Restoring Human Dignity at the Border
April 13, 2019
“There are things the poor prize more highly than gold
though they cost nothing:
the kind word, the gentle, compassionate look,
and the patient hearing of sorrows.”
By Sister Judy Mouch and Sister Fran Repka
One of our Critical Concerns as Sisters of Mercy is immigration, which includes not only the care of those who are immigrants but also the effort to understand and address the causes that compel people to leave their home countries.
In January, we traveled to McAllen, Texas, to volunteer with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley for two weeks. There we listened, learned, served and walked with our sisters and brothers mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
There are many stories to share. Heart-wrenching stories. One that stands out was that of Jorge and his family, who had arrived together from Guatemala to seek asylum. It is rare to see an entire family at the border. Usually a child or two is with one parent, leaving the other parent at home with other children, hoping for the possibility to join them eventually. Jorge’s family had fled violence and of the fear that their daughters would be trafficked or recruited into gangs. Jorge and his wife so desired for their beautiful, gentle daughters to grow up in a safe atmosphere—a desire similar to that of most of the families we met.
A family separated
Jorge (not his real name) worked as a truck driver in his homeland and spoke broken English. He and his wife have three children: a 19-year-old son, who stayed in Guatemala; a 12-year-old daughter, who was with his wife somewhere else in detention; and Maria, a 9-year-old daughter who was with Jorge. Although the family crossed the border together seeking asylum, they were unexpectedly separated. Jorge and Maria were held in detention from Tuesday through Sunday. Not knowing the whereabouts of his wife and other child, Jorge worried constantly that they would be released and sent back to Guatemala or taken to another detention center, as sometimes happens. He could get no information when he inquired. The family’s destination contacts are in the Midwest, where Jorge hopes to get a job and to be reunited with the rest of his family.
In the meantime, the lack of information created so much needless fear. Jorge could only hope that his wife and daughter would arrive before he was to leave the Humanitarian Respite Center, where migrants like him—sometimes 350 to 400 each day—find food, clothing, shelter, showers, safety and smiles of welcome. It was founded in 2014 by Sister Norma Pimentel, MJ, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.
“We are not criminals”
Jorge waited until the last minute to be taken to the bus station for transport to the Midwest. His wife and 12-year-old daughter never appeared, and he was concerned about them remaining in the detention center. His worry and disappointment were palpable. He said: “It was a terrible experience and unnecessary. We are not criminals; it is not necessary to treat us as such. I understand the need for detailed information which we had already prepared, but it was how we were treated.” They were stripped of everything upon entry to detention: shoelaces, belts, hats, gloves, any extra clothing or belongings (which they never saw again). Little food and water were given to them. Huge neon lights stayed on 24/7, making it difficult to sleep. The building, which holds 2,500 people, was highly air-conditioned, which they were not used to. The children were cold and many slept on concrete and were given Mylar blankets, which provided little warmth. Parkas and jackets had been taken away. This story was told over and over by anyone asked about conditions in the detention center. And although medical care was available, it was offered only to those who presented with symptoms.
Catherine McAuley said: “The poor need help today, not next week.” That seemed to be the unspoken mantra for all who served at the Humanitarian Respite Center. No matter what was needed—clothes, shoes, coats, a light meal, shower—the service was provided immediately and without hesitation. The few paid staff members, all of whom were bilingual, served as our models, responding to any need, whether it was a child looking for a parent, or requests for personal-care items or a phone charger. No one had to wait.
Volunteers from 12 states
Those of us volunteers who were not bilingual prepared sandwiches for the snack bags, served meals, assisted in the selection of a fresh change of clothing, provided child care so parents could shower, outfitted those traveling to a colder climate with appropriate outer wear—including a fleece blanket for each family—and listened to stories through an interpreter.
The volunteers with whom we worked came from 12 states. Among them were women religious of various orders, most responding to the call from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious: Benedictines from Minnesota; Sisters of St. Agnes from Wisconsin; Sisters of St. Joseph of Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania; and Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Minnesota. In addition, there was a regular cadre of “winter Texans” who provided service at the Respite Center on a weekly or daily basis. Our lay volunteer friends came from various religious denominations: Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, and one lay couple from the Bruderhof Community in Pennsylvania.
In summary, during our two weeks at the Humanitarian Respite Center, we listened, we interacted, we tried to be of service. We also learned that the needs of those seeking asylum are beyond imagining. The causes of migration stem from poverty, governmental corruption and violence associated with drugs. We experienced the resilience, patience, courage and hope of these asylum seekers as rooted in their faith in God and trust in the goodness of others. It was a busy two weeks, but one filled with a palpable sense of hospitality as we walked with our sisters and brothers “to restore human dignity.” As Catherine McAuley said: “There are things the poor prize more than gold … a kind word, a gentle, compassionate look, and the patient hearing of sorrows.” We found this to be as true now as it was when she said it, more than 150 years ago.
For more great stories like this, be sure to subscribe to our blog.