header icons

Immigrants at the Border and at Casa Juan Diego

by Angel Valdez

In February ICE started calling Casa Juan Diego each day asking about how many beds we have available for families. They had been expecting a growing number of families for whom they would need to find shelter, as family detention centers  closed and alternative plans made. The situation at the border has been changing daily as families hope to enter – but most are being refused at the border.

We recently welcomed a family who came walking up to our front door with a couple of duffel bags, speaking Portuguese.  They had been released from a family detention facility. After some conversations, we learned that their 22-year-old daughter had been separated from them  at the border. It was almost a month before we located the lost daughter in a detention center near Laredo and a few days later that a nonprofit on the border helped her to get in touch with her family.

Each week we have been receiving new families, some of whom are applying for asylum in the United States

The phone has been ringing with people saying they can be released from detention if they can find a place to go. Or they have been released and need a place.

Each family needs ESL classes, basic needs like toiletries, a bedroom prepared, sometimes a flight to be arranged to families or friends, tutoring help for children who have been out of school for several years, follow-up for ICE check-ins, and sometimes contact with non-profit lawyers for those who plan to stay in Houston.

Whenever an individual or family has contacts in other cities in the United States, we help them to travel. Otherwise, we would be overwhelmed.

Some people have come seeking help for burial of people who drowned in the Rio Grande.

Others have sought help for burial of Guatemalan relatives who died in the terrible crash near San Diego, California.

News reports of families sending their children alone across the border and the numbers of children here alone have alarmed everyone. Stories of the desperation of the families sending the children have been documented in the press. The stories have helped us understand that if relatives are trying to bring children to reunite with their parents already living in the United States and then the relatives are being deported, it would seem to the families that the only hope is to send the child alone.

How to Find the Children

A good starting point for parents seeking to find their children who have crossed the border alone is the Office of Refugee Resettlement National Call Center: 800 203-7001. WhatsApp also 800 203-7001.

Addressing the Problems

Problems of violence and poverty in Central America as well as two devastating hurricanes in Honduras and Guatemala have made life almost impossible there. Some who make it to Casa Juan Diego are people who have never had enough to survive well. A mother who arrived from Honduras told us her eight-year old had never gone to school.

What About the Desperate Deported?

As families continue to come to the border and are refused, those helping on the Mexican side of the border are overwhelmed. The MPP tents are no longer there, but there are so many whose hopes have been dashed and no longer even have tents.

The Hope Border Institute wrote, “Yesterday at his press conference President Biden said he is sending asylum seeking families to Mexico, a violation of human rights. These are human beings, like each of us. They need food, water and shoelaces, taken from them by Border Patrol. This is the inhumanity of Title 42.”

Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso tweeted on March 26: “What I witnessed today in Juarez were the families who had fled life-threatening situations in their home countries and who crossed our border seeking asylum, only to be flown from south Texas to El Paso and heartlessly pushed across the border with nothing—only their tears.”

Vida Nueva Digital España interviewed Bishop Jose Guadalupe Torres Campo of Juarez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso. He said, “Because of the human bottleneck at the border, many migrants are opting to try to cross in an illegal manner, but they are arrested and returned immediately to Mexico, “without the required process, without regard to their nationality and their needs of international protection.” Bishop Torres Campo pointed out that Catholic shelters are overwhelmed and also unable to respond to all the needs of the crowds because of measures to prevent COVID in the houses, “The shelters for migrants of the Catholic Church in Mexico have assumed the task of sheltering unaccompanied minors or families with children, “even with no support from the federal government, which has the direct responsibility.” Besides, he said, because of the difficulties, limitations, and health measures that the shelters have had to implement, there are no more available spaces, which makes it more possible that the migrants will fall into the hands of kidnappers.

Several decades ago Mark Zwick and I, together with a parish in Matamoros, started a house there for stranded migrants, also called Casa Juan Diego. The diocese has added another house there as well, where a priest from the Diocese of Matamoros coordinates services. Not only are there immigrants and refugees from many countries stranded at the border, but the poor of Mexican states like Chiapas and Guerrero have also been finding their way to the border. We are still assisting the house of hospitality in Matamoros, where the need is so great.

No Easy Solution

We understand the Vice-President Kamala Harris will be traveling to Central America to try to convince governments there to try to stop the flow of migrants. This will probably mean soldiers trying to keep despairing and distraught families from traveling.

It is important that the underlying causes of migration be addressed. Countries that have been devastated by two terrible hurricanes need a lot of rebuilding. Also, economies that have been undermined by unwise intervention on the part of the United States and global capitalism over the last several decades cannot be repaired overnight.

A new factor which has not even had a name until recently involves climate change migrants. The word refugee was defined during and after the Second World War and it relates to conflicts of war and persecution of groups. This definition covers some of the refugees who come to Casa Juan Diego. Its definition does not cover many whose lives are in danger, and it does not cover climate change migrants, who may be the largest group being uprooted around the world. Not only in Central America, but on other continents, droughts have destroyed livelihoods and severe storms have left people without homes or resources. It is crucial that more be done in the area of slowing down the human-made effects of climate change.

In the meantime, it is right and just that the United States assist those who are uprooted.

Houston Catholic Worker, April-June, Vol. XLI, No. 2