen clinic where Ashtyn Tayler volunteered in June.

12 thoughts on “They Came for Refuge, but Received No Mercy: A Report from the US Border

  1. so painful to read but grateful to Ashtyn and others for showing human compassion…this brutality must be stopped!

  2. Consequenseces must occur for ALL those RESPONSIBLE and SUPERVISING these children in INHUMANE CONDITIONS. No one MUST ESCAPE the PUNISHMENT they have CAUSED the MOST FRAGILE and VULNERABLE WOMEN, CHILDREN and FAMILIES. THE GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS MUST PAY for these ATROCITIES!

  3. This is the United States of America under Donald Trump. Absolutely tragic and horrific. Ashtyn is a saint and kudos to her for doing this.

    1. We have to vote the Republicans out – I don’t think there’s any other way. And that’s going to take a lot of work. If you’d like to help, I can probably connect you to a place/group where you could volunteer.

  4. All you can hope for, short of big policy change/accountability, is that Ashtyn’s and others there were able to extend their heart and hands to these struggling families and let them know that there are people who really DO care about them. Thank you Ashtyn, for just doing it.

  5. I wish that I could say that I am surprised…even shocked. Nothing about what this administration does shocks me anymore. They do this at the whim of a president who is inherently racist and will always demonize black and brown people in the guise of patriotism and keeping America safe. We all know that this isn’t the truth. Thank you for shining a light on this issue.

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