Documentary follows efforts to help asylum seekers

Kitchen for Asylum Seekers volunteer Gabby Zavala prepares a meal of chicken and rice at her home Thursday in Brownsville. The food was being prepared for immigrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

Brownsville volunteers have garnered national and international attention for their efforts to help asylum-seeking migrants who pass through the city. Now a filmmaker is making their work part of a documentary that captures the experiences of Central Americans and other immigrants fleeing to the United States.

Carlos Graña, owner of the Los Angeles-based Bazooka Mama Productions, spent about a week in late October following volunteers who have come together under the moniker “Team Brownsville” to assist migrants dropped off at the Brownsville bus station and living on international bridges. Sergio Cordova, one of the group’s founders, will be featured in the documentary “Beacon.”

“I had been hearing and reading reports about what was happening at the border, and my impression early on was that it was an immigration issue,” said Graña, who was contacted by volunteers delivering aid on the border. “I quickly realized through conversations on the phone with volunteers it was in fact a humanitarian crisis.”

Graña said the film’s focus is firmly on the experiences of the migrants. His fluency in Spanish helped him cultivate trust with the asylum-seekers, though some were eager to share. It was like a form of therapy, he said.

There’s one experience Graña said has haunted him. He had accompanied volunteers delivering blankets to a shelter in Mexico when, as they stepped outside to leave, a young T-shirt-and-jeans-clad man with a child asked if he was in the right place to catch a bus.

He wasn’t, and Graña offered him a ride to the bus terminal. He told the man to get his things, thinking the man would go into the shelter to retrieve a backpack or maybe a suitcase on wheels.

“He just gets up … and he picks up his kid and starts walking in front of us. That’s it. His kid, his T-shirt and jeans were all he had,” Graña said, adding that the experience challenged his misconceptions of the way migrants live, “and just the level of vulnerability that they’re at.”

Team Brownsville Sergio Cordova arrives to La Plaza Brownsville Bus Terminal with bags filled with everyday living neccessities for migrants who wait for their bus ride to reach their final destination Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)


“My involvement was just to be myself,” Sergio Cordova said of the documentary. “He wanted to follow your daily routine, the ways that you’re helping the immigrants.”

Volunteers include Brownsville residents, the Good Neighbor Settlement House, the Kitchen for Asylum Seekers and the grassroots group Angry Tias & Abuelas. They are at the Brownsville bus station around 6 a.m. to meet migrants dropped off from the Port Isabel detention center. In the afternoons, others begin cooking meals that will be packed up on wagons and delivered to people living on international bridges while awaiting a chance to apply for asylum.

Andrea Rudnik was among those who helped about a dozen migrants figure out their bus routes and get a change of clothing on Thursday.

She said the volunteers’ system has evolved since they began greeting migrants at the bus station in July. They use Facebook Messenger groups to coordinate with each other and bring out-of-town visitors quickly into the fold. The number of folks eager to travel from other parts of the county grew after Team Brownsville was featured in publications like the New York Times and on national TV news programs.

Cordova said he was initially uncomfortable with the spotlight, but the attention brings awareness to Team Brownsville and connects them with donors and volunteers.

“And because the world needs to know what’s going on,” he said. “We can’t give what we don’t have.”

The volunteers collect and distribute donations, such as clothing, blankets, food and toiletries as the migrants prepare to make bus trips that sometimes have them on the road for two or three days. For some, it’s all the food they will have until they reach their destination, Rudnik said.

Part of what spurred volunteers to act, she added, was learning that some people whose buses were scheduled for the next day spent nights sleeping on the bus terminal concrete when its doors closed from midnight to 4 a.m. Now those who have to wait for afternoon or next-day transportation are given a place to stay a the Good Neighbor Settlement House.

Cordova said the group also relies on people at the bus station to keep them updated. They recently were crossing back into Brownsville from Mexico around 8 p.m. when they got a call that a pregnant woman had been dropped off there from a detention center.

“We don’t want anybody left out on the street,” Cordova said. “It’s a coordinated effort between wonderful people that came together.”

Kiyono Vanstory and her husband, Mike, traveled with their 16-year-old son from McKinney to volunteer with Team Brownsville. She learned about the group through her church and said she had never before traveled south of San Antonio.

“It’s one of those things you hear about, you just don’t know what’s going on,” Vanstory said, so the family decided to see the border for themselves. “I cannot believe how many people I’ve met, the journeys people have made. I know 100 percent our immigration policies are wrong.”

While Vanstory was speaking, her husband had returned from their car parked outside with a pair of glasses belonging to one of their children. He gave them to an asylum seeker from China whose glasses were lost after four months in the detention center.

Vanstory and her family had helped deliver food the previous evening to people waiting on an international bridge to apply for asylum. There were children with their mothers, and a woman who was two months pregnant.

“It’s just not what this country should stand for,” she said. “All these people you have volunteering are just humans. These people need help.”

Migrants wait at La Plaza Brownsville Bus Terminal Dec. 27, 2018 in Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)


Gaby Zavala wasn’t much of a cook before she became a part of Team Brownsville, she said while opening the oven in her home Friday to check on the food baking inside. That afternoon, she was preparing chicken and rice for 100 people sleeping on the Gateway and B&M international bridges.

“Ever since I started kitchen stuff, I’ve been getting better at cooking. People complimented my rice. I used to make crappy rice,” she said with a laugh.

Zavala took over coordination of the Kitchen for Asylum Seekers after Brendon Tucker, who spearheaded the effort before her, went to establish a similar effort for migrants in Tijuana. She said there are about 20 to 25 active kitchen volunteers who take turns making food each day and delivering it in Mexico. They are especially in need of people to help on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

“They get there with nothing,” she said of the migrants. “They can’t leave because what if they get called from the U.S. side or get skipped over? What if someone takes their bed?”

The volunteers also fill basic necessities like procuring feminine napkins or taking sick migrants to see doctors in Mexico. But their role has become more significant with time.

Zavala said volunteers try to maintain good relationships with the Mexican immigration officials who monitor people waiting on the bridges. An official once kicked out a family from the encampment, and Zavala got the family a hotel for the night before smoothing things over the next morning. The family was allowed to return to the bridge.

“Nights like that are really overwhelming,” she said. “You just do it. When you see that, it’s more of a reason to keep going.”

Zavala is also housing a woman and baby from El Salvador. Rudnik said the 2-month-old child had been ill while on the bridge, and they were processed through the detention center quickly so the baby could have surgery for a bowel obstruction.  

Zavala said a humanitarian organization is helping the woman find a refugee shelter best suited to meet her needs.

Migrants arrive at La Plaza Brownsville Bus Terminal Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018, as they receive back packs filled with everyday living necessitites donated by Team Brownsville and Good Neighbor Settlement House in Brownsville as a dozen migrants wait for their bus ride to their final destination. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)


Graña said a short version of the documentary will be released in January with the full-length feature to be debuted later in 2019. He hopes that viewers will take from the film a “deep, fact-based empathy” for people arriving at the southern U.S. border to apply for asylum due to violence, hunger or lack of work in their home countries.

“The narrative for a lot of the country, specifically coming from the White House the past couple of years, has been that asylum-seekers are immigrants here to terrorize people, to invade the country and steal jobs,” he said. “That could not be further from the truth.”

Get updates about the documentary at Connect with Team Brownsville at or donate at 

Volunteer with the Kitchen for Asylum Seekers by contacting Zavala at [email protected] or donate at