Last November I volunteered at the refugee center located within the grounds of the Diocese of El Paso. It is a good-sized room with its own kitchen and eating facility. The bishop of El Paso and seminarians reside nearby, and most volunteers stay in the seminarians’ sleeping quarters, where they are comfortable and have a regular bed unless there is a lack of space; then volunteers might sleep on a cot.
Volunteers learn how to perform a number of functions, then do what is requested as needed.
On our annual road trip, I met briefly with Heidi Cerneka, a Maryknoll Lay Missioner, in El Paso.
Heidi said she was inspired to join the Lay Missioners while she was still in college and heard about the church women being martyred in El Salvador. Rather than being frightened, their dedication excited her. As a Lay Missioner, Heidi worked many years in Brazil with women in prisons, but at 50 years of age she decided to go to law school. Now she works for a nonprofit, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, as an immigration lawyer. Most of her work involves asylum cases. In this part of Texas only about 3% of asylum applicants are successful. She said that in other jurisdictions, e.g., parts of New York or Portland, Oregon, about 50% of asylum applicants are eventually granted asylum.
The Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy center needs volunteers and interns. Besides the obvious need for workers with legal expertise, Heidi specifically mentioned that social workers or counselors could interview clients. The organization’s website—Las-Americas.org—includes two pages requesting interns and volunteers and listing needs.
I asked Heidi her message for Affiliates. She emphasized, “Walls and detention centers are not the answer. Central America needs to be a place where people can stay if they want, with job opportunities, fair wages, and security. The US needs to be a place where people can come with fair immigration policies. … All the people that leave the government’s detention centers are now documented; they’re not undocumented or illegal!”
In March, Kitty and I welcomed asylum seekers from Latin America on the Texas-Mexico border at McAllen, Texas.
Lazarus teaches us that other persons are a gift. A relationship with people consists in gratefully recognizing their value. Even the poor person at the door of the rich is not a nuisance, but a summons to conversion and to change.
– Pope Francis, Lent 2017
Bienvenido! Welcome! We welcomed the families, moms, dads, and kids with smiles, handshakes, and kindness. Moms and dads were immediately relieved to be in a safe, kind, and loving place—the Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. We felt like real Americans with our history of welcoming strangers into our country and real Christians with love in our hearts.
Sr. Ann, a Sister of Mercy from Philadelphia, oriented us to the well-used former nursing home. We followed her wondering what task we could do as volunteers. The first room was packed full of donated clothing from all over the US that needed to be sorted into women’s, men’s, and children’s clothing. Someone had to do this separation of clothing. Next were the rooms for clean clothes, a separate room for infants’ clothes, shoe room, coat room, and men’s clothing rooms. The women’s room was a special place for the women volunteers and women to meet. They fitted and refitted clothing considering style and preference. What a beautiful and loving experience for all. I didn't think I would be of much help here.
Compassion and Hospitality on the Border
Jerrie Drinkwine – Seattle Chapter
News flashes of a caravan of people from Central America moving through Mexico to seek asylum in the US filled television screens and social media throughout 2018. Scenes of children being separated from parents horrified most Americans. With these haunting reports, a team of five people from Holy Family Parish, Kirkland, WA, decided to go to the Texas/Mexico border in McAllen, to volunteer at the Humanitarian Respite Center in support of these asylum seekers and to gain information for a possible Adult Mission Trip in February 2019.
What happens after a family is processed by the Border Patrol and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and enters the Respite Center mirrors the social teachings of Jesus. Families come off prison buses from ICE with one adult per family having a tracking device secured to one ankle. All shoe laces and belts have been removed by ICE to prevent potential suicide. Once in the Respite Center, they are welcomed warmly by a team of volunteers and four paid staff members. This is where the hospitality and compassion take place.
More than 300 supporters of detained immigrants and refugees participated in the Mass of Solidarity and Hope at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC), built on the theme, “For I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Preceding the Mass, about 500 people gathered at St. Leo Parish in downtown Tacoma, bringing signs and banners and scurrying around with last-minute preparations. Marchers from St. Joseph Parish in Seattle and at least a dozen other Tacoma and Seattle parishes and Catholic groups, including Maryknoll Affiliates, joined them, and we began in song!
