Let’s Not Forget about Migrant Families
While campaigns intensified leading up to the United States off-year election on November 5, lawn signs for and against public office candidates proliferated across the country. Rockland county was no exception, displaying a wide array of political endorsements that seemed to sprinkle nearly every household in sight. Dominican Convent in Sparkill placed its own lawn sign, albeit one that neither supports nor disparages any candidates. It simply reads, “We Stand with Immigrants & Refugees.” Part of the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s Campaign for Hospitality, the sign echoes Sparkill Dominicans’ heartfelt position on thousands of our immigrant brothers and sisters. While news media focuses on the results of elections, migrant families’ suffering endures as they continue to flee violence, poverty, and persecution in their countries.
With ongoing changes to immigration policies, clarity on the future of migrant families reaching the U.S. has become increasingly elusive. Back in May of this year, the Border Patrol was transporting hundreds of sponsored migrants in detention centers to border shelters, such as La Frontera in Laredo, Texas. Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Laredo had opened the shelter in response to a Border Patrol announcement that immigrants in detention centers would be released to the streets. After their long and perilous journey, which could last anywhere from several weeks to months, immigrants arriving at the shelter were provided with showers, clothing, meals, a place to rest, and a backpack with water and some food before they boarded a bus that would take them to their host families from across the country, where they would await their asylum request court hearing.
Dominican Sisters from various congregations volunteered to assist at the shelter with the many tasks at hand—managing the intake process,
conducting health screenings, cleaning, sorting out and washing donated clothes, preparing meals. Among those who responded to the call for volunteers were Sparkill Dominican Sisters Marilyn Dunn, Valorie Lordi, and Margo Saich. While they were there, July 1-9, the influx of immigrants was consistently high. On July 8, La Frontera’s local administrator Joe Barron posted on the shelter’s Facebook page, “We see miracles every day at the Diocese of Laredo Shelter.. Today we had set up a room for Sunday Mass..The room sits 40 people, WE HAD OVER A HUNDRED PEOPLE IN TWO ROOMS, STAND ROOM ONLY! VERY HUMBLE PEOPLE PRAYING. THANK YOU GOD!! AND THANK YOU TO EVERYONE THAT HELPS IN ANYWAY!!!” Unbeknownst to Mr. Barron and the shelter volunteers at the time, the longed-for respite that La Frontera offered to immigrants would be short-lived.
l-r, Sisters Marilyn Dunn, Margo Saich and Valorie Lordi.
By mid-August, the number of immigrants showing up at the shelter had dwindled considerably, then it stopped altogether. Sister Veronica Mendez, RCD, of the Sisters of our Lady of Christian Doctrine in Nyack, NY, had also volunteered to assist at La Frontera. She arrived in Laredo on August 20 only to find out that there were no immigrants at the shelter. “I was one of eight volunteers who had just come from New York and Missouri. We cleaned, did a lot of laundry, and organized both clothing and food items anticipating the arrival of immigrants. We wanted to make sure that everything for them was clean—sheets, showers, clothes—which would have felt like Heaven for them, after the ordeal they had to go through before arriving at the shelter. But days went by and there was no sign of immigrants. I wondered what God had to say about this turn of events and asked myself, ‘Should I go home?’ But, somehow, I got caught in the ‘maybe tomorrow they will come.’ They didn’t.”
Beds at La Frontera shelter's guest room have not
been occupied since August. Foto courtesy of
Adrian Dominican Sisters.
Mr. Barron broke the heart-wrenching news to the Sparkill Dominican Sisters, “We are now down to zero.” The asylum process, which previously had allowed immigrants to enter the U.S. while their cases were pending, changed. Policies such as the Migrant Protection Protocols (M.P.P.), also known
as Remain in Mexico, now requires that asylum seekers be given court dates at the ports of entry and sent back to Mexico to wait for a hearing that could be months away. Concerns that sending immigrants back to Mexico exposes them to some of the dangers they fled in the first place have been compounded by claims of asylum denial without a hearing, as reported by the Kino Border Initiative.
For the Sparkill Dominican Sisters who volunteered in Laredo, the news of desolation at the La Frontera shelter, which was alive with hope when they visited the border, brought back bittersweet memories of their encounters with immigrants.
