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.

Massage Parlor Trafficking

In recent weeks, the media has focused a lot on the case of the New England Patriots owner, Robert Kraft, and the charged brought against him for soliciting sex from a prostitute. The charges were part of an investigation by several law enforcement agencies that ended in raids and multiple arrests connected to nearly a dozen businesses in the area.

According to Polaris, “Human trafficking in massage parlors is the second most common type of trafficking reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.” A study done by Polaris in 2018 showed that “there are more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses (IBMs) – fronts for selling commercial sex – spread across every state in the United States. For a sense of scale, consider that Starbucks now has approximately 8,222 company-operated stores in the United States.”

In order to recognize these businesses, one must know the signs that differentiate them from a legitimate massage therapy establishment. The following signs will help one to recognize an illegal massage business.

  • Advertised prices are significantly lower than below market level (for instance, $40 for a one-hour massage in a city where $80 is the norm).
  • There will often be a back or side entrance to the establishment where clients need to be buzzed in.
  • Often covered windows (or no windows at all) and excessive security cameras are present.
  • One may notice a steady flow of primarily male clientele at all hours of the day and night.
  • One rarely (or never) sees the workers leave the location.
  • One can Google the name and location of the business to check if it’s posting sexually-suggestive advertisements online.

The best way to end this form of human trafficking is to pass strong laws across the country that standardize regulations for the massage therapy industry. Presently, 46 states have some regulations for massage therapists, but often the business operation and ownership do not have to follow of set of regulations.

Click here to read more about massage parlor trafficking.

Click here to read an account of a victim of massage parlor trafficking.

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.

From Slavery to Freedom

Today, we celebrate the Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, patron saint of human trafficking survivors.

Josephine was born in 1869 in a small village in Darfur. While still a young girl, she was kidnapped by slave traders and sold into slavery.

For over a decade, she was bought and sold many times and endured horrendous experiences, including torture by her various owners. She suffered branding and beatings on many occasions. It is said that once, her owners cut her 114 times and poured salt in her wounds to make sure that the scars remained.

Her captors asked her name, but in her fear as a result of her trauma, she was unable to remember the name her parents had given her at birth. Mocking her, they named her “Bakhita,” which means “fortunate.”

In 1883, Josephine was eventually taken to Italy where she served a family as a maid. While there, she came to know the Canossian Sisters of Venice.

It was during Josephine’s time around the Canossian Sisters that she began to learn about God and Catholicism. This was an experience during which she learned about the Gospel.

At the age of 30, Josephine was baptized into the Catholic faith on January 9, 1890. She took the name Josephine Margaret. Jospehine’s warm demeanor persisted up until her death on February 8, 1947. Pope Saint John Paul II canonized her on October 1, 2000.

The Vincentian priests sponsored the cause to canonize Josephine Bakhita. Father Bill Sheldon, C.M. served as the Postulator General in Rome and worked on her cause during his tenure. He confirmed that there was an affiliation between the Canossian Daughters of Charity and the “Vincentian Family.”

Josephine held no bitterness toward her owners. In fact she once said, “If I were to meet the slave-traders who kidnapped me and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands, for if that did not happen, I would not be a Christian and Religious today.”

What Drives the Demand for Human Trafficking?

National Human Trafficking Awareness Day (January 11) to the Feast of St. Josephine Bakhita (February 8) is a month set aside for us to be more aware and pray for an end to human trafficking. It is a time to remember those who are vulnerable and more easily victimized–migrants, runaway youth, homeless youth, applicants for fake jobs in foreign places, etc. Usually trafficking is a crime against those who are disadvantaged and/or marginalized.

During this period of time, the Super Bowl, one of the largest and most publicized sporting events in the U.S., took place in Atlanta. According to the Urban Institute, Atlanta has the largest underground economy for commercial sex–including sex trafficking–in the country. Sexual exploitation of men, women, and children takes place in this city and in every corner of the world every single day.

While it is true that the demand for sex trafficking increases around events such as the Super Bowl, it is wrong to assume this is the ONLY reason for an increase in sex trafficking. Still, prior to the Super Bowl, there was an effort to make others aware of the dangers around human trafficking that arise when large groups (especially large groups of men) gather for such an event.

Another cause for an increase in demand of sex trafficking is pornography. Pornography production often involves the use of fraud, force, or coercion to prompt the performance of those being depicted. Additionally, traffickers often further exploit their victims by recording the acts which they perform and post these for commercial profit.

Often times, we think of trafficking as something very distant that doesn’t touch our lives. However, it is something that happens each day in the U.S. and it is up to us to be aware of this crime and report it to proper authorities. This requires learning the signs of trafficking.

Learning these signs is one of the easiest ways to help fight against this form of slavery. This fight starts with knowing what to look for and all it requires is for a person to be more vigilant and aware in their normal and everyday surroundings. Additionally, by teaching adults the signs of trafficking, studies show that we can help to prevent the progression of children being trafficked.



It’s common knowledge that human trafficking increases around the Super Bowl and other large events. (You can read more about that here.)

The #TackleDemand campaign is aiming to draw attention to this increase in demand and educate the public on the dangers of human trafficking as well as the warning signs and what to do if you suspect someone is being trafficked.

Use the hashtag #TackleDemand on your social media posts to get involved and help us fight human trafficking!

Click here to read more about the campaign.

National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month

In December 2016, President Barack Obama instituted January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. In his proclamation he stated, “Today, in too many places around the world – including right here in the United States – the injustice of modern slavery and human trafficking still tears at our social fabric.”

When thinking about Human Trafficking most people think of sex trafficking, however there are other ways that people are being bought and sold including forced labor, domestic servitude, organ harvesting, child soldiers and forced marriage. Millions of people throughout the world, including right here in the United States, are being forced into a life that is not of their choosing.

We must all raise our voices to shut down this billion-dollar industry! There are numerous actions that can be taken to help to increase public awareness and to stop this horrible injustice. Will you take the time to read and act?

  1. On Thursday, January 11th, participate in “The Blue Campaign by wearing a blue ribbon. Spread the word by distributing blue ribbons to others and taking a picture of yourself, your friends, family and co-workers wearing blue ribbons and post on social media with #WearBlueDay. Include a statement to explain the meaning of the ribbon and why you are participating.
  2. Go to the App Store and download:
    • TraffickCam App: Each time you travel, use the TraffickCam App to take pictures of your hotel room to add to the national database used by law enforcement to track places where trafficking is taking place.
    • The STOP App: Use the STOP app to report suspicious activity related to trafficking.
    • Sweat and Toil App: The Sweat & Toil app to learn how goods are produced and by whom.
  3. Visit Know The Chain to educate yourself about the risk of forced labor in the apparel, food, and technology industries.
  4. Check your state’s report card. States receive grades from A to F from Shared Hope International, which keeps a close eye on how each state meets certain criteria related to stopping human trafficking.
  5.  Save, post, and distribute the National Human Trafficking hotline number.
  6. When traveling, choose a hotel that has signed the Tourism Children Protection Code of Conduct sponsored by EPCAT-USA.
  7. Ask your church or organization to include an announcement in the bulletin (or elsewhere) regarding National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, noting that January 11th is “Wear Blue Day.” Encourage others to get involved in the movement to educate others by hosting workshops or presentations.
  8. Take the steps to learn more! Try these websites:

For additional tips to learn more about human trafficking, don’t hesitate to contact the Office of Migration & Modern Slavery!