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.”
—Catherine McAuley

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.

Transporting asylum seekers to bus station after "dignity was restored" via the Respite Center.
Transporting asylum seekers to bus station after “dignity was restored” via the Respite Center.

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.

Sister Judy Mouch, left, and Sister Fran Repka outside the Respite Center run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in McAllen, Texas.
Sister Judy Mouch, left, and Sister Fran Repka outside the Respite Center run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in McAllen, Texas.

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.

One of several clothing-supply rooms for the asylum seekers at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas.

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.

Sister volunteers from various religious congregations. Among them, Sisters of Mercy Fran Repka (front, center, in green shirt and blue jacket) and Judy Mouch (front, right).
Sister volunteers from various religious congregations. Among them, Sisters of Mercy Fran Repka (front, center, in green shirt and blue jacket) and Judy Mouch (front, right).

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.

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  1. Sr. Carole Temming

    Thanks for a informative and excellent article and for your presence and assistance to those in the Respite Center.

  2. Ellen Vopicka Mercy Associate

    Thank you for serving and for sharing your experience. Would that we could learn to be even more compassionate and fix our broken immigration laws/system. Your walking with our brethren is a blessing.

  3. Cecilia Baranowski

    Thank you much for representing all of us who are unable to go and help out. Mercy is boundless and without boundaries.

  4. Mary Pendergast

    Thank you, Judy and Fran, for this heartwarming story. Every little bit we can do contributes to the Great Work of our time. It is also gooood to see you both!

  5. Denise Sausville

    Thank you Fran and Judy… Having been at the Respite Center in McAllen, TX…I can see that you really captured the experience for us. I am aware that you truly gave of yourselves during the week you were there. And, as for so many of us, were moved by what you saw. I so appreciate the sharing.

  6. Rosemary Sabino, RSM

    Inspired by reaching out to those who are rejected and scorned in so many places of this world.

  7. Rosemary Sabino RSM

    Such inspiration for all of us in your compassion to those scorned.

  8. Mary Stanton

    I appreciate the details of your time at the Border, Judy and Fran, and the faces of those you were with during your Respite Center. Heart breaking and challenging ~ connecting to Catherine so fulfilling is an extra bonus. Thank you!

  9. Marilyn Brewer rsm

    Thank you for sharing your stories. I need to hear these stories and continue to pray for people who are trying to enter the States and be safe. I really haven’t experienced such terror in my own personal life.
    Blessings for those who are taking personal time to help

  10. Graciela

    I would like to volunteer!!!