Blessed: A Reflection on the Border Experience

When walking the halls of Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., I made it a point to speak or make eye contact with those I met. I would pass many people, presumably patients, who could barely navigate. When I would inquire how someone was, I often received the answer: “I’m blessed.” This is my predominant thought when I consider my time in El Paso working with the newly-arrived migrants seeking asylum.

I worked at the shelter at Pastoral Center of the Diocese of El Paso, under the umbrella of Ruben Garcia and Annunciation House which has sheltered migrations for 40 years.

The migrants I encountered during my three week stint were mainly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. There were adults, most often the mother or father, who were accompanying minor children ranging from infants to teenagers. I saw only a few complete families.

When asylum seekers first arrive legally through a port of entry, they are placed in detention centers until their paperwork is completed. This paperwork includes the name of a sponsor and a date to appear in Immigration Court. When they arrive at the Pastoral Center, there was a brief orientation followed by a meal as all were very hungry when they arrived. Then, they begin the intake process wherein their sponsor(s) who is responsible for their transportation, are notified of their arrival. They can then access a complete change of clothing and toiletries from a large supply of donated items. They are also given access to a shower.

Three meals and snacks are provided each day. The sleeping quarters are simple canvas cots and blankets in a large room–men are on one side and women are on the other with their children. Those requiring minor medical care are treated and those who need more care are either transported to a hospital by ambulance or driven by a volunteer. The stay at the shelter is usually between one and five days. At the end, they are driven to the airport or bus station by a volunteer.

How was I blessed by this experience? First, I received the grace to leave my comfort zone to respond to this need in a small way. I observed firsthand, adults and children who had travelled hundreds of miles, most often by foot, to pursue a better life for their families. I was gratified by the irrepressible exuberance of the children who saw a pile of toys in the corner of the first room they entered and joyfully ran to start playing. I saw in the eyes of the adults, the exhaustion that was palpable, but still with the determination to continue this difficult journey.

I was constantly amazed at the inexhaustible generosity of the people of El Paso who donate food, clothing, personal items, and time week after week. These volunteers come from parishes, volunteer organization, and surrounding cities. I even met a local St. Vincent de Paul Society who had provided some needed shelving. The volunteers from other states whom I met were mostly grey-haired sister like me from various communities of religious women.

I was blessed by the realization that I have not yet, and probably never will, endure the hardships these migrants have endured on their journeys. It is an impossible-to-ignore reminder that I need to thank God every day for the blessings showered upon me. I continue to be blessed by the memories of this experience which remind me that I have no good reason to complain about inconsequential irritations.

Written by Sister Mary Powers, D.C.

What would it be like to walk in their shoes?

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.

SOA Watch & The Border Encuentro

As I write this, the Central American Migrant Exodus for Life–which includes over 13,000 asylum seekers–is fleeing political violence. In response, the United States government is deploying 15,000 soldiers to the US/Mexico border.

In 1990, School of the Americas Watch (SOA Watch)–an advocacy organization founded by Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois and a small group of supporters–protested the training of Latin American military officers by the Department of Defense at the School of the Americas in Georgia. Now, SOA Watch is tirelessly advocating for justice for oppressed persons across the Americas. They organize opposition to its training in torture, oppose the militarization at the US border, and support policies to assist refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants to the United States.

For the third year, SOA Watch hosted a Border Encuentro on the Arizona-Mexico border on November 16-18, beginning with a vigil at a Detention Center in Eloy, Arizona. The participants marched to the beat of the May Day marching band, sang “No estan solos,” meaning, “You are not alone,” and could see the shadows of the detainees from afar in the windows of the buildings.

As the weekend progressed, other gatherings and workshops were held at the US/Mexico border in both cities named Nogales. This location was symbolic of the fact that no wall or border can deter the solidarity of people.