The palpable spirit of the gathering, rooted deep in our Catholic faith, was the desire to express concern for and solidarity with immigrants. Esmeralda Saltos spoke briefly about her work coordinating Catholic Eucharistic services at NWDC. After Mass, we called on the inspiration and example of Our Lady of Guadalupe in reciting “A Pilgrim’s Prayer,” (below) and then we filed out of church singing, led by the “Share the Journey” banner.
Advocates for social justice from St. Leo and St. Joseph parishes organized the pilgrimage and bilingual Mass on a city street just outside the Detention Center. By their words and actions, the three Jesuit priests concelebratig Mass and the participants showed their solidarity with the detainees and refugees. The crowd, feeling this spirit of solidarity, responded with enthusiastic prayers and songs. The more that 1500 detainees in NWDC drew hope from our singing and from the information that visitors passed along.
After Mass, St. Leo volunteers sold delicious burritos for those visiting the Welcome Center that AIDNW (Advocates for Immigration in Detention – www.aidnw.org) operates to help newly-released detainees navigate their way back to family and friends located around the country.
Some detainees, brought to the NW Detention Center from other parts of the country, have no family or friends to visit them here. The pilgrimage and Mass truly welcomed the strangers in our midst behind the fence of the Detention Center. May they feel supported as they await the court’s decision on their cases.
A Pilgrim’s Prayer
God of all nations
We turn to you in faith
And compassion for
Our brothers and sisters detained by
Our government in our country.
Many have lost their children;
Children of all ages have lost their parents
While they suffer fear, mistreatment
Please embrace them with your presence,
And the comfort of your peace.
Teach us citizens the ways
To stand in solidarity with those
without due process,
without a home.
Stir us to action with them
and on their behalf,
that together we may all find a home
in a society of peace, justice,
and dignity for every person. Amen.
In early January 2013, I toured the Northwest Detention Center, one of the largest in the US (capacity 1,575 detainees), with a group of people interested in visiting detainees who have no family or friends in the area. The NW Detention Center, a for-profit facility, is located in the industrial area of Tacoma, WA, without any public transportation or services. It is operated by GEO Group (NYSE symbol GEO) under contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), under the Department of Homeland Security.
A not-for-profit organization, Advocates for Immigrant in Detention Northwest (www.aidnw.org), located in Tacoma, trains volunteer visitors and assigns a detainee whom they visit frequently until the detainee is released or deported. Other not-for-profit organizations also have programs for visiting detainees at NW Detention Center.
A minor victory cheered the more than 30 supporters attending William Gonzalez’s hearing at the Portland Courthouse this January. Some feared that the president’s removal of Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans who came to the US decades ago might already be impacting people in our community.
William, a permanent resident, came to the US 38 years ago as a 12-year-old, with his mother who was granted asylum because of threats against her life in El Salvador. He has been harassed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since he applied for citizenship. In 2017, ICE required him to wear an ankle bracelet though he has not been a flight or security risk and has only had one DUI infraction since about 2001. William has worked 10-12 years as a cook at the famous Benson Hotel and has been involved in the union. He says the bracelet has to be recharged about every 8 hours, making it hard to get a full night’s sleep. Sometimes ICE can’t detect its signal from the basement kitchen where he works. When ICE can’t detect it, they can come to his house to question him.
William and his lawyers said the support of 40 letters and over 30 people at the hearing positively influenced the judge who ruled that the bracelet was to be removed and the harassing visits to William’s home to stop. William still had to pay a bond and further hearings will determine his immigration status.
People at the hearing were from The Immigrant Support Network, Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice (IMIrJ), ACLU, Havra Shalom Jewish congregation, Quakers, the Benson Hotel, and Unitarian and other churches. A representative from IMIrJ said it’s gratifying to see so many people at the hearing, but what is really needed is passage of compassionate Immigration Reform and the Real Dream Act.
