Recently, I was helping at the Catholic Relief Service’s Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, caring for anywhere from 350 to 700 new asylum seekers each day. All are families with children, no singles unless they are minors, and they all have sponsors—a family member, friend, relative or church group. They are brought to the center by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) each day. They have to confess that they entered the country illegally. The male of the family will have an ankle bracelet attached to him, and he and his family will eventually have to appear at a court hearing for asylum sometime in the future. Most likely the majority will not be granted asylum since they have no way of proving that they were victims of gangs or were unable to provide for their families back home. While with their sponsors, they will not be able to travel more than 17 miles from their residence.
The center feeds them (volunteers from the Presbyterian Church cook lunch and supper seven days a week), gives them clean clothes, provides them with showers and contacts their sponsors in the United States and then arranges bus tickets (paid by the sponsor) to get them to their destination. The last bus out is at 11 p.m. Normally there are a couple hundred migrants who have to spend the night at the center, sleeping on mats.
We had 17 volunteers who came down from Seattle. There are volunteers who also come from other areas of the country. Some, like us, are there for a week; others for a few months. One man, from the latter group, celebrated his 91st birthday recently. He works with five other volunteers making four sandwiches for each migrant to take on the bus. That amounts to 1,400 to 2,800 sandwiches!
Another volunteer in his 60s works at the bus station directing people to their buses. His doctor told him recently that he has cancer throughout his body and they cannot do anything for him. He has been given three to six months to live. He said he would rather be working at the center than just sitting home contemplating his death.
There are all sorts of jobs that have to be done. Volunteers are needed to sort donations of clothing, backpacks, hygiene items, toothpaste, razors, shoelaces (ICE removes all shoelaces and doesn’t give them back). Jackets are kept separate and only given to those who are headed to cold areas of the country as they leave for the buses. Lots of cleaning needs to be done: washing tables, floors, showers, toilets and towels.
When we arrived, the first request made was for three volunteers to clean the toilets, which had not been cleaned for three days. I figured I would be capable of doing that, so I joined a 79-year-old man and a 70-year-old woman on that job. I must admit the first cleaning was a little rough, especially when one of the men’s toilets wouldn’t drain and was full to the brim. But once the initial cleaning, using a power hose, was done, it was a rather easy job maintaining the facilities throughout the day and reloading the commercial-sized paper rolls.
Once everything was clean, the three of us ended up in the laundry room. Thankfully they had a large commercial washer that did a ton of towels per load. (A second washer was broken.) However they did have two large commercial dryers so we were able to speed up the drying process as each wet load was divided between the two dryers.
God, is good. The three of us benefited greatly having this assignment. While waiting for the drying cycle to end, after rolling up the towels and stacking them into baskets and keeping the shower area supplied with clean towels and picking up the used ones, we were able to sit down for a good 10 minutes each hour. All the other volunteers were on their feet throughout the day. There was so much laughter and singing in the laundry room, that others started to refer to us as “The Three Stooges.”
The migrants here were trying to enter the United States legally but because of present regulations, only about 30 people get into the country legally at every Customs-controlled border crossing, while thousands are being held in detention centers on the other side of the border. Those entering are mostly Central Americans.
What happens is that people are forced to find spots to cross over where there are no Customs controls. The Border Patrol Police pick them up. One volunteer is a retired cop and he got talking to these officers. They told him they do not go riding around trying to find migrants, rather they go to a designated site and open the bus doors and the people cross over and climb into the bus. From there, they take the migrants to ICE and because of the restrictions on children and keeping families together, they process them, get confirmation of sponsors and then send them over to the respite center.
The center occupies a former nursing home. Some neighbors objected to the presence of migrants in their neighborhood. The city listened to them and has given Sister Norma, the CRS director of the program, a 90-day notice to move. On our last day, word was out that Sister Norma found a building across the street from the bus terminal that the mayor and city council have sanctioned and supported. Some renovations will have to be made.
All in all it was a terrific experience. I have to admit it was exhausting but happy exhaustion.
Featured Image:A migrant child sleeps while he is carried by a family member in 2018 as part of a caravan heading to the U.S. walks in Tijuana, Mexico, along the U.S.-Mexico border fence. (CNS photo/Leah Millis, Reuters)