Sisters report on plight of asylum-seekers amid caravan headlines

Anita Areli Ramirez Mejia, an asylum seeker from Honduras, hugs her 6-year-old son, Jenri, July 13 at La Posada Providencia shelter in San Benito, Texas. The mother and son were reunited after being separated near the Mexico-U.S. border. (CNS/Loren Elliott, Reuters)

Sisters have been helping immigrants and refugees at the United States' southern border for years, but a caravan  of thousands of people from Central America hoping to seek asylum in the United States heightened attention to the issue and sparked a response from women religious.

Global Sisters Report has compiled reports from several sisters working at or near the border who have written of the need caused by a recent influx of migrants unrelated to the caravan, and the plight of those seeking asylum.

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Adrian Dominican Sr. Pat Erickson wrote about working at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McCallen, Texas, run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. She is there with Adrian Dominican Srs. Mary Kastens and Nancy Murray:

Nancy and Mary spent the morning sorting clothes and handing them out as fast as they could see what size the piece of clothing might be. About 300 people come to the center each afternoon after being processed by [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents] and then released. When the people arrive, they are interviewed, given clean clothing and a shower and a hot meal. Arrangements begin to be made for travel to sponsors, such as families or friends, who have purchased bus tickets for the people. Sometimes these tickets are purchased immediately and sometimes it may take a day or two. However long it takes, the people stay in the respite center and are given whatever they need. When they leave, they are given a bag with water, sandwiches and snacks, and as many clothes as they need. Vans then take the people to the bus station.

At the bus station, their ticket is verified and then they are seated in specific areas of the bus station to wait for their bus. There are volunteers at the station to help the people understand about their trip. Most of the people have to change buses several times along their journey to wherever they are going. The entire process is very efficient and respectful.

My morning was spent sorting jackets and sweaters for the people and offering my opinion when something looked nice and it fit, as many people are going to areas of the country where winter is beginning. At noon I helped dish up soup. The respite center was filled with volunteers not only from McAllen, but from other states and even some seasonal travelers.

Day 2 found Mary making sandwiches to give to the people on their journey. Nancy was overseeing the showers along with finding clothes for people. I saw people in the clinic for various minor illnesses. There are many colds and coughs, especially among the children.

People are most grateful for anything and everything, especially to be inside these days. It is very cold in McAllen (in the 50s during the day with a north wind). Several men are traveling with their children and of course there are single mothers and some families.

Thanks for your prayers and support. Please offer them so that people may be safe on their journey.

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Springfield Dominican Sr. Marcelline Koch wrote from El Paso, where she is working with fellow Springfield Dominican Sr. Anita Cleary and lay colleagues Kathryn Raistrick and Julie Wullner at Annunciation House:

Folks arrive in the afternoons when released from the detention center to the care of Annunciation House, are welcomed and briefly oriented (noting that we are a church group and not government), interviewed, given clean clothes, a room and a meal. The interview gives information about the family or sponsor person who will purchase bus or plane tickets for the asylum-seeker to travel.

Annunciation House recently rented rooms in two side-by-side motels to provide sufficient housing with the recent decision of ICE to release asylees. A tent on the parking lot provides space for the meals — breakfast for one group (the other hotel provides continental breakfast) and lunch and supper for all. Thankfully there are heaters, as the mornings started out in the 20s and 30s. One room serves as an office, another as clothing and hygiene storage, and a third for food.

Volunteers bring meals; some stay to serve and some don't, but people are incredibly generous. Clothes arrive almost every day and need to be sorted to be ready for families arriving from detention. And then sorted again the next day. My first two days were sorting and sizing clothes. When Kathryn and I first stepped into the room, we couldn't walk: The bed, chairs and floor were covered with donated clothes.  

As well as speaking more Spanish than I do, Sister Anita also has nursing training, so sick children and a pregnant mom have needed her attention.

We four work the 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift. Arriving, we check in with the overnight person, prepare for breakfast, look at the board to see what calls need to be made, and look at another board to plan for departures. Bus? Plane? Can the shuttle take all 15 to the Greyhound station? Who can make an airport run? I've done airport runs the last two days as well as a few bus station trips. Airports are the most challenging.

On Saturday, after the volunteer site coordinators at each motel left to go back home, we split to provide some coverage at both places. I was delighted two volunteers arrived from Colorado the night before and one was a fluent enough Spanish speaker who could cover the phones as we tried to contact families and sponsors who were buying bus or plane tickets for our guests. That day we had 19 persons to get to the airport and 14 to the bus.

Some days we have 30 new folks, other days 70 or 80. I'm not sure how many are here on any given day. Some need to stay only a day, others two, three, four, five. Friday, I had to tell a woman that she wasn't leaving that day; rather her departure would be Sunday. Her face fell, and tears came. I could only put my arm around her. When she later came to the office, I learned more of her concern. She would arrive at her destination on the 20th and needed to report to immigration on the 21st. She was petrified on not being able to keep that appointment.

People's appreciation for all that is given them is palpable.  

