God’s call often comes in strange ways, but a call for help from officials at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to the faith communities in El Paso, Texas, on Wed., June 4, was more than startling. The officials had little information except that they expected the imminent arrival of planeloads of Central American immigrants, detained in south Texas but unable to be processed because of system overload. Mostly families of women and children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, they would be processed by Border Patrol and ICE in El Paso and then released on their own recognizance until a deportation hearing some weeks in the future. The ICE officials were concerned that humanitarian assistance be available – something that was not anticipated or provided to previous detainees released in Tucson and Phoenix during the previous six months. “We want them to be treated as human beings. Can you help?”
Of course. How often have we gathered to support comprehensive immigration reform? How many phone calls and petitions to Congress, letters to the editor, marches and protests? Exactly one year ago many of us were preparing to welcome the NETWORK “Nuns on the Bus” tour to the border. We rallied. We visited congressional offices. We prayed. We attended press conferences. We even rode the bus. Nothing happened in Washington.
News of surging numbers of unaccompanied minors detained at the southern border, requiring the creation of warehouses on military bases to accommodate them, was followed by the disturbing stories out of Arizona. Now they were coming to El Paso. This is what happens when nothing happens. We didn’t have the time or the inclination to complain about political gridlock.
Annunciation House, a shelter for migrants and refugees, coordinated our response with the full support and assistance of Bishop Mark Seitz and the Diocese of El Paso. In addition to parishes and religious congregations, a network of collaborating churches, shelters, social service and human rights organizations was created almost overnight. It was as if everyone had just been waiting for the call to action. It was as if Jesus was coming!
The remarks that Presbyterian pastor John Fife made in 2006 when he received the “Voice of the Voiceless” award at Annunciation House came to my mind. Sharing his experience with the No More Deaths coalition, which aids immigrants crossing the Arizona desert, he referred to the Last Judgment in Matthew 25. The immigrants are truly the least ones of whom Jesus speaks. Hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, imprisoned . . . whatsoever you do to these, you do to me. Jesus was coming!
Ruben Garcia, founder and director of Annunciation House, provided the leadership for our efforts. His organization, mostly young adults giving a year of volunteer service, was prepared for the work that would be required to meet basic needs, like food and shelter, as well as helping them contact relatives and arrange for travel. Capacity was the issue and there was no definite information from ICE about numbers or estimated time of arrival. As we say at the border, “Ni modo,” which roughly translates “Oh well!”
Annunciation House added as many extra cots as the shelter could hold. The Columban Mission Center said they could take 12, the Sisters of Loretto eight, the Salvation Army would house 10 to 12 families. Parishes took up second collections for the cost of meals and assistance with bus tickets. Others signed up to provide meals, personal hygiene items and care packages. Barely four days after the initial call to action, on Sunday and Monday, June 9 and 10, two planes landed in El Paso, each carrying 135 detainees. An additional 40 persons were detained in the El Paso sector of the U.S. Border Patrol. All 310 were eventually welcomed at Annunciation House. Food, clothing, showers and real beds brought many to tears, including the volunteers. With amazing efficiency that did not compromise compassion, almost everyone was gone within 48 hours, having connected with family or friends all over the country, leaving us to wonder, “What’s next?”
We found out, as two more planes arrived from south Texas on Saturday, June 14.
No one seems to know for sure when or if there will be more detainees sent to El Paso. What we know is that there is a strong belief among people of faith that these are indeed our sisters and brothers. This is a sign of the change of attitude that Pope Francis called for in his message last July from Lampedusa, “moving away from attitudes of defensiveness and fear, indifference and marginalization – all typical of a throwaway culture – towards attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture capable of building a better, more just and fraternal world."
Immigrants and refugees fleeing violence and extreme poverty, seeking to reunite their families, should not be treated as criminals. While elected officials lack the political will to reform our federal immigration policy, people of faith will heed the call to create a culture of encounter, welcoming the stranger as Christ at our door.
[Sr. Janet Gildea is a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati. A retired family physician, she now serves with her sisters at Proyecto Santo Niño, a day program for children with special needs in Anapra, Mexico, as well as ministering with young adults in the Diocese of El Paso, Texas.]
Related - Ministering to unaccompanied immigrant children and, on NCRonline.org,
How to treat unaccompanied immigrant children at center of policy debate by Megan Sweas
July update from Janet Gildea - Our shelters are ready and waiting
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