Literally the front lines: McAllen, Texas.
Amidst the media hype on the immigration crisis and in the wake of the Keep Families Together Act, we found ourselves with our 15 high school ECYD missionaries, serving immigrants who had just passed through Mexico into the United States.
The Catholic Charities Respite Center there receives, on average, 80-150 people- men, women, and children- daily. These people are from South American countries- mainly Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador- and have spent weeks or months escaping poverty, violence, and corruption, with the hope of finding safety in the United States.
These people were arrested crossing the US-Mexico border without proper documentation. Some came swimming across the river. Others crossing the desert frontier. Because they were not Mexican, they couldn’t just be returned to the other side. So they were arrested, placed in detention centers for 2-7 days, then released conditionally (with tracking devices on their ankles) with court dates in their respective destination cities, where they had some family member waiting for them.
From the detention center, they are dropped off in the McAllen bus station. All they have is the clothes on their backs, the babies in their arms, and the manila envelope stating their court date information. Literally. Everything else they would have brought with them was stolen in their crossing or taken away in the detention center.
Then…Catholic Charities steps in.
There at the bus station, they are met by kind and joyful volunteers, who invite them for a meal and help for their travels at the Catholic Charities center, only a few blocks away. The group then walks in the Texas heat to the small building, where they are welcomed by smiles and applause as they walk in.
They take a seat, and wait to receive help contacting their family members who live in the USA, a bowl of soup, a clean set of clothes, and the chance to take their first shower in weeks or months.
That’s how we as volunteers would spend hours. Regardless of the amount of Spanish we know.
First we would take the children- to wash their hands and come back to eat a bowl of chicken noodle soup with veggies and tortillas. Every adult came with at least one child; and most of the kids were infants to 4 or 5 years old. We would help them eat, sometimes even spoon by spoon, and drink juice or water.
From there, we and the girls would take them to play in the small play-corner, with donated toys and books. You would have thought that it was Christmas! Toys and games were not allowed in the detention center, and plus the weeks and months of traveling by foot, bus, train, or trailer, these kids hadn’t simply played in so long!
Meanwhile, the adults file through to register with Catholic Charities and receive help contacting their relatives to be able to buy bus tickets to their destinations.
North Carolina? Minnesota? New York? US states are simply names with no connotation; they ask us how long it will take to get there. Some only have a day or so by bus, but many have 2 or 3 days to go before they finally arrive, with several stops and bus-changes along the way.
When they have their tickets, we take them back to a small room, big enough for 4 rectangle folding-tables. There they can get their soup and tortillas, their first real meal they have eaten in a long time (besides the daily bologna and cheese sandwiches of the detention center).
Off the side of that small room are two walk-in closets. One is full of used-clothing and the other of used-shoes. Volunteers help them get a new pair of pants, a new shirt, undergarments, and shoes…which although they are Goodwill quality, are much better than their travel clothes from the past weeks/months.
After that, they can line up for showers. There is a bathroom with one shower for men, and another bathroom with the women’s shower. A 2-3 minute shower never felt so good…
And then they wait. Out in the crowded, small waiting room, to be taken back to the bus stop when it is near their departure time. That is when we can talk with them, hear their stories, and just be there in that moment with and for them.
In their eyes you see both pain and hope. Pain from their life struggles, the humiliation and destitution of their plight, travels, and recent imprisonment, and their hope for a future.
One young mom from Guatemala had a 4 year-old and 2-year old. Her husband was in Miami trying to make a living, and after 2 ½ years of being separated, she was trying to meet him there. The violence in her town had been growing, and she was afraid for her family, so started walking north- towards the United States.
One dad, from Honduras, crossed into the US with his 8 year-old son. He has two other children back in Honduras, both with cerebral palsy. He and his wife didn’t have the money they needed for medicine and care for their two disabled children, so his only option was to leave with his healthy son and try to enter the US, with the hope they could both work to send money home.
One dad crossed the river into the US with his 5-year old daughter. She has hydrocephalus, so has a tiny body and a huge, swollen head. Again, no future or help for her where they lived. Bringing her here was his only hope of her survival.
Every immigrant has their story. Every person has a reason for leaving and seeking a new life. There at Catholic Charities in McAllen, they enter an environment where they are loved and their human dignity is restored. The smallest gestures- a meal, used clothing, an attitude of openness and help- at first surprises them, and then brings about a noticeable change in their faces and being.
Our time in McAllen coincided with the USCCB delegation of bishops, who came to see first-hand the immigrants and their situation, to talk to them, and serve them a meal. Our ECYD missionaries made it into the video summarizing their visit (YouTube- U.S Bishops Survey Immigration Crisis) www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z72kdB3zuYo.
This experience was a week we will always treasure!