ESTHER is a faith-based organization working for social justice. Four members of its Immigration Task Force are Fox Valley Maryknoll Affiliate Chapter members. Kathleen Gribble, chapter coordinator, has offered her home for asylum seekers waiting for their court date.
The ESTHER Immigration Task Force has evolved over the years into a wide-reaching group with ties to many groups in the community and beyond. Currently, we are working on auto insurance for undocumented immigrants, we are educating the community through entertainment, we gather and share information about conditions on the border, and we advocate for local immigrants in abusive situations.
Safe Roads is an initiative aimed at culminating in a bill that will allow our undocumented immigrants to be tested to drive legally and carry insurance. A few members of our task force are working on the bill with other groups around the state. It would be a win/win for the state but is still meeting with opposition.
The Trump administration slashed the “cap” on the number of refugees accepted into the US in fiscal year 2019 to 30,000, and has admitted just 18,051 as of May 31, 2019.* The Pew Research Center says, “the United States plans to admit a maximum of 18,000 refugees in fiscal year 2020, down from a cap of 30,000 in the one that ended Sept. 30, 2019, under a new refugee admissions ceiling set by the Trump administration.”
Affiliate Gail Kelley responds to refugees differently. She wrote for Maryknoll magazine in 2016 about “Seeing the Face of Christ” in refugees and now gives an update on the progress of one refugee family. Quoting from the 2016 article: “The Refugee Resettlement Ministry (RRM) at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, my parish in Raleigh, NC, … which was initiated in 1986, has assisted in resettling 33 families.” Gail says the Semahoro family is typical of their experience.
Gail Kelley greets the Semahoros in the airport.
Bashir Semahoro, a Congolese native, arrived with his family in Raleigh in October 2013. “We were cattle ranchers in the Congo when we were attacked by another indigenous tribe,” he said. “My parents were killed, my wife raped, and one of my children lost. My wife, three daughters, my brother, and I escaped with nothing but the clothes on our backs. It took us four months to walk to Ethiopia, where we were placed in a refugee camp operated by the United Nations.”
Gail wrote, “The members of our RRM have indeed seen the face of Christ in the strangers we have welcomed. They have inspired us with their unshakable faith, their unquenchable desire to be free in spite of persecution and imprisonment, their family values, their joy in simplicity, and their determination to become full and productive Americans. As a Maryknoll Affiliate, I am proud to be part of this ministry to vulnerable people from whom I learn so much.”
Gail Kelley, surrounded by the Semahoro family, developed a long-term friendship with them during their years in Raleigh.
Update: Gail keeps in contact with the family and sends this update: The Semahoro Family now lives in Austin, Texas, have a mortgage on a home, and are speaking fluent English. Both parents have full-time jobs. Aline, their oldest daughter, is attending community college on a scholarship to study nursing.
The Refugee Resettlement Ministry in Raleigh has since settled two families from the Congo and a Muslim family from Afghanistan. It now looks forward, at the end of 2019, to settling its 36th family.
If you are interested in Refugee Resettlement, initial or ongoing, go to: https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr and click on State Program Directory for the voluntary agencies in your area.
*Note: Read more about the US reductions of legally vetted refugees at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/26/us/politics/trump-refugees.html.
When we arrived in Green Valley, AZ, this year, my husband Bob wanted to work with the migrants in some way. Little did we know that a floodgate-full of opportunities would flow to us.
It started with the Santa Cruz Valley Border Issues Fair and Common Ground on the Border conference in Sahuarita, AZ. About 300 people from many faith traditions attended, many of them local but others from all over the US and even as far away as Italy. The program introduction stated, “The Borderlands is the perfect place to explore the arts, touch the culture, and have deeper conversations about the complicated issues that collide here.”
First we went on a field trip, hiking through the desert. I found it challenging, and it had to be difficult for the two men and one teenager we honored that day—they must have run out of food and water. We honored each one with poetry and songs as we came upon the crosses where their remains had been discovered. Three thousand bodies have been discovered in the Tucson area since the year 2000.
The end of July, I traveled with the group, Heartland for Human Justice, to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Over 100 from St. Louis joined us. All of us wanted to emphasize that the current situation for immigrants entering our country lacks common decency. Children are separated from their parents and placed in an inadequate shelter, where food and medical care are sorely lacking. Our 10-hour bus ride to and from Fort Sill was little inconvenience compared to what those on the border are having to deal with!
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.