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Jean Stokan, the immigration coordinator for the Sisters of Mercy's Institute Justice Team, wrote about just how helpless people can be when they arrive:

After having received a Guatemalan woman and her son a few days ago, and having her family send a bus ticket, I took her to the Greyhound to get her on the bus (to West Palm Beach, Florida). Only when they asked her to sign the ticket did she say she cannot read nor write, at least not in Spanish. She only spoke an indigenous dialect, and could barely understand Spanish. The bus trip will take up to two days, and require seven transfers. She began to weep, and I was able to eventually connect with others who are doing the same trip to at least the first four cities of her journey, but please keep these good people in your prayers.


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Sr. Sheila Karpan, of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth, also wrote about working in El Paso:

My intention was to write daily or at least often, but it has been both incredibly busy and words have failed me.

We are assigned to one of two hotels that holds the overflow of refugees coming into El Paso. Every day a large unmarked, white bus drives up and leaves 40 to 80 men, women and children. When they are informed where they are and who are the volunteers, they are visibly relieved and grateful to be safely sheltered in clean rooms and given meals, clothing and needed supplies.

There is a surreal routine to our days and yet each day defies routine. We interact with people on the move primarily from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. They remind me of Hannah Arendt's words, "Even in the darkest times we have the right to expect some illumination."

Some illuminations that fed our spirits are as follows:

High on one of the hills in El Paso is anchored a huge star which brightly lights up the night. We supposed it signifies The Lone Star State. But the myriad of volunteers, primarily from El Paso, who on a daily basis feed, clothe, shelter and transport refugees, I came to see as "Star Clusters."

We met two Latter Day Saints church groups and at least one Catholic parish group who prepare hot meals weekly and served 100 people. A group from Abundant Living Faith Church brought snacks, Hula-Hoops, and soccer balls for the kids. They were proof of living abundant faith and when they invited me into their circle to pray before they left, it brought tears to my eyes. A group of friends (Christian and Buddhist) had just committed to do a weekly meal. There were a handful of volunteers who came at least three times a week to transport, translate, set up for breakfast and fix lunches for the travelers that day. Our last day, a mother brought her four teenage children to work and they did it willingly! A young mother with a 4-year-old and a 16-month-old invited two librarians to have story time with the kids, and afterwards she served 125 cupcakes with the 4-year-old's help! We met women religious from Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, New Mexico and Maryland. I met a Marist brother from Mexico at another center. He told me his province and one in the States collaborated to establish a community house and volunteer at one of the centers.

The refugees came to us from holding cells, not the detention centers. They nicknamed the cells "iceboxes." Nearly everyone we met told us how cold they were; food was scarce and also cold. Kids were not separated from parents, but I met several couples [in which] the father was separated from his wife and children. One of them told me their little girl kept crying for her "Papi." We estimate that at least one-third had coughs and colds, fevers and sore throats. You can imagine how happy they were at the hotels because of the private rooms (although some were asked to share if it was a double), with hot showers and a clothing room where they could choose clean clothes.

They are at the centers only until arrangements are made for them to travel to their receiving family or friends. The turnaround time is important because of the flood of new people who arrive daily.

I arrived on Sunday afternoon and was asked for help prepare a meal for 120 people! We took the food to the hotels and I helped serve the meal. This was my "orientation" — we learned everything by doing what was needed at the time.

Because I had a car, I was asked to transport people to the bus station or the airport. Every airline but United gave us a "buddy pass" so we could walk people through security and to their gates. I used this time to orient them to the airport, signage, security, etc. While the El Paso airport is small, most people had to change planes in Dallas, Chicago or Phoenix. We gave them slips of paper that said they were not English speakers and to please help them to their connecting gate. On several occasions, I tried to get seat assignments changed so children and parents could be seated next to each other.

Half of my days there I stayed for the second shift to do intake because there were not enough people to help with 40-plus arriving at each hotel. After we got the necessary information to call the families and notify their contact persons, we placed the call to confirm they could buy the ticket. When we had what we needed, we then gave [over] the phone to let the new arrival greet his family. This was always so touching, for the family here to know they were in a safe place, and would soon be on their way. We often could tell that the receiving family was worried about the cost of the tickets, which is no small expense. The majority of people did go by bus.

One day I was in the middle of the parking lot, thanking some volunteers, and looked up to see the ICE official from the bus leading people toward me. When people get off the bus they are lined up like schoolchildren. But this is the only likeness to a school setting. People are absolutely silent and most are stoic. I doubt they are told much or anything about where they have been taken and who we are. Our last day there, 80 people arrived at our hotel.

People leave the centers rested, well-fed and with clean clothes. They carry with them small bags or backpacks. This is it — their only possessions. But most importantly, I hope, they leave possessing feelings of being well cared for and respected, and hopefully glimpsed the light.

All the papers I saw had people reporting to ICE at their new address in the following two weeks. Some people had ankle bracelets so they have no choice but to report. It is heartbreaking to think about what happens next, perhaps going to ICE and not coming out, or beginning their new life here in the shadows.

The Nov. 18 reading from Daniel closes with "But the wise shall shine brightly, like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever." Let us pray that all refugees will be led to justice by other stars shining as brightly as they did in El Paso, as these new arrivals continue to search for a safe place to support and raise their children.

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Remember, links, tips and accounts of the response to any crisis anywhere in the world are always welcome at dstockman@ncronline.org.

Reports have been edited for clarity.

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook. Ursuline Sr. Michele Morek is Global Sisters Report's liaison to sisters in North America. Her email address is mmorek@ncronline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @MicheleMorek.]

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