You can catch Sascha Burns representing her clients on the Hill or talking politics on Fox News, MSNBC, and local and international news channels, but Sascha’s life beyond the camera includes helping refugees seeking asylum in the United States. “When family separation came to light, I was so angry at what the Trump administration was doing in the name of the United States of America, and I thought, I can sit around and post about it on Facebook or I can do something, so I applied and was selected to serve as a child advocate through The Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.”
The Young Center protects and advances the rights and best interests of unaccompanied children. Having lived in Mexico and Spain, Sascha is fluent in Spanish. As an advocate, her role is to learn the child’s story and work with the Young Center to submit a best interests recommendation to the court. Sascha was assigned a six-year-old girl named Maria who was separated from her mother when they tried to cross the border in November. Maria’s mother hoped to start a new and better life than they had in Honduras. She sent Maria’s ten-year-old brother to the United States with a relative in May and she and Maria began their journey in August hoping to reunite with him once they arrived.
When they applied for asylum, hope turned to despair. Awaiting their hearing in Mexico, they were kidnapped by cartel members but released when Mexican authorities ramped up efforts to curb cartel kidnappings. When they re-entered the U.S., Maria’s mother was accused of child trafficking. Maria is adopted and her mother didn’t have her birth certificate. With help from a pro bono attorney they were able to obtain the necessary paperwork but were then separated. Maria’s mother was sent to a detention center in Texas – six months later she’s still there. The Young Center was able to reunite Maria with her brother and place them together in a foster home in New York. The two are extremely lucky as most unaccompanied children remain in facilities until they’re either released or sent to adult detention centers when they turn eighteen.
Before Sascha met Maria, she had an opportunity to meet her mother. Sascha and Suzanne Turner, president of Turner4D, had scheduled a trip to the Brownsville, TX/Matamoros, Mexico border to volunteer for Team Brownsville at the refugee camp in Matamoros. It turned out that Maria’s mom was being held in a facility within an hour of Brownsville so Sascha requested and was granted permission from the U.S. Marshals Service to visit her.
Sascha said it was an incredibly powerful and humbling experience to visit Maria’s mom. “You can’t carry anything other than your car keys and driver’s license into the detention center. As I emptied my pockets of my passport, $100.00, and a credit card it struck me that literally millions of people would give anything to have those three items. And I’m just carrying them around in my pocket like they’re nothing. You know the saying, ‘There but for the grace of God, go I?’ That’s always troubled me because it doesn’t seem like God’s grace that I should be blessed in lieu of another.”
“The detention center is a fancy term for jail, plain and simple, with guards, barbed wire, and thick bars. I was buzzed in and a huge, heavy gate banged shut behind me. It was unnerving, and I realized how lucky I was that I could walk out whenever I wanted. That was powerful.”
“I was taken into a small room with a plate glass wall and two chairs, just like you see on television. I told Maria’s mother I would do whatever I could to support Maria. She told me what led her to undertake the journey from Honduras to apply for asylum and how her relief at arriving in the U.S. turned into shock and panic when ICE agents accused her of child trafficking. “I adopted Maria at birth,” she said, “but she’s only six, and I’ve waited to tell her when she’s older, so please don’t let her know.”
“I don’t understand why they would put me in jail,” she added. “I just want to be with my kids.” She cried throughout our visit but her eyes lit up and she smiled as she told me Maria likes Princess Sophia and Jorge el Curioso – Curious George. She put her arms around herself like a hug and asked me to give it to Maria for her. When I left, we put our hands up against each other on the glass and just looked at each other for a minute, one human being to another. And that time, when the gate banged shut, I was on the other side and I was free to go.”
“Suzanne and I spent the rest of the trip at the refugee camp in Matamoros interacting with local members of Team Brownsville and volunteers from across the country. Team Brownsville is an amazing home-grown group which helps the asylum seekers who often spend months in the camp waiting for their hearings. Working with World Central Kitchen, Team Brownsville provides breakfast and dinner to 1000 people every day by wheeling food across the International Bridge in little wagons. They also have a sidewalk school for the children and provide assistance at bus stations to recently released detainees.
The camp is made up of hundreds of tents the asylum-seekers live in, a temporary structure set up as a distribution center and a tent each for UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders. “It’s all just sitting in a field of dirt – you can feel it in your throat and on your skin, and yet the camp is clean and orderly with not a piece of trash on the ground. Twenty five hundred people are crammed in there in tents and under tarps but all I saw was dignity and openness – people you passed by would smile or say good morning. The children were playing together, just like you would see anywhere.”
“Less than one percent of asylum seekers are allowed into the U.S. – yet the people in the camp still have hope. It’s amazing. An incredible grassroots, crowd-sourced group of organizations like Team Brownsville, the Resource Center, Global Response Management and Angry Tias y Abuelas provide infrastructure, food, legal services and some healthcare. The people in the camp are fleeing gangs, cartels and sex traffickers or just trying to get to a place where they can earn enough money to feed their children. We’re the United States of America, a nation of immigrants; what happened to ‘Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses?’ Where’ s our compassion and human decency?”
Once Sascha got home to New York, she met Maria for the first time and, as promised, gave her the hug Maria’s mother had asked her to pass on. Now they Facetime once a week. Maria’s mother had hoped to be released at the end of April but, as with so many others, her hearing has been postponed due to regulations imposed during the corona virus outbreak. No one knows when her case will be heard.
Sascha says, “The world has changed radically since Suzanne and I were at the border in March.” Team Brownsville’s volunteers no longer cross over to serve dinner in the camp but they are paying a restaurant in Matamoros to provide food daily. They purchase staple foods like rice and beans, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables in large quantities from Sam’s Club so the asylum seekers can cook their own lunches at noon. The little sidewalk school has turned into YouTube videos on four TV monitors Team Brownsville purchased and put in the camp’s common areas.
Sascha fears, in the shadow of the pandemic, what little attention was paid to these asylum seekers has dwindled even further, and she encourages people to help in any way they can – through donations, volunteering, or simply by bearing witness and telling others.
“These asylum seekers are people just trying to protect their children and survive. We have so much and they have so little. The smallest amount of compassion can change someone’s life.”