Eight women in Texas form group called "Angry Tias and Abuelas" to help migrants

By Laura Molinari

/ CBS News

A group of eight women from the Rio Grande Valley formed a group called the Angry Tias and Abuelas from the Rio Grande Valley and have spent a year dedicating their time to assisting migrants arriving at the U.S-Mexico border. "It's a humanitarian crisis," one of the women, Madeleine Sandefur, told CBS News.

"We need for people to realize what's happening down here," Sandefur said. "We have a crisis at the border but it's not the one that our president is talking about."

The group received a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award on Thursday for their work, which member Joyce Hamilton called a "big surprise."

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It all started in June 2018, when Hamilton received a text message from a friend, saying that she and other women had seen large numbers of women and children sleeping for several days. They were in 100 degree heat, on the concrete walkway of the Reynosa International Bridge, which sits on top of the Rio Grande and connects into McAllen, Texas.

"It was quite a shocking scene," Hamilton said.

Angry Tias & Abuelas Of RGV

That's when the group of female friends, "angry at the sense of injustice," decided something needed to be done — rushing to the bridges with food, water, diapers, hand sanitizer lotion, clothes and anything they could think of to help out, and dedicating at least five days a week to helping out.

"We started talking to each other and meeting, and then enough of us were seeing each other enough times that some of us met for coffee at my house just to talk about coordinating a little bit and we formed the Angry Tias, thinking it would last for a few months," said Jennifer Harbury. Angry at the injustice, they used the Spanish words for "aunt" and "grandmother" to form their name.

And one year later, the women are still making an effort to help.

All the women go to the Brownsville or Harlingen Bus Stations for periods of at least three days or more to help migrants with hard-to-understand bus tickets, and little knowledge of how a cross-country bus trip, find their way to sponsors all over the U.S.

The women do one-on-one cultural and itinerary orientation for each person that includes assessing tickets, explaining the routes to them, informing them about immigration check points and handing them a packet that includes answers to common questions. They also explain details like bathrooms are free, water fountains can be used to refill water bottles for free, help with the exchange of pesos and even give some $40 for their journey.

"It's just a whole different experience. They're very nervous and they're nervous about now they're gonna be kind of on their own going on these buses and making changes and figuring stuff out. So when we have time we sit down and just visit with them too," said Susan Law.

One of the tias, Elisa Filippone, had been crossing over from her home in Brownsville Texas, to Matamoros, Mexico, six days a week, for a year. She brought tacos and backpacks filled with panty liners, deodorant, clothes, and other items to hundreds of people who waited almost three months, without showers, to try to cross the Brownsville and Matamoros bridge into the U.S.for asylum.

"The situation is happening three blocks from where I work. Three blocks from where I live. I cannot just pretend that they're not there are not 50 people on the side of the bridge who need food and clothing….I can't forget it and go about my life, knowing that it is happening three blocks from where I live," Filippone said.

With the Robert F. Kennedy award, the women are receiving $10,000 to further help migrants searching for a better life in the U.S.

"I'm very proud to be serving with this group of women – only women – only eight of us. It's just women, who, We felt that doing nothing would be complicit. it's very illustrative that is women stepping up to do the job that the men who are in power should be doing," Filippone said.

First published on June 7, 2019 / 1:22 AM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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