I stepped into their story briefly after they had traveled a long journey from many distant places – Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Cuba, and more. They were seeking a better life, a safer place, somewhere to get work, to have enough to put food on the table, and to raise their children.
I arrived in El Paso in mid-November to volunteer for a few weeks at one of the eleven shelters in the city for those men, women, and children being released from detention camps. They had been detained for entering the United States without documents and stayed there for up to ten days, where they slept on the ground and received some food. They were released to go to one of the shelters when a sponsor, often a family member, was identified who would provide a ticket for them to travel elsewhere in the United States. These migrants received a date for an immigration appointment near their destination.
At our shelter, we received about 100 people each day. When they arrived, each adult was wearing an ankle monitor. Most had only the clothing on their backs or a small bag with a few items in it. They had the papers from the detention camp that identified them and their sponsor. We welcomed them and took their information so that we could contact the family or sponsor and get the information (date, time, destination, type of transportation) from their travel ticket.
While they were with us, we tried to care for them with some necessities. We offered them a place to sleep (usually a cot, but in some shelters, a bed), showers, personal supplies, and clothing. We provided meals three times a day–all prepared and served by the people of El Paso including families, restaurants, church groups, and others.
When we received word that a ticket had been purchased for an individual or a family, we arranged to take them to the bus station or the airport. We packed bags of food for each person for their trip. It was simple food – sandwiches, bottled water, snacks – but it had all been donated for them. Some of the families would be traveling on buses for three or four days. Most had no money and spoke no English.
On one of the trips to the bus station, another volunteer and I accompanied a man and his seven year old son. At the bus station, we helped him get his ticket. When the ticket agent asked him to sign for his tickets, he told the agent that he couldn’t write, so he signed with an “x.” We showed him where he would be getting on the bus and explained that it would take him three days for him to reach his destination. He had an itinerary with his ticket that showed where he would change buses on the second day. When we finished, he sadly told us that he couldn’t read. We looked for someone on the bus who might help him to make the change.
Airport trips were harder in many ways. One woman and her five year old daughter had tickets to get to Atlanta. She had never been on a plane before and was terrified of going through security. The border patrol and TSA had to check her papers and do a search. All she had were the sandwiches and food we had given her. They were kind to her, but had a job to do. The airline ticket agent was very helpful. She saw how afraid this woman was and realized that she would be lost getting off in Atlanta, especially because the airport is so large. She suggested that we call the family member and suggest that he get a security pass to allow him to meet her at the gate.
There are so many encounters and stories to tell. Each night, as I returned from the shelter, I held the faces and situations of those I had met before me. I marveled at the generosity and kindness of so many people who offered food, donations, and time to help these strangers in need. I thought of the families who would borrow money to buy a ticket for their family members and offer them a place in their homes. I remembered the kindness of those who had been detained to each other – sharing the little they had with one another and helping to care for the children. What would it be like to get on a plane when you had never flown before? Especially with no money and a few sandwiches and did not speak the language? When you didn’t really even know where you are going or how the process worked?
I am grateful I had the opportunity to talk to and accompany these people. In the time I was there, during Thanksgiving, I was helped in so many ways to be grateful for the blessings in my own life and to be more aware of others in need.
I caught a very small glimpse of what it would be like to walk in their shoes.
Written by Sister Joanne Dress, D.C.