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Immersed In Border Reality: So many desperately poor displaced people all at once

by Angel Valdez

Monica was a full-time Catholic Worker at Casa Juan Diego for two years. Her work now is with the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.

My recent firsthand glimpse of the reality on the border was a sobering shock to me. The vast movement of vulnerable poor, including so many thousands of children, is unlike anything I could have imagined taking place at the southern edge of our nation, even after having seen the large caravans trekking through Mexico on TV.

While the news media has done a good job of covering the scope of the situation, in the storm of info in which most of us swim these days, all those border crisis headlines, at least for me, had melded and blended with all the other alarm and cataclysm pumped out every day.

In understanding the dangers of our seemingly digital omniscience, Pope Francis has warned us many times against allowing the suffering of others, the poor and the Incarnation itself to become mere conceptual abstractions, or mere headlines among headlines. The border crisis was abstract to me. That concerned me.

So, I took a week off from work and drove from Houston to El Paso to volunteer with Annunciation House, which coordinates a network of non-profit shelters for immigrants and refugees. I was assigned to a new center with a 500-bed capacity that had been opened a little more than a week. Multitudes upon multitudes arrived, so many children in tow by women and bewildered men. We received anywhere from 150 to 200 per day, 300 the last day I was there. It was dreadful, awful to see so many desperately poor displaced people all at once, so many sick people, and many indigenous people whose vulnerability made me shudder.  There were never ending intakes and phone calling to connect people with loved ones, all the individual needs as well. It’s truly an incredible situation.

Aside from the limited photos in the news, the daily arrival of these thousands of migrant people to our country happens largely unseen by the residents of border communities because of places like Annunciation House. The ministry and dozens of churches in the area, and really along the whole Southern border, ensure no one is left to roam the streets.

These groups receive and help migrants apprehended and released by ICE because there is no place to hold families with children. They connect migrants with their families and sponsors, who then arrange travel to cities and towns all over the land. Most are gone from El Paso within 48 hours.

Astonishingly, in the streets and neighborhoods of this quiet city, there is scant evidence that since October of last year some 74,000 family units have been apprehended in the area, the greatest increase of any section of the southern border.

Those numbers, those abstractions, became flesh, blood and water to me the day I arrived at Annunciation House. ICE dropped off two buses of newly arrived migrants before my volunteer orientation had even finished, sweeping me off my feet in a torrent of urgency.  The week I was there we would receive nearly 1000 people. The week after I left, I read in the news that Annunciation House received 1000 in a single day.

That same morning of my first volunteer day, I offered to take the overnight shift, which meant sleeping in the enormous dormitory and being on call in the rare case of emergency. I would work 12 chaotic hours that day, assisting scores and scores of exhausted migrants and children. People needed medicine, food, phone calls, clothing.

Shuttles departed for airports and bus stations and ICE buses arrived sparking a flash flood of new faces, dialects, needs, names. The activity swirled and washed over me and through the warehouse like the Rio Grande, stripping everyone down.

By lights out at 10 p.m., there were several hundred staying the night. The cavernous dorm was still alive with movement and murmuring when I laid down in my cot, depleted. Babies and children cried, but in my exhaustion, I fell fast asleep.

by L. V. Diaz

Around 3 a.m., I awoke amid profound silence. I looked out over the dim room and the figures of God’s sleeping children. They were at peace. They were safe. We were all equal in our dignity, our fragility and need.  It occurred to me, though, that amid my slumbering companions, I was the only one who had been born in this land of plenty and order, but that my American citizenship was only an accident of my birth and I had done nothing to merit its privileges.  As such, I felt no pride in being American, sensing keenly the one eye with which God sees and loves us all.

These migrant people have the same rights to life and the goods of the earth as we do, as the Church says, and God wants the same for me and for all of them. I understood that clearly and that I and my countrymen who confess Christ as Lord bear the responsibility at this time to speak for them, to care for them and help them. For me, now, there is nothing abstract about that.

In Mass yesterday I was trying to recall individuals that I assisted, to see their faces again.  I could only remember a few, there were just too many, but God knows each completely, each sleeping, each wakening and the secrets in each heart, so I trust in his mercy for them all.

Houston Catholic Worker, July-September, 2019, Vol. XXXIX, No. 3.