Members of the North Bay Affiliate Chapter, Nancy and Bob McFarland, Leslee Coady, Rich Younkin, and Marie Wren planned this event at St. Isabella’s parish in San Rafael, CA, to impart information and to inspire involvement and action. Presenters included a Rwandan refugee priest, Carolyn Trumble—a Maryknoll mission promoter, staff members of Catholic Charities, an immigration lawyer, and Maryknoll Affiliates.
Fr. Samuel, a priest at St. Isabella’s and a son of a Rwandan refugee, was born in a Ugandan refugee camp. He inspired the audience with stories about ministering as a priest to refugees in Uganda and emphasized that the most important thing to give refugees is hope, over and above any material or financial help.
Two speakers from Catholic Charities told of the legal help they offer to immigrants and of social services for a local community of immigrant youth who need help with reading skills. They also addressed the current issue of the executive order revoking DACA. They invited the audience to visit the local community center where youth are tutored.
An immigration attorney and member of the local Organizing Committee, emphasized the need to listen to the stories of immigrants and to determine their immediate needs. She told of immigrants whose cars were impounded because they did not have driver licenses. The Committee helped them.
Affiliate Bob McFarland spoke about his and his wife Nancy’s involvement with a Rapid Response team that observes and documents raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They also support families who may be left without a breadwinner because of the raids. Bob and Nancy are willing to take such a family into their home.
Some parishioners were interested in volunteering and will be invited to our next Affiliate meeting where we can explore their interests and where to use their skills. Although the evening addressed immigrants and refugees from other countries, we were keenly and sadly aware that there were many “refugees” from nearby Napa and Sonoma because of the devastating fires. Any of us could be refugees.
The Maryknoll Affiliate Book Group has been discussing the experiences of immigrants in the US, guided by Miguel De La Torre’s Trails of Hope and Terror. That book emphasizes that Jesus was an undocumented refugee in Egypt and offers Christian responses to the alien.
Now we see people of color detained and arrested as they leave the county court house or go to work. Citizen protesters have been arrested as they block the path of Immigration Control and Enforcement (ICE) vans. Immigrant attendance at church services and classes is down, perhaps due to fear of being in public. Executive orders have rescinded the DACA program that helps young immigrants, Dreamers, legally remain in the US to study or work.
But hopeful signs abound. In October, California, with over 2 million undocumented, enacted a law barring police from asking people about their immigration status or participating in federal immigration enforcement activities. Jail officials will only transfer inmates to federal authorities if they have been convicted of certain crimes. Oregon’s law prevents using state resources to enforce federal laws.
Kathy Gribble, from Fox Cities Chapter, WI, reports that the ESTHER community visited a legislative hearing concerning pending legislation. One bill proposes that all government officials would be permitted (not mandated) to inquire on the immigration status of persons they might encounter in any dealing. This bill would allow targeting and profiling people of color, adding another level of fear as they move in the shadows of the community. The good news is that only one speaker favored the measure and about 25, including the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, eloquently spoke against it.
Nationwide, an estimated 800 churches have declared themselves Sanctuary Churches, although only few are house threatened immigrants. Some groups help Dreamers pay the $465 fee for DACA renewals. Communities have participated in Welcoming Week (welcomingamerica.org) to help newcomers of all backgrounds feel valued and fully participate in the community. Welcoming Week coincides with the Campaign Nonviolence week of actions and with International Day of Peace each September.
Most of our readers are familiar with Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, but perhaps not everyone is familiar with Mark and Louise Zwick in Houston, Texas.
They were volunteer missioners in El Salvador in the late 1970s but were forced to leave following death threats related to the civil war at the time. Upon their return to the US, they saw the need to help the refugees from Central America and commented that, “If we had any guts, we’d start a Catholic Worker House.” They founded a house of hospitality under the name of Casa Juan Diego in 1980, and ever since they have dedicated their lives, on a fulltime volunteer basis, to helping the needy.