Having spent only two weeks in El Paso at the border and by no means an expert on the historical or political underlying events that have led to what is now a crisis of humanity, I am sharing this brief reflection on where my heart is at this time. I am back in Boston now for less than one week and am still trying to unpack all of what I saw, and especially what I felt and still feel about the trip.
As background, the crisis at the border in El Paso, as I now understand it, was precipitated when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency released roughly 400 immigrants who were stranded at El Paso’s Downtown Greyhound bus station late in the day on December 23, 2018. No notice of this release was given to city or county leaders. The local government was naturally unprepared and overwhelmed by this situation. The refugees themselves were just lost. Most, if not all, were non-English speaking, had little money and were carrying all their belongings in clear trash bags. They were also holding close to their hearts or bundled on their backs, their children, infants, and toddlers.
The mayor of El Paso was desperate to find help and reached out to a well-known Catholic justice activist living in El Paso, Ruben Garcia. Ruben immediately set out to contact every church and organization in the area as well as local business leaders, food distributors, and medical personnel. The response was tremendous and the outpouring of help and support on that December evening was remarkable. All the newly released refugees were fed, and most, but not all, were placed in temporary housing locations that night. Ever since that night, the mantra of Annunciation House has been that “No refugee will be left on the streets.” I would add to that statement that, “All refugees will be treated with great dignity, compassion, and love,” because that is what I experienced as a volunteer.
As you read in Joye Gros’ blogs, we prepared breakfasts and lunches and helped to find a change of clothing from bags and boxes of donations. We also made hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to send along with the refugees as they headed by bus, train or plane to their new homes in America.
Joye, JoAnna Magee, OPA, and I lived in El Convento, owned by the Sisters of Loretto. The convent housed women religious and associates from many congregations and communities from all over the United States. Although we were all serving in different centers and did not gather each day when we did meet it was a time to share our experiences good and not so good. Most days it seemed that we would be able to have a good laugh at ourselves and someone in the group would be able to share a really happy story about their ministry that day. One of the sisters dubbed us “The Sisters Gray Brigade.” And you know what? That was an honest description of who we were.
The other part of the story was told by the refugees themselves. They were held in detention cells with as many as 17 others, sleeping on the floor with only a blanket to cover them. They were given a glass jar to use for a toilet, and semi-defrosted burritos to eat. These men, women, and children were held in these conditions from 4 to 7 days before being released. While in the holding centers each adult was fitted with a very large ankle bracelet so that they could be located at any time. The bracelet was so big that many of the refugees had to cut the leg of their pants in order to change or remove their pants. Before leaving the border detention center, the refugees were warned not to remove the ankle bracelet. If they did, they would be arrested, deported and would never be allowed to enter the United States again. When questioned about how long they were to wear this bracelet, the answer was consistent, – “I don’t know.” I wondered as I watched them walk around the center with this large ankle bracelet if it was a deliberate way to make people they would meet along the way feel uncomfortable and cautious around them.
When the refugees were finally released from the border detention center, they were transported to our center in large white buses driven by a uniformed border guard and with a second armed border guard riding along with them. When they came off the busses, they were silent, queuing up and just waiting to be given directions as to where they should go and what they should do.
All of the refugees were tired-looking; the face of a group of people who had just been worn down. Many of the adults and children were not well. Colds and stomach issues were common. Several of the children came to the center with such high fevers that they were taken to the local children’s hospital for immediate treatment. Other children who were less seriously ill were seen by a local doctor who generously volunteered his services and fitted them into his office schedule. Thank God JoAnna Magee was with us. She helped so many who needed her expert nursing skills and was able to diagnose the case and advise what was needed to help people just to feel a little better. Headaches, sore throats, cuts, colds, and lines of waiting patients became her daily ministry.
To be honest with you, when I close my eyes, I can still see the faces of many of the hundreds of people I was honored to serve. I think once they knew that they were safe and would be going “home” to family, some of the anxiety and perhaps even the fear they felt, was somewhat diminished. At least that is my fervent prayer.
My struggle with what I saw and experienced remains with me because I deeply feel that our government leaders have by their actions, wounded the very integrity of what our country has always stood for. When people are seeking refuge from hatred, brutality, and political abuse, I believe we as Americans should not add to their suffering and fear but embrace them and hold out to them a hand of welcome and a promise of freedom. For me, I think it may take some time to be able to have the same depth of pride and the feeling of joy that I have had in being an American.
I know that immigration is only one issue among many urgent issues that must be examined in our country and in the world today. I am grateful to the Congregation that I have had the opportunity to begin to prayerfully reflect on one of these issues, the Immigration crisis.