The meetings focused on the following principles:

  • An end to US economic, military, and political intervention in Latin America.
  • The closure of the School of Americas and Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
  • An end to Plan Merida and the Alliance for Prosperity.**
  • Demilitarization and divestment of borders.
  • An end to the racist systems of oppression that criminalize and kill migrants, refugees, and communities of color.
  • Respect, dignity, justice, and the right to self-determination of communities.

The SOA Watch Border Encuentro gave me a sense of hope and renewed energy to resist the structures of oppression and injustice that threaten communities. It reminded me that the only power that will bring liberation is people’s power, people’s resilience, and people’s faith.

** Plan Merida and the Alliance for Prosperity are both US policies that seek to further militarize Mexico and the northern region of Central America. The alleged goal is to confront the so-called drug war and contain mass displacement from the region. Rather, these policies have led to human rights violations.

Do Not Oppress a Foreigner

“Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners because you were foreigners in Egypt,” (Exodus 23:9).

“Migrants seeking a better life in other countries must not be viewed with suspicion but rather defended and protected, no matter their status,” Pope Francis.

“Freedom of mobility is a human right. Migrants have their rights; they do not lose them when cross a border,” (Article 13 Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

These past few weeks, we have been overwhelmed by the media showing us multiple disturbing pictures of families divided, parents deported, children left behind, immigrant toddlers ordered to appear in court alone, fathers heartbroken and mothers in tears. In the midst of those images we cannot ignore the psychological trauma endured by these families fleeing violence in their countries and enduring the arduous journey with smugglers and criminals preying on them as these families to try to survive together.

Last year, a Syrian-American medical organization announced that the severity of PTSD suffered by migrant Syrian children surpassed the clinical definition and should be renamed “human devastation syndrome.” Children crossing our borders and separated from their families may also be suffering this type of PTSD.

An annual report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees released this past week estimates that there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. This includes individuals who are fleeing violence, persecution, conflict, and now climate change. The global number of refugees grew by a record 2.9 million in 2017.

However, we cannot ignore that those who cross borders bring both challenges and opportunities for their new host countries.

“The cliché that international migration is associated with economic ‘burden’ can be dispelled,” wrote the scientists from the French National Center for Scientific Research, the University of Clermont-Auvergne and Paris-Nanterre University. The research analyzed data from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The research found that asylum seekers contributed most to a country’s gross domestic product after three to seven years in the country. They also lowered unemployment rates and had a near-zero impact on public finances.

Refugees’ Impact on the US

“The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program, A Return to First Principles: How Refugees Help to Define, Strengthen, and Revitalize the United States” was released June 20, 2018, the 18th anniversary of World Refugee Day.

The report looked at the 1.1 million refugees who arrived in the U.S. between 1987 and 2016 via the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP). Most of the refugees considered in the report moved quickly to self-sufficiency through gainful employment, English proficiency, and the attainment of college degrees and/or vocational training. The report stated that USRAP “has saved countless lives, put millions of impoverished persons on a path to work, self-sufficiency, and integration, and advanced U.S. standing in the world.”

It described some of their achievements and contributions, including:

  • 68 percent participate in the labor force (compared to 63 percent of the overall U.S. population);
  • 67 percent have naturalized;
  • 40 percent are married to U.S. citizens;
  • 10 percent are self-employed and have created jobs;
  • They achieved a median household income of $43,000.

The report was conceived and commissioned by Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Office of Migration and Refugee Services. It was released at a symposium hosted by the Georgetown University Human Rights Institute in Washington, D.C. To read the full report, click here.

Hostility Fuels the Migrant Crisis in the US

Anti-migrant attitudes have little to do with migrants themselves. The crisis is rooted in the factors of: trust, social disengagement, and political disaffection. To solve any crisis, a good place to start is to consider the factors in the crisis and experience those factors to come to understanding of the others’ reality. An excellent example of trying to understand and diffuse hostility occurred last week in the Catholic community of St. Ignatius, a Jesuit Parish in Baltimore, that organized a refugee camp simulation.

