When the U.S. Border Patrol released hundreds and hundreds of Central American women and children this summer, they dropped them off at the Tucson Greyhound bus station. One morning, one such person—a Guatemalan woman named Carmelita—sat on Tucsonan Laurie Melrood's living room floor with her legs splayed, clutching her pregnant belly in pain.
Only 48 hours earlier, Carmelita was crossing the U.S.-Mexico border clandestinely. Like so many others, she was walking through the rugged, hot desert when the Border Patrol arrested her. When she was released and dropped off at the bus station—pregnant and clenching a clear plastic bag filled with scant belongings—she looked chewed up and spit out by that most massive immigration enforcement regime in the history of the United States. She didn't expect people from the Tucson organization Casa Mariposa to be waiting at the bus station to orient her, help her buy a bus ticket, or, in the case of Melrood, offer her a place to stay.
Carmelita was having contractions on the living room floor that summer morning. Hours later, she gave birth to her first child, a healthy baby boy. This was, however, just one event of many that exemplify Melrood's tireless work in the community. Her focus has been working with families, and keeping them together, in an era of authoritative, and often harsh, immigration enforcement.
"She's always so giving, she is always willing to do whatever the community needs," says Lauren Dasse, executive director of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. "Whether it's pulling together a Thanksgiving meal for a family whose father was just deported, or giving a workshop in her spare time to families separated by detention or deportation, her dedication is exemplary."
Melrood's altruism and profound commitment to social justice isn't a surprise. For dozens of years, she has worked as both a community activist and social worker. She worked with Central American refugees fleeing wars in Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980s, and was one of the founding members of the Guatemala Acupuncture and Medical Aid Project, which gives trainings to health promoters in repatriated refugee communities in Guatemala. She has worked at the juvenile court and was founding director of a local center for relatives caring for children.
"Immigrants tell me their stories, and in the process identify their needs. Then we work together to connect them to tools and resources so they can go forward," Melrood explains. Along the way, most people realize that even with all they have endured, or perhaps because of it, they can still go forward. "The Brazilian educator Paolo Freire taught us that learning occurs best when there is balance in the give and take. I learn from the immigrants' narrative of their journey, then offer my thoughts and perspectives. Neither they nor I have all the answers but we have much to teach and much to learn from one another." In each situation—and at any given time she is juggling her schedule around to fit in another family or another community workshop—Melrood distributes tools for change. And she is happiest when she can get creative about it.
For example, on the day that his first child was born, Tucson police pulled over longtime resident Norlan Flores Prado for a minor traffic violation and transferred him to Border Patrol in the typical fashion of Arizona in the SB 1070 era. He ended up incarcerated in Eloy, Arizona for approximately six weeks, fighting a deportation charge. Once a week, Melrood went to visit him in Eloy with his newborn daughter. "He fell in love with his baby," she said, "and I truly believe that kept him fortified."
In another case, Melrood met with a woman who feared that she and her two children would be separated from her detained husband, who was also facing deportation. First Melrood helped the family connect with a lawyer, who helped free the husband. Then, she connected them to a protection network, a community group comprised of non-citizens and citizens dedicated to supporting the undocumented community in myriad ways, including halting the notion that routine traffic stops, like that of Norlan Flores Prado, have to result in the forced separation of families.
In this sense the work, for Melrood, is also about connecting people to broader grassroots movements and community organizations that push for political and policy changes, and break feelings of isolation families often have in such tough situations.
"It gives me a lot of joy to be out in the community helping people identify solutions," says Melrood, "because people have a right to dignity in their daily life."