“In truth I tell you, anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)
Sister Margo wanted to go to the Border to let families know that there are people who care for them. “If our small acts of support gave even one person hope, our trip was a success,” she said. A child at the shelter validated Sister Margo’s purpose spontaneously calling her “abuelita,” the Spanish-language diminutive of “abuela” (grandmother). A term of endearment in Latin American countries, “abuelita” conveys utmost trust and affection. “Abuelas” are loved, “abuelitas” are revered. After weeks of sensing her parents’ fear and anguish, seeing unfriendly faces, and listening to harsh voices on the journey to Laredo, an immigrant child’s generous heart remained open to give a stranger a title reserved for a family member that embodies ultimate kindness, nurturing, and protection.
Sister Margo recalls how, as they boarded the buses that would take them to their sponsor families, migrant parents would prompt their children to thank the volunteers, “Children would not just say ‘thank you,’ they would hug us.”
“The first time I had to present my defense, no one came into court to support me. Every one of them deserted me— may they not be held accountable for it.” (2 Timothy 4:16)
A trained nurse practitioner, Sister Marilyn conducted health screenings for immigrants arriving at La Frontera. Many of them exhibited unwellness mostly due to exhaustion, hunger, dehydration, stress, and fear. Having spent weeks without access to showers,they were painfully aware of the offensive smell they emanated, and visibly embarrassed. Regardless of the devastating circumstances they faced in their countries, immigrants had access to the minimal dignity that cleanliness affords, even if some of them had to bathe in a river and wash their only set of clothes each day. Presenting themselves filthy to strangers only reinforced their fears of rejection.
One of Sister Marilyn’s greatest satisfactions while at the shelter was witnessing the glimpse of confidence that surfaced among immigrants once they took showers and wore clean clothes again, yet she wondered about what their lives would be like after they left the shelter. Forsaken by their own countries, immigrants are pretty much alone in the U.S. as well. “Abandonment looms as the cover-all word to describe their plight,” Sister Marilyn noted. “Love, love, and more love is needed.”
“That there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12:25-26)
Sister Valorie heard stories of survival from immigrants at La Frontera who suffered acts of violence on their journey to the border. Women in particular are vulnerable, and cases of rape have been documented. Sister Valorie asked some of them how they could endure the fear of aggression and even becoming a victim. They credited Our Lady of Guadalupe with carrying them through. “They are Catholics,” Sister Valorie said. “We belong to the same Church and share the same Mother.”
Sister Valorie noted that, as they emerge from the ordeal of getting to the border,
immigrants are arrested and stripped of their possessions. “Even their shoelaces are taken away under the presumption that they will use them to strangle themselves or others,” she recalls. “Once they left the detention center and arrived at the shelter, they were provided with clean clothes. When we also presented them with new shoelaces and prompted them to pick a color, they looked at us in disbelief and shyly took a pair. It dawned on us that, for the duration of their journey into the U.S., their lives had been under the total control of strangers. The seemingly insignificant option to express a color preference gave them a say in their own lives. What they thought about something mattered to someone. They felt human again.”
“Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:39)
Sister Valorie’s 19-year old niece, Fiona Kyle, accompanied her to Laredo. She wanted to see first-hand what the news media had been reporting on immigrants at the border, and remarked that she wasn’t concerned with politics or the “illegal” vs. “legal” distinctions, but with fellow human beings who are being terrorized by cartels in their countries. Fiona was horrified to learn that some immigrants have seen their children murdered. “They sell everything they own to escape, attempting to save their other children and family, risking extortion, rape, and disease to come to the U.S.,” she said.
Fiona questioned how we, as Christians, treat immigrants when they seek our help in their time of need. She was encouraged by what she saw at the shelter, but she was also outraged. “We give millions to athletes and performers for our entertainment, yet we are miserly at some immigrant detention centers—freezing rooms, lack of basic hygiene items, immigrant children taken to separate rooms from their parents without explanation…. My heart aches and I am crying this morning…. These people are qualified to seek asylum in our country under “credible fear” status. They show such grace and humbleness. Please let’s worry more about them, instead of spending hours online commenting on tweets and posting articles.”
While the national discourse continues to revolve around the U.S. immigration system’s complexities, Fiona’s proposed litmus test for Christians’ treatment of immigrants is quite straightforward— we just have to ask ourselves, “Would Jesus do this?”
NOTE: Immigrant families gave permission to use their photos.
They want their stories told.
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