CCUSA president and CEO recalls overwhelming experience at the border

April 15, 2021

Newspapers and TV news broadcasts are filled with stories about the situation at the Mexico-U.S. border and the record number of migrants coming to the United States. But Sister Donna Markham, OP, PhD, saw the situation first-hand April 8 when she visited Catholic Charities workers in El Centro, California, less than 20 miles from Mexicali, Mexico.

As President of Catholic Charities USA, Sister Donna traveled to El Centro, California, to get a sense of how things are going at the California-Mexico border and to support the Catholic Charities workers who are struggling to meet the needs of record numbers of migrants coming into the United States.

“The situation of the migrants is quite fluid – literally thousands pouring into the United States every day,” Sister Donna said. “All the border agencies, as well as the Customs Border Protection workers, are stretched to try to meet the demand as best they can.”

When they arrive in the United States, migrants are placed into detention centers until they can be processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Customs and Border Protection, Sister Donna explained. Normally, people should be in detention for only 72 hours, she said, but often they are detained for up to eight days or more in some places.

“The people I saw on Thursday had been in detention for eight to 10 days, sleeping on concrete with no access to showers and no way to change their clothes,” Sister Donna said. When released, they were sent to a respite site established by Catholic Charities San Diego.

Sister Donna visited one respite site established at a local hotel. Migrants who tested negative for COVID-19 were sent to one hotel while those who tested positive were sent to another to quarantine. “Catholic Charities has been able to negotiate the use of the hotels, and is receiving funding through the state and from the Emergency Food and Shelter Board,” Sister Donna said.

Once migrants arrive at the site and Catholic Charities workers have a sense of how to locate family or friends in the United States, the migrants have the opportunity to choose clean clothes and to check into a hotel room for showers and a place to sleep, Sister Donna explained. A local restaurant supplies meals.

“Just the experience of getting clean clothes and having a clean room with their families can be wonderful” after the time they spend traveling and then in the detention center, Sister Donna said. She noted that most of the migrants enter the United States at El Centro or to any Catholic Charities site along the border are traumatized – many fleeing situations of violence or poverty in their native countries. The focus is on helping the migrants get to their final destinations: family or friends in the United States.

The sites set up by Catholic Charities San Diego have room for several hundred families. The families stay for about two days to recover from their ordeal, Sister Donna said. Catholic Charities San Diego then provides them with bus or plane tickets to the cities of their family members or friends and transportation to the bus station or airport.

In addition, she added, the migrants are connected with the Catholic Charities agencies in the areas where they are going. “It makes all the difference in the world when you can send them to another part of the country and then connect them with Catholic Charities in that area,” Sister Donna said. “Even though they have relatives, they need legal help and access to various services. It’s a big operation.”

Looking back to her experience at the border, Sister Donna said it was emotionally draining. “There’s no way you can look at that degree of human suffering and not be affected by it,” she said. “My hat is off to the people in Catholic Charities who are doing this all the time, every day.” She said she spent much of her time letting Catholic Charities workers know how much their hard work is appreciated. “Each one of them is a walking saint. They reach out in compassion and respect,” she said.

Catholic Charities workers are not alone in their efforts to help the migrants. Sister Donna said close to 200 Sisters from various congregations have volunteered their services, as have volunteers from other walks of life. “The religious congregations have been extraordinary in both their outpouring of financial support and making it possible for Sisters who are willing and vaccinated to assist the migrants.”

Sister Donna said concerned people can help by volunteering to serve at the border or with financial donations to Catholic Charities USA or their local offices. “It’s also helpful for people to pray for the migrants because they are all traumatized,” she said.

[Article used with permission of Adrian Dominican Sisters.]

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