By Sister Evelyn Lobo, SSpS
“Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” Genesis 12:1
Catholic Charities USA requested of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) for sisters to volunteer at Catholic Charities border sites in California, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. They were responding to the huge numbers of unaccompanied migrant children and families crossing the southern border. Of these, Laredo, McAllen, Tucson, Yuma, San Antonio and San Diego faced significant numbers of arrivals and the challenges of caring for the many families and children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 250 sisters responded to help with this emergency situation.
Thousands of people from northern Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) and other regions (Cuba, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti, Jamaica) and others are leaving their homes to seek asylum in United States because of violence, persecution, climate change, rising poverty, dangers to their lives and COVID-19. Seeking asylum is legal under both domestic and international law — even during a pandemic. People arriving at the U.S. border have the right to request asylum without being criminalized, turned back to danger or separated from their families (See International Rescue Committee.)
On arriving at the US-Mexico border, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement grants migrants temporary asylum papers. They are then dropped off at one of the humanitarian respite centers, like La Frontera Shelter in Laredo, a transitional shelter where I ministered. Every day we met 30 to 80 families: single mothers, single fathers and parents with children (< 5 years old) and a few single women, men and pregnant women.
La Frontera Shelter serves as a last stop before migrants reunite with their sponsoring family member or friends. They are in our care from a few hours up to two to three days. The only thing they carry are the temporary asylum papers — no shoe laces, no hair clips/bands, nothing except for the clothes they are wearing and the shoes. Yet they are filled with joy, relief, hope. They are in the U.S. with documents, in the care of the people of the church, and they will soon be with their husband, mother, father, brother or sister. All of us do everything we can possibly do and give our best.
At the shelter, they receive a mask, bottled water and test for COVID 19. They are registered and assisted with getting in touch with their sponsors to purchase their travel tickets. They are offered a change of clothing, shoes, personal hygiene products, showers, warm meals, drinks, baby food, diapers, a bed to sleep in, a travel snack bag, and rides to the money exchange office and bus stations to purchase tickets. Often, I accompanied them on their way to the airport or bus station, where we exchanged our goodbyes and final words, a blessing (Qué Dios les bendiga — May God bless you).
Once again, they resume their journey and continue their travels to an unfamiliar, unknown, unpredictable perhaps unwelcome life in United States. Will they find life? So far on their journey, they have been misled, lied to, taken advantage of, robbed, exposed to the hazardous roads and in some cases, raped or kidnapped for ransom. Yet they travel in faith and hope. When they began they journey, they knew their chances of making it to the other side were slim. In the end they may be deported. None of these discourage them from traveling on. They continue to travel, trusting, hoping and placing their lives and the lives of their children in God’s hands.
I began my journey going to a place I had never been to or knew anyone (except Becky Soldano, the executive director). Each day was unique. Each day was hot. Each day was intense, demanding. Each day was an opportunity to be a blessing. Every moment was an invitation. What more could we be and do for the journey? All was grace. I felt at home with the staff of Catholic Charities, local volunteers, religious sisters, the bishop of Laredo and the asylum seekers. We cared deeply for each other and looked after each other. We were one family of the Divine Creator.
The words of Fr. Greg Boyle (founder, Homeboy Industries) best describe my time at La Frontera Shelter located at the Laredo-Nuevo Laredo border:
“We can’t save anyone. We can only show up with them and be transformed by the encounter. We are invited to stand at the margins so that the margins can get erased. You don’t go there to make a difference, you go to the margins so the folks make YOU different.”
I hope you find me different, as I sure do. Solace of Migrants, pray for us.
This story is reprinted here through the permission of Sister Evelyn Lobo, Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters.