About three months ago Benedictine Sister Janine Mettling heard of a message from The Leadership Conference of Women Religious expressing the need for help with the humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. She and Stephanie Hart, a volunteer and longtime friend of St. Benedict’s Monastery in St. Joseph, where Sister Janine is a member, responded to the call, traveling to McAllen, Texas, to assist at the Catholic Charities-run Humanitarian Respite Center there. They served immigrants, mostly from Central America, for two weeks from Jan. 22 to Feb. 6. Here they reflect on their experience.
Q: Why is this kind of work important?
A: The humanitarian crisis here [at the border] is real. These people seeking asylum are fleeing terrible circumstances in their countries of origin and want a safe and better life for their children.
When the first larger waves of immigrants from Central America began to come, they were processed by [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], detained for a number of days, granted temporary legal status, instructed to appear in court at a future date and then simply dropped off at the bus station in McAllen. Hundreds of people were set out on the street, hungry, dirty and scared.
Sister Norma Pimentel [executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas] saw the need, and with the help of city officials, Catholic Charities, and many volunteers, she began the work of “restoring human dignity.” Now, the immigrants are brought directly from the detention center to the Respite Center, where the immigrants can take a shower, get a change of clothes, have some food and get assistance in arranging for bus tickets to be with their family members in America as they await their court date at those destinations. (Those judges will ultimately decide if they are granted asylum or not).
The work is important because these are people who are hungry and thirsty, who have no home and need help. All of the people volunteering/working at the Respite Center are following the Gospel imperative to attend to these brothers and sisters.
Q: What does it mean to you to be able to help people that are coming to the U.S. to get away from desperate situations in their home countries?
A: First of all, Stephanie and I know that our ancestors came to this country seeking a better life for their children and grandchildren, and we have been the beneficiaries of their courage and decision to do so. It is part of America’s tradition to welcome those who seek freedom, and it has been very rewarding to be a tangible helping hand to those who are trying to do the same thing our ancestors did.
It is one thing to hear stories about what is happening in Central America and at the Mexico-U.S. border, but it is a very different thing to actually hear the personal stories firsthand and to look into the eyes of those who have experienced it. We put our frustration with certain government policies and our compassion for those in crisis to good work.
Q: Where are the people you were seeing coming from?
A: Most of the people we spoke to said they came from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. A few said they were from Nicaragua. On a rare occasion, we even encountered people from further away (Ecuador and China).
Q: What was a typical day is like?
There is a flow to the day, and it all depends on how many immigrants arrive on buses from the detention center.
Each afternoon, buses arrive between 2 and 5 p.m., with varying numbers of people. In our two-week window of service, we experienced a range from about 185 to 430 people per day, usually averaging around 300. Virtually every adult we saw was a parent with at least one child with them. (Occasionally it was a whole family — both parents and up to four children).
After the immigrants receive a brief orientation speech from one of the Catholic Charities employees, we (volunteers) welcome them and give each family a bag of toiletries. They are then directed to a registration area, where there are people who assist them in contacting their families (in the U.S.) to begin the process of getting a bus or plane ticket to go be with them (which is where they are scheduled to appear in court).
Once this initial orientation has begun at the Respite Center, they then visit various rooms where they hope to procure a change of clothes. There are rooms of clothing for babies, children ages 2-16, men and women. There are also rooms with shoes and coats and sweaters. Volunteers and staff members work in these areas to help pick out the correctly sized attire for each individual, asking them where they are going and selecting appropriate attire for the climate they will be in.
Around 6 p.m., supper is served, which is usually a delivery of some kind. After that, the immigrants sometimes return to the registration area to check on progress with their tickets, continue their process of getting clothes or wait for an open shower stall.
Unfortunately, the immigrants do a lot of waiting in line while they are at the Respite Center, but we were very impressed by their patience. Imagine standing in line for a half hour holding your 2-year-old to get her/him a change of clothes, only to realize you have to do it again to take a shower or to get clothes for yourself (by which point there might not be underwear or pants in your size anymore). We were also amazed at their stamina, especially after what they had endured during their long and dangerous journey prior to crossing the border, followed by the cold and crowded conditions in the detention center.
Each evening, some of the immigrants begin to leave to see their families. Buses and van rides to the downtown bus station depart into the evening, sometimes as late as 10 p.m. We chose to stay until the final Catholic Charities staff member was ready to leave to support him/her through the evening, when there are generally less volunteers (but just as many people who have questions and needs).
One of the jobs we helped do was to give each family a blanket and a bag of food and water for the bus ride. We also checked their destinations and helped them find appropriate sweaters, coats, hats and gloves if they needed them. They often had no real sense of what type of whether they would be facing at their final destination, so we spent quite a bit of time convincing them, for instance, that they really do need a winter coat in New York and not just a sweater!
Some evenings, while waiting for the next group to depart, we had time to have deeper conversations with families about why they had left their country, what it was like in the detention center and who they would be seeing at their next destination. It was extremely educational, emotional, and heart-warming all at the same time. When it was time for them to leave, Stephanie and I sang a special blessing song over them. Many of them cried, gave us hugs, thanked us and told us that we were a blessing to them. Every day, their faith in God was tangible to us and they were a blessing to us as well.