Speechless. Devastated. Moved. These were some of the feelings parishioners expressed after leaving Camp Peace, the Refugee Camp Simulation hosted by the Immigration Subcommittee on June 24. About 60 individuals and families participated. It included stations of the various aspects of life in a refugee camp: entry process, shelter, water, food, health services, and education. There was also a Detention Center Station, to which parishioners were diverted with little explanation which many refugees experience when they arrive in a new country and on a detention camp.

22.5 Million Refugees Live in Refugee Camps Around the World

Over 65 million people in the world are currently displaced, and 22.5 million of these are refugees in other countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. While some are relocated to new countries such as the United States, many must wait in various countries for long periods of time, expanding over decades and sometimes years, as I myself saw in Lebanon and Jordan.

Instead of the recommended 37 sq. ft. of space per person when camps become crowed, families of 4 sometimes live in spaces as cramped as 80 sq. ft. total. This means that they generally sleep sitting up, as there is not enough space for all family members to lie down on the blankets that are provided. Most camps are unable to provide the necessary 20 liters (5 gallons) of water per individual per day and refugees must carry this water themselves from the source to their dwellings in large buckets. These 5 gallons are used for consumption, cooking, cleaning and hygiene. By comparison, the average American uses approximately 300 gallons of water per day.

The migration of peoples is a reality that continues to grow and the challenges of migration are increasing. In order to respond to this globalization and to the magnitude of this phenomenon, it is essential to plan  responses that promote and show respect, charity, hospitality and generosity towards the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters.

We must do more for migrants

“We are encouraged by the national outcry railing against the cruel splintering of families at the border. The president recently ended the practice, but there is no system or even governmental will to reunite these traumatized families. Furthermore, the dehumanization of people who are seeking safety continues. Our country has a long history of vicious disregard for family bonds–let us not be seduced by a ‘lesser evil,’ a ‘solution’ that is better than what was happening but that remains immoral. Let us demand more; we have an opportunity to move from a callous history of colonialism and individualism to a new vision of whom we can be as a country. Making room for, and welcoming with grace, those who need a safe place may impact our comfortable spaces, but it is what we must do, what we are called to do, not just as Christians, but simply as human beings,” (“Philadelphia Inquirer editor” – Sunday  July 1, 2018).

We can DO more day by day

  • Be choosing 2 or 3 credible sources to follow regularly to deepen your understanding of the changing realities of migrants and refugees;
  • By raising awareness of refugee and migrant realities both in the US and the world and sharing those through your use of social media;
  • By calling legislators’ offices and voicing your support for policies that change the situation of migrants and refugees in a positive way;
  • By taking action to defend the rights of refugees when we see those rights violated e.g. separating families;
  • By using a model like the Jesuit Catholic community in Baltimore to educate persons into the realities of migrants and refugees;

By joining in prayer as we contemplate the call of Jesus today to welcome the foreigner, “for just as you did it for one of the least of these, you did it for Me,” (Matthew 25: 40).

Climate Change Refugees

Floods. Droughts. Hurricanes. Tornados. Mudslides. Volcanic Eruptions. Tsunamis. These natural disasters seem to becoming more and more frequent and causing more and more harm to the towns, cities, states, and nations they affect.

Climate change. It’s a real issue. And it is a catalyst for more issues including migration.

It may be impossible to reverse climate change, however, failing to stop it will force tens of millions of people from their homes.

For example, the Middle East and Africa experienced the worst draught in 900 years. Many farmers lost their crops, their livestock, and the livelihood. Not all refugees from this area are fleeing from war, some are fleeing from climate change.

In contrast, the United States experienced many devastating hurricanes and floods this past year. Families lost their homes, businesses lost their offices, and people lost their loved ones.

Experts, statistics, and common sense are all in agreement–as the impacts of climate change increase, so too will the number of global refugees.

“What we are talking about here is an existential threat to our civilisation in the longer term,” said US Military Corps Brigadier General Stephen A. Cheney. “In the short term, it carries all sorts of risks as well and it requires a human response on a scale that has never been achieved before.”

