A Mother and Daughter Helping Families at the Border

A Mother and Daughter Helping Families at the Border

In June 2017, mother and daughter Judy and Jasmine Elliot travelled to San Antonio to volunteer with the Refugee and Immigration Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) through the UU College of Social Justice. Hear about their experiences below. If you, or someone you know, are interested in volunteering and are either fluent in Spanish or have legal expertise, learn more and sign up at https://uucsj.org/raices/


Jasmine and I were volunteering at Karnes Detention Center with RAICES to help prepare the women for their Credible Fear Interview, and inform them of their rights and obligations in the asylum process should they pass it.  But I feel we also helped in other significant ways.

The women, hugely traumatized by the violent experiences they were fleeing and the many dangers they encountered traveling to the US border, often said they’d not spoken of it much before, if ever.  Able to finally do so in a private room with a sympathetic US citizen, as we prepared them for the CFI, seemed a comfort to many.  They also expressed gratitude for our support and caring, both at Karnes and at the Greyhound bus station, of them and their children.

We volunteers returned with resolve to continue related work in our communities, such as offering support to families seeking asylum, taking rapid-response training to respond to ICE raids, and speaking up about what we learned at Karnes.  If you have law or Spanish skills, contact UUCSJ and spend as few as four days in the San Antonio area doing meaningful work that can help families in desperate need have a decent future.

It took much support to make this week happen, from locals in the UU church and RAICES to UUCSJ staff and people who donated backpacks and contents for Greyhound bus travelers.There are so many ways to be involved.

Lastly, each of the women at Karnes had at least one of her children with her.  I told some of them at the Greyhound station they were my heroes (to a very tearful response), for surviving and enduring all that they had to give their children a chance.  I imagine some of these children will, like so many Latinos before them, become activists for social justice based on the injustice they witnessed in their formative years.


I’m a 22-year-old college student who just returned from volunteering at the Karnes detention center in Texas. Hearing horrific stories from women from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador fleeing extreme domestic violence and death threats from gangs was very hard.  But being able to work with a team of lawyers to help prepare the women for their Credible Fear Interview was amazing.

It’s difficult to pass the interview, but 90% of the women prepped through RAICES do. The best part for me was going to the Greyhound bus station the last day to hand out RAICES backpacks full of supplies and food, and seeing some of the families I had worked with. They seemed so much happier and hopeful, on to the next step of seeking asylum.

I had never imagined myself doing this type of work, but I’m so glad I did. It made me so much more grateful for the life I have, and showed me I could use my Spanish to make an important difference for families in desperate need.

A Mother and Daughter Helping Families at the Border

Volunteering at Karnes Detention Center

Sandra Rumbler is from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Luis Obispo in California and in June, 2017 volunteered with RAICES in San Antonio Texas through the UU College of Social Justice.

If you speak Spanish or have legal expertise and would like to volunteer with RAICES through UUCSJ this Fall, go to uucsj.org/raices to learn more and to sign up!

Before volunteering with RAICES at the Karnes Detention Center in Texas, I would have been happy if I had helped just one person gain asylum in the United States. By the end of the week,  however, I believe I helped many, many women take a successful first step in the asylum process.

Karnes Detention CenterKarnes is a detention center for women and children fleeing violence in their home countries, mostly in Central America.  Currently, approximately 680 women and their young children are housed there. They are fleeing violence and possibly death at the hands of gangs, cartels or their own spouses, perhaps a combination of all three. Many of the women sought help from the police, but the police reported them to the gangs, which then tried to retaliate.  Fleeing to other parts of their home countries was not feasible, as the gangs could chase them down.

Because I am bilingual in Spanish, I was able to help the women prepare for their Credible Fear Interviews with the Office of Asylum, which they must pass before they are released from Karnes.  Their chances of success in the interview are greatly increased if they have some preparation, which we gave them one-on-one in private.  In fact, approximately 90% of the women who are prepared by RAICES volunteers are successful in their interviews.

