[This Advent, I traveled to the border between the United States and Mexico. For two weeks, I served as a volunteer at a migrant shelter in El Paso. This post is the first of three installments that describe the grace I encountered there.]
The road to El Paso pushes through an arid region of tall yucca and thin grass. South of Carlsbad, a mountain range sawtooths the horizon like the snarl of an angry dog. The vast expanse is brown and brittle, a land of cactus and serpents.
I arrive at the migrant shelter after dark. It is housed in a former factory. A chain-link fence, topped with concertina wire, surrounds the parking lot. There is no apparent main entrance. I eventually locate a door with a security camera and am buzzed inside.
A young woman named Lillian welcomes me. I follow her through a maze of corridors and metal ramps to a central office where phones are ringing and people dressed in sweatpants and wearing ankle monitors wait in line with anxious looks on their faces
“Permiso.” Excuse us, we mutter, making our way to a door marked, Volunteers Only.
Lillian shows me to a room with a twin bed and folding chair. I toss my satchel on the floor then follow her to the comedor, the dining room, where I meet another volunteer, an elderly nun from Milwaukee.
Sister Mary Patrice is spooning leftover rice and beans into plastic containers. She seats me at a table and serves me a warmed-up supper. I ask her what to expect in the weeks ahead. She smiles and pulls up a chair.
“You’ll witness a lot of love,” she replies. She then describes a recent reunion between a father and his eighteen-year-old son which took place in the chapel. “They hugged so tight,” she says, her eyes glistening. “They cried and cried.” She pauses. “Then they knelt. The father lifted his arms in prayer. He was so relieved, so grateful.”
After supper, I explore the facility and come across the small room that serves as the chapel where the father and son were reunited. Battery-powered candles flicker next to artificial flowers. On the back wall, a mural of the Blessed Mother. Beneath her outstretched arms, a cluster of children gather within the folds of her mantle.
The migrant shelter where I am volunteering my services belongs to an organization called Annunciation House. Founded in 1978, it operates three shelters in El Paso, Texas, conducting its work in the light of Catholic social teaching. I will be working in the largest of the shelters, Casa del Refugiado, which has the capacity to house 500 people.
The current mission of Annunciation House is to provide humanitarian assistance to immigrants who have requested asylum at a legal point of entry into the United States.
U.S. law allows people who fear persecution or harm in their home country to apply for asylum. The persecution can be based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or being part of a particular social group.
Throughout each week, the Immigration Agency transports immigrants to Casa del Refugiado in groups ranging from 50 to 150. Prior to their arrival, the immigrants were housed in a processing facility where they were officially identified, fingerprinted and received criminal background checks. Before leaving the processing facility, they are issued ankle bracelets or cell phones to enable authorities to monitor their whereabouts until the time of their asylum hearing.
Upon arriving at Casa del Refugiado, the immigrants receive a clean set of clothes and a place to sleep, shower and eat. The staff at the shelter also assists the immigrants in contacting family members or sponsors already in the United States. The immigrants will reside with these families until their asylum hearing which usually takes place within two or three months. After the sponsoring families purchase airline or bus tickets for the immigrants, the shelter arranges for their transportation to the airport and bus stations.
During my time at Casa del Refugiado, 50 to 120 persons were housed at the shelter per night. The majority of guests leave as soon as they receive their ticket to the city of their sponsoring family. This means their stay with us lasts only a day or two.
I toss a filthy towel into a bucket of dirty water. “Huele malo!” It stinks out here!
Alberto rolls his eyes and nods. Behind him stretches a row of thirty port-a-johns lined against a stone wall. The disposal company hired to remove the sewage compartments is a day late.
The two of us have just finished cleaning the field showers donated by the Red Cross. Like the port-a-johns, the showers are located in an outdoor area next to the shelter’s dormitory. We stash our towels and buckets inside a clothing hamper and push it inside toward the laundry, passing teenage boys playing a game of soccer. Back inside the building, we skirt a make-shift classroom in a corner of the dorm where a presentation on immigration procedures is taking place.
Unlike most of our guests, Alberto has been at the shelter for two weeks. This is due to his lack of relatives in the United States. Despite his having documents granting him temporary residence here, the staff has not yet located a sponsor for him. Later on that day, in the course of folding laundry, Alberto tells me the reason he fled his home country. He speaks about increased political tension and how guerrillas are forcing men in his region to join their ranks. If they refuse, they will be murdered. I hear fear in his voice. He hopes to help his two sons escape before they reach adolescence and are also conscripted by the rebels.
Many of our guests are young men from Nicaragua or Venezuela. Others, including men, women and children, come from Cuba, Haiti, Colombia and Guatemala. It is during work details that I learn about their backgrounds and the dangers they face in their homelands.
The next day, two sets of brothers—all in their late teens or early twenties—relate circumstances similar to Alberto’s, except the death threats they received came from drug gangs instead of militias. Their words paint a picture of a place where kidnappings and extortion are a regular part of life.
Another young man arrived at the shelter with his sister, mother and father. He told me he would never go back there. “It is a brutal place,” he said. “If a you have a broken leg, they will break your other leg out of spite.” His father has served time in prison as a political dissident and the young man himself was being watched due to participating in public protests.
After hearing such stories, it was no surprise that each new group of guests, upon arriving at Casa del Refugiado and being welcomed to the United States, would break out in spontaneous applause.
A woman with a broken pair of glasses is seated at the back row of the departure room, awaiting the shuttle bus to the airport. I hand her a travel bag with a bottle of water, a ham-and-cheese sandwich and a few snacks.
“Adonde vas?” Where are you headed?
I notice a rash on her leg and ask if she suffers from an allergy. She shakes her head. “Espinas,” she replies . Thorns. She mentions that her journey began in Panama.
“Cuantos dias?” How long?
“Cinquenta y seis dias,” she replies. Fifty-six days.
I’m picturing thickets of prickly pear cactus in my mind when she reaches into a pocket and withdraws a piece of burlap and a photograph. She points to a picture of a teenage girl, her daughter.
“Lo hice por ella.” I did it for her.
She nudges the photograph aside. Stitched into the burlap, in colors of pink and blue, a verse from the Prophet Isaiah: Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you.
The shuttle soon arrives. I gather those present in the room for a prayer and blessing. At the conclusion of the Sign of the Cross, everyone smiles and cries Amen! Shouts of Muchas Gracias! fill the room and warm embraces take place at the door.
As the group scampers away, I feel a flow of tears on my face and slip into the chapel. Like the father reunited with his son, I raise my arms and thank God for the gift of fatherhood bestowed on me, unworthy servant and priest that I am.