So what do we do?

The short answer–stop climate change. Much easier said than done. And can’t be done over night. In the meantime, countries have set up an initiative on climate risk insurance available in the most vulnerable areas of the world. This covers roughly 400 million individuals.

We continue to look for solutions to help end climate change and, therefore, limit climate change refugees.

You can read more about climate change refugees here.

Slavery Around the World

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again, modern slavery is an international issue! While some traffickers are working within the confines of a country, others are crossing borders every day. But, in one form of slavery or another (or, unfortunately, multiple forms), slavery is prevalent in every single country throughout the world.

Every year, the U.S. State Department investigates countries for its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. In 2017, 23 countries were classified as Tier 3 countries, meaning they “do not fully meet the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.” What are these countries? Maybe not-surprisingly, they include Russia, China, Iran, Belarus, and Venezuela. You can read the report and access the full listing of countries here.

This classification does not imply that trafficking exists only in these countries. Additionally, there are different types of trafficking that are most prevalent in different areas of the world. For example, in India, forced marriage or becoming a “slave bride” is a main concern for young girls. This stems from sex-selective abortions in which male babies were preferred, creating one of the most severe gender imbalances in the world. Read more here.

In North Korea, workers are shipped to China to process seafood that will be shipped to and sold in American homes and restaurants. These workers have no privacy, no access to telephones or email, and cannot leave the compounds without permission. They receive a fraction of their owed salaries, and it is taken from them by the North Korean government. Read more here.

Similarly, girls from Eastern Asia are smuggled to Myanmar to work as maids (read more here) while African girls are fleeing from their home countries to be forced into sex slavery. Specifically, often into Chad where girls become “ghost girls” with no way out. Read more here.

Girls in South American countries don’t always have it any better. El Salvador, being riddled with gang violence, is seeing female-only gangs. Girls feel forced to enter a gang to protect themselves but instead, are stripped of all of their freedom. This is due in part by the high number of femicides (gender-motivated killing of women), most of which are never prosecuted. Read more here.

In Kyrgyzstan, domestic violence runs rampant. Due to the level of cultural acceptance of abuse of women, the country has an extremely high number of women in jail for murder, specifically for murder of their husbands. Read more here.

First-world countries are not exempt from these horrors. In Britain, labor slaves are tricked in to working 12+ hour days at hand carwashes. They end up trapped in debt bondage, unable to escape their captors. Read more here.

This is not an exhaustive list. Instead, it should be seen as evidence that modern slavery is everywhere and it manifests in different forms. Even in countries classified in the TIP report as Tier 1 countries, such as the United States, Israel, Colombia, Taiwan, and Belgium, there exists a level of modern slavery, despite laws to combat it. In fact, Britain is considered a Tier 1.

So, what must be done? We must work together, internationally, to create a safe place for migrants and victims of human trafficking. We must work together to create laws against human traffickers and smugglers. We must work together to end modern slavery for good.

Fleeing from the Northern Triangle

I’ve written before about my experience with those who are fleeing from the Northern Triangle. This trek is a question of life and death. It used to be that these people were coming to America to achieve the “American Dream.” Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case. Now, these people are coming to America to escape violence, gangs, cartels, and a cycle of poverty.

According to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), in 2016 alone, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol at the Mexican-American border stopped almost 47,000 unaccompanied minors and more than 70,000 family units fleeing from the Northern Triangle.

In order to serve this vulnerable population, we must be creative. Currently in San Antonio, when migrants are released from the Dilley and Karnes detention centers, Sister Denise LaRock, D.C., and others with the Interfaith Welcome Coalition and RAICES accompany them to the bus station where they will begin their journey across the United States to join family members and/or sponsors. Bags with food, toiletries, blankets, and other necessities are given to these migrants to help them on their journey. However, the most important thing the refugees receive is a white piece of paper. That white piece of paper has a map of the United States on one side and their travel information on the other.

Click here to read more about the work being done to help these migrants