Local Catholics learn firsthand about immigration at El Paso border

In late November, Father Jeff Ethen, Deacon Jim Schulzetenberg and his wife, Bonnie, and retired Deacon Bruce Geyer and wife Gail spent a week in El Paso, Texas, where they heard firsthand about newcomers entering the United States from Bishop Mark Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso and other community leaders.

“Two years ago, Bishop Seitz spoke at our annual clergy conference at Arrowwood in Alexandria,” Father Ethen said. “He offered excellent information from Catholic social teaching about each person’s right to immigrate. Afterwards, Deacons Jim and Bruce and I talked to him, and he invited us to witness it.

Gail Geyer, member of St. Mary Parish in Little Falls, plays with a refugee child while his family awaited transportation connections to their U.S. sponsor. Gail and her husband, retired Deacon Bruce Geyer, were among the group traveling to El Paso in late November to learn about immigration conditions. (Photo courtesy of Bruce and Gail Geyer)

“With my work with Hispanic ministry through the diocesan Multicultural Office, I regularly drive Nicaraguan immigrants and refugees in Pelican Rapids to their immigration check-ins in Grand Forks, North Dakota, even in blizzards, even knowing it could be a 30-second visit,” Father Ethen said. “Because they’re not allowed to have driver’s licenses, I drive, a three-hour round trip. Due to immigration rules, they aren’t able to work. One man said he’d been a doctor in his country, a general practitioner, willing to work but couldn’t. These are people in need, not terrorists or threats to our country.”

Deacon Schulzetenberg, who serves the Five Star Area Catholic Community and lives in Greenwald, said the group “went to explore immigration through a Catholic lens, including the struggle of balancing governmental policies and the God-given rights of every person to seek better living conditions. This trip was an eye-opener — that border is becoming the new Ellis Island.”

Their week was organized by Marco Raposo, diocesan director of the Peace and Justice Office in El Paso.

Raposo defined differences between refugees and immigrants: Refugees are compelled to seek asylum because their lives aren’t livable, while immigrants choose to leave their country of origin. Refugees, who are documented, face an eight-year wait to become citizens because of too few immigration judges and a backload of 1 million cases.

Raposo introduced them to a Franciscan sister from Singapore named Marie, who works with the undocumented and street people, and they toured the diocesan shelter, greeting volunteers whom they would assist.

They met Franco, an experienced federal Border Patrol agent, who discussed the processes of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol. He said that in the past year people of 68 different nationalities entered the United States and not only from Central and South America. Each day about 1,100 refugees turn themselves in, seek asylum and are documented.

Deacon Jim Schulzetenberg makes friends with a young refugee and her mother at the diocesan shelter. After crossing the border, the family turned themselves in to the Border Patrol, were documented and will travel to their sponsor. (Photo courtesy of Bruce and Gail Geyer)

Franco described cartels, “coyotes,” gangs and underground transnational criminal groups that control borders, charging for protection. This form of human trafficking is more lucrative than drug smuggling.

They learned about Title 42, a federal public health rule permitting officials to block migrants seeking asylum from entry. If eliminated, this would increase the flow of refugees across the border. (On Jan. 5, President Joe Biden announced the expansion of Title 42.)

From Jesuit Father Michael Gallagher, a legal specialist with the Jesuit Refugee Service, they heard that, since 1994, an increasing number of immigrants are young families struggling to survive instead of young single men seeking better jobs.

They visited the Hope Border Institute, an organization of local leaders, faith communities, advocates and policymakers who create transformational change and build solidarity across borders.

“Their director, Dylan Corbet, told us, ‘The act of migration is a sign of hope,’” said Deacon Geyer, who is from St. Mary Parish in Little Falls. “Pope Francis has said, ‘We are all migrants and we move because of hope.’ People have a right to life, to migrate.”

Afterward they met with several diocesan directors and spoke with Bishop Seitz, whose office is next door to the diocesan shelter.

“Bishop Seitz has so much compassion for the poor,” Bonnie Schulzetenberg said. “He described how negatively immigration was viewed 50 years ago, how they’re working to make it more humane. He introduced us to Brenda, whose group had stopped by a pond for water when gunmen opened fire on them. Brenda was shot in the stomach, her cousin killed. Border authorities accepted her as an emergency case, arresting the shooter. She’s slowly recovering.”

They toured other shelters, speaking with Franciscan Father Jarek Wysoczanski, originally from Poland, and viewed a video by David Romo, who has connected Hitler’s treatment of Jewish people with immigration in El Paso.

“On Sunday we attended a Spanish Mass at St. Mark’s,” Deacon Schulzetenberg said. “Father Ethen concelebrated and I was deacon for the Mass, despite my inability to speak Spanish. About 25 unaccompanied youth also participated.”

