Rhodes Professor Aids in Relief Efforts for Asylum Seekers in Memphis

Every week hundreds of migrants seeking asylum pass through the Memphis Greyhound station. There are around six buses a day carrying anywhere from 5 to 50 migrants. Many are traveling east, to cities like Detroit, Baltimore, and Richmond, as they wait for their day in immigration court. Most travel with no money and with only the clothes on their back, and many are left without food for up to 48 hours.  

In Oct 2018, the predicament of these asylum seekers came to the attention of local Memphis activists who have since organized to meet them at the station multiple times a day, bringing food, water, and blankets. 

Rhodes College Professor Alberto del Pozo Martinez is one of the many Memphis-based volunteers who work with the grassroots operation Mariposas Collective.  

Del Pozo Martinez sat down for an interview to speak about his experience working with Mariposas, in their collective effort to alleviate the struggles of migrants passing through. 

“The conditions to which they arrive in Memphis are absolutely awful. So many of them are lost, many of them have lost their connections, they don’t know where they are, they have monitors on their ankles,” del Pozo Martinez said.

“It’s horrible. Half of them are normally kids.” 

The Mariposas Collective and their volunteers work out of the First Congregational Church on Cooper Street. Late last year the Collective organized spontaneously to help asylum seekers in Memphis and have since built themselves into a well-established non-profit organization. 

They have set up a Facebook page where they post information about their weekly training sessions and their volunteer needs. Fluent Spanish speakers like del Pozo Martinez, who are willing and able to meet migrants at train stations, have become a necessity for the organization’s effort.  

“Most of the time the first thing they want to know is if they’re on the correct path. Because apart from the brutality of the American government is the brutality of Greyhound and how it treats their Spanish-speaking customers. It's absolutely ridiculous,” del Pozo Martinez said.

“The Greyhound staff does not speak Spanish or try to help anyone who does not speak English. Frankly if we were not there, I don’t know what would happen, even with us there they are totally lost.” 

Del Pozo Martinez stressed how witnessing the horrible conditions of asylum seekers can sometimes take an emotional toll on volunteers but emphasized how significant the help can be.  

“The story is pretty sad, you have to be honest and know that you’re never going to fully solve the problems these people are facing,” del Pozo Martinez said. “In the kids' case organizations like Mariposas helps alleviate, not only the physical, but the psychological trauma they are going through. This experience is hard for adults, but imagine if you are five, six years old.” 

“We have seen cases that I cannot believe. For example, I've seen a grandma from Guatemala, she didn’t even speak Spanish, and she was carrying five kids on her back, some tied to her.” 

Del Pozo Martinez spoke about how horrifying the trip to America is for these migrants, most of whom come from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Most migrants have to liquidate all their assets in order to start their trip. By the time they get to the United States, they have nothing. 

“They’re following the law; they have come into the country legally asking for asylum. However, from what we have heard the immigration court system is pretty pathetic, not even 5% of cases receive a favorable outcome,” del Pozo Martinez said. “That is absolutely horrifying if you think about it. The path of these people is a path of dispossession.” 

The work at Mariposas Collective was once thought to be temporary. But it is continuing at a steady rate and there are many needs to be met. 

“In Mariposas I’ve seen many people with all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, faiths, people who put their differences aside and lend their hands. After they volunteer people are always asking ‘what else can we do?’,” del Pozo Martinez said. “It’s one thing to help them immediately, but the tough question is what to do after, once they are here and legally established – that’s when the problem begins. There are bigger things that come into the picture. You need work, you need education. Things have improved but I think that we still have a long way to go.” 

For more information visit the Mariposa Collective Facebook page here, or email them at [email protected]