Example of Trafficking Education Workshops

My goal for the Office of Migration and Modern Slavery is to educate the public about the issues surrounding human trafficking and migrants. Recently, I received a reflection written by Sister Teresa Daly, D.C., informing me of action items that she and others have implemented to learn more on human trafficking. Her example follows.

“We thank God everyday for the wonderful ISP (Ignatian Spirituality Project) team we have here in New Orleans. Together, we facilitate retreats for the women from the Grace House and other entities that provide recovery programs for women suffering from drug and alcohol addiction.

“For some of us, the topic of modern slavery has been on our minds and hearts for awhile.

“Our ISP team decided to sponsor a workshop on anti-trafficking and invited individuals who have also expressed an interest in this topic as well as a very knowledgeable speaker to address the group. Debbie Shjnskie, Director of the Archdiocesan Office of Respect Life, is helping us to focus a bit on this area. Our desire was to learn more and to deal with some questions such as: How do we know to suspect that someone might be being trafficked? What can we do if this is the case?

“All of us in attendance left this experience more aware and somewhat overwhelmed by the reality that trafficking is in our own society. We thought we need to learn more. This was the start of the idea to hold a day-long seminary on human trafficking that will take place in New Orleans on March 3. Our goal is to raise our own consciousness and awareness of this reality in order to do so for others too.

“As we continue with the ISP retreat program, we continue with hearts aware of this suffering in the lives of many and of our desire to include the victims and perpetrators in prayer.”

It encourages me to see others being proactive and learning more about these important issues. Please feel free to share with me what you have done or plan to do!

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

Continental Network Against Modern Slavery

In August, I attended the Seminario Continental Against Human Trafficking organized by Confederation of Latin American Religious (CLAR) in Bogota, Colombia. Seventeen Daughters of Charity from all different provinces of the Americas attended the seminar.

During our time together, we talked about awareness and the importance of the dignity of the human person. The main objective was to strengthen our networks for the defense of every life.

The dynamics led us to move from a global understanding of the phenomenon of trafficking, especially from the perspective of migration, to a biblical reflection to continue to reframe our different charisms around a new axis given by the cries of life and of the poor.

Following this conference, the Daughters of Charity Intercontinental Commission on Modern Slavery met at the Provincial House in Bogota to revise and complete the study we initiated in February 2016. This study came about after our General Assembly where we were encouraged to “share commitments to ending modern forms of slavery.” We were also encouraged to choose concrete commitment to ending modern slavery in each of our provinces, to increase networking, and to go out to the peripheries and to difficult areas.

Through a process of small and large group discussions, our ideas and plans were developed into a draft document. The document included specific content across three detailed areas: structure & communication, formation, and action & collaboration.

Each member shared with the group a couple specific points from the Seminario Continental Against Human Trafficking that stood out as being important to include in our present work against trafficking and for migrants.

The dynamics of welcoming, protecting, promoting, and integrating forced us to think strategically about new ways of acting against Human Trafficking and how to accompany migrants. We focused on how we could work together and with other groups to reach our goal as this is a collaborative problem that will require many individuals.

My Time in Palenque

During my time in Palenque, a city in the southern part of Mexico, I visited one of the shelters for migrants run by the Daughters of Charity of the Province of Mexico. The needs of the individuals they serve was immediately clear.

Palenque, located some miles from the Guatemalan border, is on the route for immigrants fleeing from the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Many of these refugees are traveling with the goal of reaching the United States. To do so, they must ride on the notorious Mexican freight trains, collectively known as “La Bestia” or The Beast. These machines have taken the limbs and lives of countless hopeful migrants. While the exact number is unknown, it is estimated that some 60,000 adults and children have died or gone missing along this route in the past couple of years.

In addition to the physical risks of the journey, the Mexican government has placed dozens of temporary immigration checkpoints in the Southern State of Chiapas to complement the large permanent checkpoints and detention facilities of the area. In this way, the Mexican southern border resembles that of the United States.

The Daughters of Charity living in Palenque run “La Casa del Caminante” (which translates to the House of the Walker), a shelter that welcomes refugees along this path. The shelter welcomes an average of 120 migrants each day, many arriving via La Bestia. Others arrive on foot, seeking a place to rest while waiting to board La Bestia.

Each of these refugees is physically exhausted and in desperate need of rest, food, and often healthcare. Between riding on top of La Bestia and walking miles at a time, they have been traveling day and night, sometimes for weeks. Many have nothing but the clothes on their back and their feet are almost always covered in blood. Not only are they seeking food and a place to rest, but they are in need of medical care and shoes.

While the majority of those arriving at the shelter are many, the Sisters also see many young women. Often these women are pregnant after being raped earlier in their route. Just yesterday, a family of five arrived in need of food and care. They are the lucky ones who are still traveling together, yet to be separated.

After my visit with these Sisters and those they help, I realized more than ever before, the struggles of these migrants. Truly, my heart is still in Palenque with them.

San Antonio Tragedy

Early yesterday morning, 38 individuals were found dead or near death in a big rig trailer parked in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio, Texas. They were discovered by an employee after a man had approached him begging for water. Thirty of these individuals were taken to nearby hospitals in critical condition with signs of heat stroke and dehydration after being locked in the trailer without water or air conditioning in the crippling 100+ degree heat. The other eight were found dead on the scene. A ninth and tenth died after arriving at the hospital.