But this is only the first step.  Later, the women will need to plead their cases in court.  Approximately 43% of asylum seekers are finally successful.  The rest, unfortunately, are deported back to their home countries and fearful futures.

I learned about RAICES at my church, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Luis Obispo in California, while the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Antonio provided support in Texas, finding us home stays and hosting a reception dinner.

RAICES worked very hard with all five of us UU volunteers from across the county, teaching us about the asylum process, the law and the brutal facts of life in Central America. RAICES lawyers and legal assistants accompanied us each day to Karnes.

When I think back on my week at Karnes, the most touching moment for me was when a three year old tried to wipe away her mother’s tears as the mother related her heart-wrenching story.

I can honestly say that working with RAICES and the refugees was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I hope I truly made a difference in many lives, although it’s much too early to see the final outcomes. The experience increased my resolve to further work for justice for immigrants and asylum seekers, whether with RAICES or other groups. But  RAICES and its hard-working staff is at the top of that list.

~Sandra Rumbler

Meet the Activate @ GA team!

UUCSJ offers a variety of Activate Youth Justice programs, including at General Assembly. This year, for the first time, we are excited to welcome a team of awesome Activate Youth Leaders who are helping shape, facilitate, and promote our youth justice workshops in New Orleans, in collaboration with the Youth Caucus team. Get to know the Activate Youth Leaders (and a few adults, too) via their bios below and come say “Hello!” if you’ll be in New Orleans in June!

Pablo deVos-Deak is finishing his freshman year of high school and attends the Unitarian Society of New Haven, where he serves as a K1 teacher and is involved with his youth group. Born in Guatemala, he has traveled the world and most recently gone to China for two weeks. Pablo is very passionate about social justice and among other youth leadership experiences, has participated in a youth visit to the College of Social Justice and workshops at the UU-UNO Spring Seminar. Along with being a “sneaker-head” and playing three sports, he also loves trying new foods, playing the the piano, drums and steel pans, and listening to Logic. He looks forward to attending his 7th GA this year!


Adele Gelperin
is a rising junior at Mount Holyoke College, where they study religion and education. They grew up in the Unitarian Society of New Haven and now call Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence a second home.  Adele is a handbell enthusiast, a bookworm, and an aspiring elementary school teacher, who can often be found singing songs from Moana, arguing about philosophy, and tromping through the woods. They are an alum of Activate Boston (when it was known as National Youth Justice Training) and are thrilled to join the UUCSJ team and meet even more UUs at GA this year.

Liam McAlpin is a rising high school sophomore from Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tahlequah and attends Sequoyah High School, an all Native tribal school run by Cherokee Nation, where he is a member of his school’s student council and strives to make his school and community a safe and better place for all. Liam also attends Squirrel Ridge, one of the last remaining traditional Cherokee ceremonial grounds, where he is a proud member of the ground’s leadership and helps keep his Cherokee culture and spirituality alive. When Liam has free time, which isn’t that common, he enjoys making and listening to music, writing poetry and short stories, and spending time with his family and friends.

Chloe Ockey
attends the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno in Fresno, California. She is currently a college sophomore majoring in Communication Studies, who wishes to pursue a career in Public Relations. Some of her many hobbies include music composition, writing, and travel. As an alum of Luminary Leaders, Activate Boston, and Thrive West, she has participated in a variety of opportunities related to UU youth leadership and social justice. She can’t wait to meet all of you at General Assembly this year!


Abiy Welch
is a first-year student at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon. Her hometown is Hillsboro, Oregon and she attends both West Hills UU Fellowship and the UU Church of Eugene. She is a ‘13 GoldMine alumni, ’15 Summer Seminary alumni, is a member of the PWR GoldMine staff and is a peer chaplain. In 2016, she went to New Orleans for UUCSJ Activate Racial Justice! In her free time, she loves to sing hymns and read children’s books to others. The biggest thing that she took away from her Activate! trip was to find something you are passionate about, find that community, and stick to it. Join Abiy at GA for some food, coffee, or just a chat about anything and everything! She says, “Remember: Always. Believe. In. Yourself!”