Bonnie added, “The Mass was lively, with maracas and clapping and music. The priest and people were so welcoming. They invited us to tour St. Mark’s shelter for unaccompanied youth, where they are responsible for children as young as age 4, who may stay there for up to two years. The shelter’s staff contact family members who may have moved to the U.S. previously and established a home. Making that connection takes a long time because they operate with very little funding.”

The El Paso Diocesan Shelter

Gail Geyer and Bonnie Schulzetenberg form a special connection with Maria and her two sons before the family left for Miami. Her first husband, an American, had been killed by gangs and her second husband was very abusive. (Photo courtesy of Deacon Jim and Bonnie Schulzetenberg)

The group spent their last day working at the El Paso Diocesan Shelter, which handles up to 50 documented refugees daily. These refugees are seeking asylum, and a judge will hear their cases in the future. They have sponsors in the United States ready receive to them. City employees and volunteers manage the shelter Tuesday through Friday. On Monday, it relies on local volunteers from parishes.

The Border Patrol delivers “guests” by bus who arrive between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Their documents are reviewed and they’re given COVID tests. Then they go for orientation to learn the next steps in their journey.

“Guests meet with a volunteer or staff person who helps them make travel arrangements to their sponsors,” Gail Geyer said. “They are given an opportunity to shower, after which families select garments — some have traveled for weeks in the same clothes or have lost all their belongings. From a basement full of donated clothing, we helped them choose complete outfits in their sizes and warm coats and gloves, if they needed them.”

Guests are invited to a sit-down meal, prepared offsite and delivered by other volunteers. All food is donated. Cots are set up where they may rest until a shuttle delivers them to their train, plane or bus station. Most guests are gone within 24 hours. Then the areas are cleaned and restocked for the next day’s guests.

“We chatted with overnight guests and our hearts melted hearing their stories. Their humanity impressed me,” Father Ethen said. “A little girl from Ecuador saw a box of kids’ toys, so I handed her a teddy bear, then a Raggedy Ann doll, but she batted them away, saying ‘muñeca’ which means ‘doll.’ She wanted the blonde Barbie-type doll as tall as she was — unfortunately we didn’t have Hispanic-looking dolls.”

Deacon Schulzetenberg spoke to Freddie and Lucia from Columbia. A cartel warned Freddie about rape and assault, offering him “protection” for $12,000. Freddie refused — he didn’t have the money.

Maria shared her heart-wrenching story with Gail and Bonnie.

In late November, a delegation from the St. Cloud Diocese spoke with Bishop Mark Seitz of the Diocese of El Paso to learn firsthand about immigration. Standing with Bishop Seitz (third from left), the delegation included (from left) retired Deacon Bruce and Gail Geyer of Little Falls, Father Jeff Ethen, in Hispanic ministry with the St. Cloud Diocesan Multicultural Office, and Deacon Jim and Bonnie Schulzetenberg of Greenwald. (Photo courtesy of Bruce and Gail Geyer)

Gail said, “Maria’s first husband, an American, was shot and killed. She remarried an extremely abusive man, showing us a large gash in her head. With the help of an immigration lawyer, she received permission to enter the U.S., but feared for her family left in Mexico.”

Bonnie added, “We formed a very special connection with her and her two boys. I gave Maria a small cross engraved with the word ‘strength,’ which Father Jeff blessed. We played with her sons — one taught Gail Spanish words, and she taught him English before they left for Miami the next morning.”

“We saw Jesus in each of the people, Deacon Geyer said. “They’re like Mary and Joseph seeking a place in an inn, knocking and being refused. They’re like my German and Irish ancestors, not perfect but willing to work hard to make a living in a new place. We have a genuine commitment to their success — they offer hope to our country.”

Deacon Schulzetenberg said, “We witnessed a Church that practices hospitality as a way of life, a Church alive and full of hope, the Gospel message being lived out by helping those in need. We saw many connections between our pro-life agenda and this border experience. My hope is that our local parishes continue to seek ways to integrate radical hospitality into daily life.”

To learn more

• Diocese of El Paso:  www.elpasodiocese.org
• Hope Border Institute: www.hopeborder.org
• Jesuit Refugee Service: www.jrsusa.org
• Border Patrol: www.cbp.gov/stats/transparency

Author: Nikki Rajala

Nikki Rajala is a writer/copy editor for The Central Minnesota Catholic Magazine.


Excellent article and pictures worth thousands of words! I am inspired to do what I can and be who God wishes me to be. How can we join together to assist these beautiful people of God?

Hi Gregg,
Glad that you are inspired. God gives us many opportunities every day to live out the Gospel according the His plan. We are gifted with His presence in many ways and many people.

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