In mid-December, Joyce Hamilton walks into the bus station here. She is one of the founding members of the seven-woman coalition Angry Tías and Abuelas of the RGV. It is afternoon, and the station is filled with the hum of voices and people passing through.
Hamilton, 68, is a resident of Harlingen, a retired college instructor, a grandmother, and a Presbyterian church elder. She got her start in organizing as an environmental activist.
Alongside her fellow Tías and Abuelas, Hamilton has helped organize an effort to assist thousands of migrants with basic supplies, information on legal rights, travel, bond payments, and more.
In mid-June 2018, Hamilton says she and Tía Cindy Candia caught word that there were migrants sleeping on the Hidalgo/Reynosa international bridge, south of McAllen. The weather was hot, and the two figured that families stuck on the bridge could at least use food, water, and diapers.
“This is when metering was happening,” said Hamilton, citing the practice put in place by Border Patrol pre-Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) that limits the number of asylum seekers the agency takes in for processing each day.
“We didn’t even know what to call it at the time. People were literally sleeping on the bridge on the U.S. side.”
The women realized shortly thereafter that there were migrants sleeping on the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville. Roughly 10 days later, Border Patrol began pushing families back past the international line for the first time in recent memory.
The Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy and the subsequent changes to the asylum process prompted Hamilton and others to form local networks to distribute aid and food.
As the effort grew, Valley residents Hamilton, Candia, Elizabeth Cavazos, Jennifer Harbury, Susan Law, Nayelly Barrios, and Madeleine Sandefur formed the coalition as it is today.
The name of the coalition was suggested by Harbury, who told the group that they “look like a bunch of angry tías” – a name which carries certain meaning and significance in Mexico and across Central America.
“It was shock and anger over the fact that our country was doing this to people. Seeing babies, mothers, and children sleeping on cardboard – this mix of people who were just desperate and couldn’t go back,” said Hamilton of the name.
She says the group often gets asked why they’re “so angry”, to which she answers, “I don’t think that anybody wants to be angry all the time. I think sometimes we’re more like the ‘Activated Tías and Abuelas’ because we are activated by our emotional response and our intellectual response to what’s happening.
In June 2018, Hamilton asked permission from her church in Harlingen to begin a program filling backpacks with supplies to bring to those trapped on the bridges, as well as those being dropped off at local bus stations.
She estimates that on some days, Border Patrol was dropping off roughly 800 to 900 asylum seekers who had been released from processing. These people had no money, no shoelaces, or belongings.
When numbers began to wind down, the group organized an ongoing effort to distribute supplies to those living in tents in Matamoros as a result of MPP.
The Angry Tías were responsible for providing a set of 10 port-a-potties in the camp. Additionally, they helped set up the tent “store” system in which they give a stipend to families they identify as leaders to help distribute supplies in a dignified manner.
Tía Jennifer Harbury, a human rights lawyer, makes regular visits to a shelter in Reynosa where she helps asylum seekers prepare their cases.
Tía Madeleine has organized a visitation system with migrants in detention at Port Isabel, where she is able to help some of them post bond.
“She helped one woman get out who had been there for two whole years,” said Hamilton.
“These are people who have never committed a crime. These are people who have been made into prisoners and are unable to leave. There is razor wire all around them and nobody comes to visit them on a regular basis.”
The shift to Mexico has made it necessary to build connections with those operating within Matamoros in order to properly assist those stuck in the camp by the bridge, as Mexican immigration places limits on the amounts and types of items that can be transported across.
Currently, much of the focus of humanitarian efforts in the Valley has shifted to Matamoros. The group has been able to partner with Pastor Abraham Barberi and Glady Cañas Aguilar, a woman who had been assisting migrants locally for years before MPP began.
“We’ve observed all of the changes over a year and a half. It has been really dynamic and it has been amazing, and shocking, and disturbing. Every time there has been a new development, we have to shift our energy in that direction,” Hamilton said.
Recently, the coalition purchased around 1,500 wooden palettes that are being distributed to migrants to lift their tents off the ground in order to prevent dwellings from flooding when it rains.
Hamilton says that the Tías are also working to fund shelters in Matamoros. One of those is Casa Bugambilia, a medical shelter that was asked by Mexican authorities to take in asylum seekers past their capacity.
In the past year and a half, efforts have evolved as needs have changed. Hamilton previously spent hours at the bus station in Harlingen greeting and providing assistance to young migrants dropped off by immigration officials as they aged out of custody on their 18th birthdays.
She and a group of volunteers would meet the teens, identifiable by their black, government-issued duffle bags, and provide them with advice, a birthday gift, and travel information.
Hamilton would sit down with each teen and explain the route with a map of the United States, as bus trips would often take up to two days. She would provide them with a small envelope of cash and teach them how to use the vending machine.
“It would go like this: ‘You’re going to change here in this city, it’s going to be 4 a.m. and so you’re going to need to be awake.’ I mean, these kids are 18 years old and this is their first introduction to being in the United States in most cases – being dropped in a bus station.
Hamilton would try to organize transport to a local shelter where the teens could call family members and sleep prior to departure.
“That was our project for really, like 8 or 9 months,” says Hamilton. “About 2 months ago, my volunteers started saying that nobody was getting dropped off. I got in contact with La Posada shelter and we realized that they were being flown out. It’s a way better situation now.”
Angry Tías and Abuelas of the RGV is looking for volunteers who speak Spanish and care about the families in Matamoros. Hamilton says that if anyone is interested in helping but can’t volunteer, the coalition accepts donations via their website, angrytiasandabuelas.com.
“We turn whatever people give us immediately into support for the people into the encampment, in whatever way we see is most critical,” Hamilton said.
Harlingen residents interested in volunteering can contact Hamilton and Candia, while those in the McAllen area should reach out to Law and Cavazos.