The number of individuals who had already been taken from the trailer is unknown. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus stated, “Checking the video, there were a number of vehicles that came and picked up other people who were in that trailer.”

These individuals–all of whom were between the ages of 15 and 40–were victims of human trafficking. An investigation is underway to confirm the nationalities of these individuals, but it is suspected they may be immigrants entering from Mexico. The origin of the truck is still undetermined.

This isn’t the first time in recent months that a similar situation has been discovered along the US/Mexico border. In fact, earlier this month, Border Patrol found 72 Latin Americans in a trailer and 44 other individuals in the same situation in June.

With the recent emphasis being placed on reducing the number of immigrants living in the country illegally, raids on suspected illegal immigrants have become more frequent. These are the same policies making it more likely to make it more difficult to prevent, identify, and stop human trafficking. This is due to immigrants being fearful to approach law enforcement, despite San Antonio’s policy of not asking about the immigration status of those with whom they come in contact.

A vigil was held to honor the victims of this horrific tragedy. The Interfaith Welcome Coalition and RAICES were present alongside other agencies involved in immigrant rights and Daughters of Charity living in San Antonio.

Since hearing about this incident, I am deeply shocked about what I’ve read. How can we treat other human beings this way? These migrants were likely fleeing violence, gangs, and cartels in their countries of origin, desperate enough to be smuggled into the United States. Please join me in praying for them and their loved ones.

You can read more and keep up with the multiagency investigation here.

Tornillo: America’s Newest Tent City

Tornillo, Texas is a city located 35 miles east of El Paso on the Guadalupe pass. It is home to one of the newest “tent cities” in America, opening in November 2016.

A tent city is a temporary processing center for immigrants entering into the United States. The need for this particular site was created by the large–and growing–number of migrants entering from the Mexican border. Most of these refugees are coming from Central America with a few arriving from Haiti and Brazil. While the majority are mothers along with their children, there are cases of fathers coming with children.

When Border Patrol picks up the migrants, they are bused to Tornillo. Here, the refugees are processed and given the opportunity to shower and put on clean clothes. They are given food, but no dietary restrictions are considered. For example, there is no alternative to milk if some happen to be lactose intolerant. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) eventually arrives and gives each migrant an ankle bracelet. Each individual is allowed to make a phone call to their family members, many of which are already in America. Everyone sleeps on a cot in one large tent guarded by armed guards. Within a day or so, the migrants are moved to more permanent sites in Philadelphia, Florida, San Antonio, or El Paso.

Many of the refugees come to the site in need of medical attention. Medcor staffs each temporary site, including Tornillo, with EMTs who work 12 hour shifts for 30 days straight. These EMTs are licensed to give only over-the-counter medicines to those who may be suffering. However, it is not uncommon for the migrants to need more than that. So, Medcor contracts with doctors and nurse practitioners, including Sister Doris Clippard, D.C.

“We mostly treat earaches, bronchitis, scabies, and gastroenteritis, but have also had some more complicated cases such as children with chicken pox or women who have been raped,” Sister Doris says. “If it is beyond our ability to care for them, the guards will take the migrant to the Emergency Room.”

While tent cities are a temporary situation, these refugees appreciate having a place to clean up, sleep, and receive medical treatment after the long trek from their homeland.

The Importance of Casa RAICES and the IWC

Night after night, staff and volunteers at Casa RAICES find themselves housing new individuals seeking asylum, sometimes adding up to more than 800 refugee children and mothers every month.

Why are so many people finding themselves here? Case RAICES is the place where thousands of families stay after being released from one of two nearby immigrant detention centers before traveling elsewhere, often to meet up with other family members or friends already in America. Many women and children spend weeks, sometimes months, in these centers after fleeing their homes, enduring months of migration, and seeking asylum from gang violence, domestic violence, or abuse back in their home countries.

Casa RAICES is a part of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition (IWC), an organization designed to help immigrants seeking asylum in the United States. The IWC was started by Kelly Allen who brought together churches and other groups who were interested in making a difference for these refugees. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) take women and their children from the detention centers to the bus stop and airport. When IWC learned that some of these families were staying overnight at the bus stations, volunteers began taking immigrants into their homes. Allen and the others quickly realized this wasn’t a temporary situation and, together with the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), formed Casa RAICES.

Casa RAICES is run by RAICES and receives support and volunteers from the IWC. Volunteers work day and night to make the immigrants feel welcome. “We really emphasize making them feel at home. They’re coming to us after being treated with disrespect on both sides of the border,” says Daughter of Charity, Sister Denise LaRock. “We try to do the little things like give them a hot meal and a made bed…But we also do bigger things like prepare backpacks with snacks, water, toiletries, coloring cooks, crayons, etc. for these women who are getting ready to travel up to two or three days or will have to sit at the bus station for a long time.”

Sister Denise LaRock, who has been serving with the IWC and Casa RAICES for roughly a year, recently received the Kelly Allen Service Award for her “gracious and willing spirit [which blesses] the IWC and the women and children she serves.”

“I love getting to spend time with families, playing with the children and preparing the women for their trip. I try to do what I can to put them at ease about their long journey ahead, including explaining to them how to use their bus ticket,” she says.

Read more about the IWCCasa RAICES, and the Kelly Allen Service Award.