Influx of asylum seekers strains resources near southern border

December 15, 2018

Respite centers seek volunteers, supplies and monetary donations


Facing a sudden surge in migrants arriving at their doors, faith-based nonprofits along the U.S.-Mexico border are scrambling for funds and volunteers to help them provide short-term housing, meals and clean clothes to the new arrivals.

Sr. Ann Scholz, SSND, associate director for social mission at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, recalled the "SOS" that was posted by sisters in El Paso, Texas, on the LCWR Google group dedicated to immigration.

"We received an SOS saying 'We are seeing a huge rise in immigrants being released from (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention,'" Sr. Scholz said.

In turn, the Leadership Conference helped get the word out to the leaders and social justice promoters at congregations of women religious across the country. The McAllen Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, which is run by Catholic Charities, also needed help. So did organizations affiliated with the religious congregations and the Catholic Church in San Benito, Texas; Tucson, Ariz.; and San Diego, Calif.

Despite the timing, the recent surge does not appear to be related to the migrant exodus that was making its way north, through Mexico toward the California border, prior to the November midterm elections in the U.S., Sr. Scholz said. At least not directly.

"So why now? Why these numbers? Who knows?" she said.

So far, more than 150 Catholic sisters have volunteered throughout the southwestern U.S. and congregations have contributed more than $280,000 to humanitarian aid for poor immigrants, Sr. Scholz said.

The money goes toward meeting the needs of those seeking shelter, including motel rooms to house some migrants and their families, food, medical care, supplies and in some cases travel support so immigrants can rejoin family as they await adjudication of their asylum cases.

Scene at the border
Assisting immigrants is not the primary mission for Mercy Ministries of Laredo. However, the organization does what it can to tend to the needs of immigrants facing deportation, said Sr. Maria Luisa Vera, RSM, the organization's president. So far, that includes providing clothing, phone cards and bus fare to immigrants with the help of a one-year, $10,000 grant from the Hilton Fund for Sisters. Women religious are in contact with immigrants who are being detained by immigration authorities. Some of the immigrants have been held for more than a year.

Like much of the U.S., she said, Laredo is divided between those who want to protect the borders and those wishing to show compassion to immigrants.

There are two large detention centers in Laredo. Sr. Vera recalled the distress of a woman who was separated from her 4-year-old son at the border and had been held in one of the detention centers for months. Her traumatized child was taken to Chicago, where he had stopped talking to anyone.

The sister in Texas assisting the mother asked the Sisters of Mercy in Chicago to assure the child of his mother's love. "The sisters told us that the child opened his mouth and screamed at the top of his lungs, 'I have no mother; she abandoned me,'" Sr. Vera said.

In El Paso, Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced in mid-October that unless service providers had housing, the migrants would be released from detention centers to the streets, said Sr. Buffy Boesen, SL, president of Loretto Academy, a school in El Paso.

Nazareth House in El Paso is one of the bustling shelters near the U.S.-Mexico border serving asylum seekers from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico. It is a satellite of Annunciation House. That Catholic nonprofit shelter in El Paso provides necessities to hundreds of migrants who have been processed and get released each day from Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers. It provides hospitality to children and parents who are reunited after having been separated by U.S. immigration authorities.

The shelters provide beds, meals, showers, clean clothes and a means for asylum seekers to reach out to family or friends in other parts of the U.S. before setting out on the next leg of their journey. Asylum seekers are given hearing dates at their destinations to make their case before an immigration judge. Many wear GPS ankle bracelets to track their movements.

Scene in Houston
Farther away from the border, in Houston, Sr. Rosanne Popp, CCVI, serves a distinctly different clientele at the CHRISTUS St. Mary's Clinic, where roughly 85 percent of the people they see are immigrants or first-generation Americans. Most are Central American, while others came to the U.S. from Mexico.

"Our role is ... OK, what happens when you get across the border and you get past Laredo or El Paso?" said Sr. Popp, a medical doctor who directs the clinic. "We're more at that sort of second layer of once they get across.

"We have no barriers to access" at St. Mary's Clinic, Sr. Popp said. "We don't require any paperwork, like proof of residence or income. We would like an ID if they have one (from anywhere) but not having one is not a barrier to access either." Many patients have more than one last name and may use different names on different forms. "That is almost a standing joke with us — we don't care what name you use, just don't change it. It makes finding medical records a nightmare."

The clinic sees about 80 patients a day. In addition to treating people for illnesses, the clinic also provides preventive health services, such as Pap smears, mammograms and screening for colon cancer. The clinic also provides nutrition services. There is a freestanding immunization clinic, where securing necessary vaccination records to avoid needless revaccinations can be a challenge. In one instance, a family brought in cell phone pictures of their child's vaccination records.

Sr. Popp said the clinic pays about one-third of its bills through what it collects from patients — its standard charge is $35. The remainder is covered by the CHRISTUS Foundation for HealthCare in Houston.

Despite the recent emphasis on the topic, immigration from Mexico and Central America has been an "ongoing event" in Texas for decades. Indeed, a recent report by the Pew Research Center found that the estimated number of immigrants without legal status living in the U.S. in 2016 had fallen to its lowest level in more than a decade. The report attributed the trend to a sharp decrease in the number of unauthorized entrants from Mexico.

Surges in the number of immigrants have followed major hurricanes or earthquakes in their native countries. More recently, people who show up at the clinic often speak of violence, particularly in Central America, according to Sr. Popp.

"I can't tell you how many people come and say, 'I can't even go back to my country to visit. It's too violent," she said. "Or, 'I came because they threatened to take my son and put him in a gang and if we didn't give them our son, he was going to kill us all.'"



Copyright © 2018 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.