Kristin Famula
has been a religious educator for the past decade, currently serving as the Acting Director of Religious Education at the UU Community of the Mountains in Grass Valley, CA, and previously as Director of Religious Education at Prairie UU Church in Colorado. As an educator and a life-long UU, she works to create and offer opportunities for people of all ages to deepen their commitment to transforming systems of oppression through reflection, learning and relationships. Kristin also serves as President of the National Peace Academy (nationalpeaceacademy.us), an educational institute dedicated to holistic peace-building. The National Peace Academy focuses on developing and offering learning opportunities for bringing forth the peace-builder in all of us, including through international opportunities for youth leadership and cultural exchange. As a UUCSJ Program Leader, Kristin has led several immersion learning journeys, including last year’s Activate New Orleans and a recent youth journey to the US/Mexico border.

Marissa Gutierrez-Vicario is a UUCSJ Program Leader and the Founder and Executive Director of Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE). As a committed human rights activist, artist, educator, and advocate for youth, Marissa launched ARTE in 2013 to help young people amplify their voices and organize for human rights and social change in their communities through the arts. Since early childhood, Marissa became interested in the arts and its potential for bringing attention to important social issues within her community. At an early age, Marissa also developed the propensity to lead as a student activist and public servant through her involvement in several non-profit organizations, including: United Students Against Sweatshops, the Advocacy Lab, Public Allies New York, Global Kids, and the UUA. In all of these experiences, Marissa realized the need to support young people in their development as organizers to help cultivate the next generation of social justice leaders. She has recently supported UUCSJ’s expansion of new initiatives in Nicaragua and new training collaborations such as the UNO Spring Seminar.

Angela Kelly is SO grateful to be working with this amazing Activate@GA team and in collaboration with the awesome Youth Caucus staff! As Senior Associate for Justice Education at UUCSJ, her work focuses on developing opportunities to integrate activism, popular education, and spiritual practice. As a teen, immersion learning journeys fueled her own passion for human rights and social justice and in the years since, supporting youth leadership has remained an energizing component of her work, which has included 15 years of organizing in various contexts for peace, community empowerment, health equity, refugee solidarity, and racial justice. These days, being rooted in her neighborhood, running in nature, circling up with kindred spirits, painting and scattering #KindnessRocks, and hanging out in child’s pose renew and sustain her ability to “rejoice & resist”.

We all look forward to seeing you soon!

Volunteering In A Family Detention Center

Volunteering In A Family Detention Center

Chris Casuccio is UUCSJ’s Senior Associate for Immersion Learning Programs.

For a week in July, I had the privilege of leading a group of five dedicated volunteers to San Antonio, TX to serve as Spanish translators and legal volunteers with UUSC partner RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services). This is the second year UUCSJ has organized a volunteer program with RAICES, and in total, 40 UUCSJ volunteers have participated in this program with RAICES.


The work with RAICES takes place in rural South Texas, at a place called the “Karnes County Residential Center.” But don’t be deceived, it’s not somewhere you would want to reside. It is a private prison contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and run by the GEO Group. The CEO of the GEO Group, George C. Zoley, made 6 million dollars in 2015.

Inside this center, RAICES provides pro bono legal services to hundreds of women and children from Central America: desperate people who have come to the U.S. fleeing gangs, poverty, rape, domestic violence, police repression and constant death threats. Current U.S. policy is to hold these families in detention as they begin their process for seeking asylum.

If they are lucky, they will get out with humiliating ankle monitors, and parole-style weekly check-ins with ICE — after telling their deeply private and often traumatic stories to an immigration official. Then, if they pass that “interview”, years of legal battles await them as they fight for asylum. If they aren’t lucky, the official decides their fear is not “credible”, and within days they are sent back to the hell they fled.

