In January, 2019, I responded to a request from our Province Leadership to help out at the border in El Paso. As you are aware, there has been a lot of news coverage about what is going on there. I would like to share with you about my experience there. One might think that everyone who goes to volunteer works at Annunciation House. Actually, Annunciation House is the administration center which began as a shelter for homeless and immigrants in 1978. Ruben Garcia is the administrator. Our Sr. Ida is a member of the Board.
At present, this house has expanded into 15 centers in El Paso. The Bishop of El Paso has turned the seminary over for immigrants; also many churches and convents have opened their doors. The shelter I was assigned to was a former nursing home for the Loreto Sisters. We had about 18 rooms which were filled every evening. Sometimes these 15 shelters aren’t enough so rooms in hotels are rented. It is important to note that no government assistance is received.
When I was there, the majority of immigrants were coming from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. A few also came from Cuba, Brazil and 1 from Africa. The Central American immigrants contract with large trucks or semi to get them to the border. One lady with 2 children told me she paid $6000 just to get to the border.
Once they cross the border, they are placed in detention centers in El Paso (large warehouses divided in sections by chicken wire) until they can meet with a lawyer. This could take 3-10 days. They sleep on mats on the floor with thermal blankets, receiving very little to eat while in detention, sometimes a frozen burrito once a day or a cup of soup.
Eventually they meet with a lawyer who fills in 3 forms:
The first form is filled with personal data and their number. The second contains the name and phone number of the receiving family – brother, sister, uncle or friend and information on what they must do when they arrive at their destination. Most of them were headed for FL, CA, NC, NY, WA or TX. The third form has information on the ICE office they will have to report to within 10 days on arriving at their destination. They are also given a list of pro-bono lawyers who can help them plead their case for asylum. All those who are coming in through El Paso have papers and are seeking asylum from the violence and gangs in their countries.
Before they leave from detention, a heavy GPS tracker is placed on the ankle of the head of the family (father or mother) – most of them are now coming as families. Once they have their papers and ankle bracelet, they are put on a bus and brought to one of the 15 shelters in El Paso, tired, hungry, sad and bedraggled. Between 500-600 are released daily. On arrival at a shelter, they get off the bus, line up, are counted by the ICE officers and turned over to us.
We immediately get to work with intake. We make a phone call to the receiving family assuring them that their family members are safe and can stay with us as long as necessary.
The receiving family is asked to buy their ticket on the bus or plane and inform us when transportation is arranged. We then give the immigrants clean clothes, sheets and towels, and give them an opportunity to shower. Rooms are assigned; most of the time two families shared a room. They are served three delicious meals a day that are provided and served by parishes and other groups in El Paso.
When confirmation of transportation is received, we take the immigrants to the airport or bus and say goodbye with many hugs, kisses and expressions of gratitude.
Soon another bus load arrives!I have often been asked what most impressed me. Many things!
-The number that comes in daily – a bus filled with 40-60 people daily at each of the 15 centers.
-The solidarity, graciousness and generosity of the people of El Paso – churches of many denominations and other groups such as the Boy Scouts bring in and serve 3 meals a day
-The gratitude shown in many ways by the immigrants – helping us with the cleaning after meals and scrubbing the floors before they leave; their appreciation for being treated with dignity and respect. Several told me it was like “Paradise” being in the shelter.
–Sister Pat Vanden Bergh