At night, a security guard took over and coordinated the immigrants in a process of clearing out the rooms so that sleeping mats could be put down. He then assigned a certain number of people to each room for the night. This was the point at which we left.
In the morning, all the supplies that were depleted the night before (food, clothing, toiletries, towels, etc.) needed to be replenished, so volunteers worked to complete that task in time for the next set of immigrants, all the while answering questions and continuing to help those that hadn’t left yet to procure clothing and other supplies that they couldn’t get the night before.
Thankfully, donations of clothing, food, toiletries, etc., rolled in at all times of the day from community members and from across the country. All of these go through an initial sorting process and then a more specific sorting before they end up in the appropriate room. As you can imagine, in order for all of this to get done, it takes a large number of volunteers every day.
The ethos of the place is to trust in the grace and timing of God. With such a large undertaking, there is a certain amount of chaos. But, somehow, an overarching sense of organization and the dedication of long-term staff members and volunteers keep it all going. On more than one occasion, we were amazed at how quickly our prayer requests for specific needs were fulfilled by generous donors. No doubt, our loving God had inspired them to give just the right items that were needed.
Immigrants were served breakfast, and then some of them continued to head off to the bus station, so we stopped to hand out blankets, coats, etc., to them and bless them as they left. After that group left, things would quiet down for a while because there were very few people left in the center. The remaining folks were called to lunch (which staff, immigrants and volunteers had prepared all morning). Hearty soup, bread and fruit were served. At this point, we usually took our own lunch break in another room (food we had bought ourselves).
After lunch, we generally finished up any restocking that hadn’t gotten completed in the morning and waited for the next wave of buses of immigrants to arrive.
In a given day, we saw each family at least four times and interacted with them personally: at arrival, handing out bags of toiletries; at specific clothing rooms, checking sizes and picking out clothes; getting coats, hats, etc.; and seeing them off with food and a blessing. In addition, we might attend to other needs and questions: things as simple as handing out hair binders or getting more diapers, more complex things like determining when to direct them to our medical clinic or trying to explain how to get money exchanged.
As you can tell, we spent a lot of time running from one place to the next, doing our best to assist them in any way we could. Our Spanish improved over the two-week period. So much so that on our last day, when none of the usual staff members were available to give the initial orientation talk, I did my best to touch on the same points I had heard them say so many times.
Q: Do you have any particular stories that come to mind that you would be willing to share?
A: Rejoicing with a woman who was excited to finally be with her sister again, whom she hadn’t seen or hugged in 16 years.
• Listening to a Nicaraguan man describe his harrowing story of spending a month in a warehouse in Mexico with “coyotes,” who then transported him to the border, where he swam across and helped children cross using a rope.
• Hearing how it was extremely crowded (body to body) and very cold in the detention center.
• Seeing the outside of the detention center, which reminded us of other times in history when there were similar facilities, no windows, razor wire, gates.
• Interacting with a teenage boy, who was trying very hard to speak the few English phrases he knew and how delighted he was to learn more words.
• Seeing the smiles, little bursts of laughter and dancing of little children when we handed them a toothbrush or a new pair of underwear
• Receiving spontaneous hugs
• Helping a father soothe his crying baby boy by holding him, swaying, and humming.
• Crying with a Honduran woman whose 19-year-old daughter was still in detention because she was being treated as a separate adult. The mom and younger sister were released, not knowing how or if they would ever be reunited. In addition, the older daughter didn’t even have the information for whom to call if she ever got out.
• Listening to a man describe his experience of helping a blind woman by carrying her baby for her. Apparently, she was fleeing for her life. Her husband had blinded her (slashed her eyes) as payment to some sort of corrupt organization.
• Witnessing the willingness of immigrants to pitch in with cleaning, kitchen duties, deliveries, etc.
• Listening to a pregnant Ecuadorian woman who was brought to the center late at night by a Good Samaritan after making it through the border without getting caught by border patrol. All she had with her was a Bible and the clothes she had on her back. She was given food, water and a place to sleep, and then brought to the detention center in the morning so she could begin the process to seek asylum.
• Noticing what a difference just smiling and saying, “Welcome!” makes to the immigrants as they arrive. Once they realized we were there to help them and that we didn’t work for the government, you could see them relax and become more themselves.
• Receiving a 10:15 p.m. delivery: a minivan full of toiletry bags we desperately needed.
• Observing the loving way that the men and women treated their children.
• Working with volunteers from all over the country. One volunteer was a 91-year-old retired doctor who spent six days a week making sandwiches, organizing supplies and occasionally helping in the clinic. He was amazing. There were also many nuns from across the country, who had responded to the request for help they received from LCWR. Other volunteers were “snowbirds”/ “winter Texans” from the Midwest. Still others were people who simply got in their car, and because of their desire to help, drove many days just to do whatever they could to help out for a short period of time. The local volunteers were especially dedicated people who somehow find the energy to come day after day because they know the need is so great.