“Family detention” is the most contradictory phrase imaginable. In reality it is immoral and illegal. Women and children seeking safety and refuge from violence are not criminals and do not belong in prisons. And private companies should not be making money off of a humanitarian crisis.

 If reading this post makes you mad, frustrated, or sad… please, TAKE ACTION to end family detention! Later this month, UUSC and the Interfaith Immigration Coalition will be leading a week of action called Diapers in Detention. There are many ways for people to participate across the country. Whether you want to help arrange a “baby shower” at each ICE field office or send an ironic congratulations card to the Director of ICE, there is a way for you to stand up for these mothers and children.

Here is a google form where you can sign up to either organize or attend an event if you live in any of the 24 cities with an ICE ERO office (on the map on the flier). Please visit the Diapers in Detention website for more information!

PS – We would like to extend a deep and heartfelt thank you to the RAICES staff for their tireless advocacy in the detention centers, and to the First UU of San Antonio for all of the incredible support they offered our volunteers!

Learn more about our skilled volunteer opportunities at here!

Ending Detention Centers, a Volunteer’s Perspective

Ending Detention Centers, a Volunteer’s Perspective

Melanie RAICES

The following post was written by Melanie Poeling, a participant in UUCSJ’s RAICES volunteer program.

Imagine that you are a mother with small children and you have traveled over a thousand miles from Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador because of extreme violence against you and your family, only to be detained after requesting asylum at the U.S. Port-of-entry. You imagine being safe and free in the U.S.; instead you are imprisoned indefinitely in a family detention center with your children anywhere from weeks to almost a year. When you finally get out, you are released at a bus station in a strange city in the middle of the night with little money, no clothes, and not even a change of diapers for your baby. This is the reality for many families from Central America fleeing violence.

Volunteering through the UU College of Social Justice and RAICES allowed me to see firsthand the mental, physical, and emotional toll that mandatory detention has on refugee families. I saw children famished due to inadequate food in the centers, not eating and losing weight. I saw mothers and children who were very ill but feared seeking help because the medical unit at the Karnes detention center was being used for solitary confinement and punishment for mothers that protested.

The stories I heard from refugee mothers were heartbreaking, but their strength, love, and determination outweighed the pain. We heard stories of women witnessing their children being murdered in front of them; stories of years of domestic violence; stories of sex trafficking and the kidnapping of teenage girls; stories about extortion and extreme gang violence. And then, once in the U.S., indeterminate detention in family detention centers. These families are refugees. How can we not see this as a humanitarian crisis?

Witnessing all of this firsthand deeply impacted me as a Unitarian Universalist and as a mother. As a UU, I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people. In the detention centers, women and children are stripped of all dignity and treated as worthless. Profits are valued over people. As a mother, I am deeply disturbed that as a nation, we are detaining infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers with their mothers in detention centers that are no better than a prison.

I am so glad that through our work with the UU College of Social Justice and RAICES we were able to provide information, assist with court preparations, provide temporary housing and transportation, and support these mothers in their fight for the safety and well-being of their families.

As a UU, I am called to action to end the detention of mothers and children. This is a humanitarian crisis and family detention centers are not the answer. They should be immediately shut down.

Heather Vickery is responsible for developing and maintaining relationships with UU congregations, State Action Networks, past UU College of Social Justice (UUCSJ) program participants, and regional staff in order to expand engagement in UUSC and UUCSJ’s work. As the Coordinator for Congregational Activism, she manages the workshop offerings and group visits to the UUSC/UUCSJ office and assists with communications for the Activism and Justice Education Team. Heather is an active member of the Boston Immigration Justice Accompaniment Network and a dedicated dog-mom to her rescue puppy Nova.

Heather may be contacted at hvickery@uucsj.org and 617-301-4303