Volunteering on the border: Our trip to El Paso and Casa Del Refugiado

In Ciudad Juarez, migrants are forced to wait on the Mexican side for their turn to cross the bridge into El Paso to apply for asylum. – Photo: Paul Ratje, AFP

by Carole Seligman

My sister Wendy and I joined a group of 12 volunteers organized by social justice advocates at St. Agnes Catholic Church in San Francisco to travel to the border between El Paso and Cuidad Juarez. We volunteered from Oct. 5 to 13 at a shelter – Casa del Refugiado (CDR) – organized by Annunciation House, a social service program for immigrants fleeing countries where they and their children are endangered by the extreme violence of the drug cartels and the armed forces of these countries. Also, exploitation and extortion by gangs and lack of work opportunities force people to leave their homes.

El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are actually one big city – a rich one and a poor one – in two separate countries divided by the Rio Grande. Under the bridges connecting the two cities, the river runs in narrow culverts and is brown. Walls enclosing the river are painted with huge murals, many expressing ideas of resistance to injustice.

The San Francisco volunteers worked at CDR for a week doing the tasks required to support the migrants – the guests – for the brief intervals between their incarceration in federal detention centers and their travels to sponsors, mostly family members, all over the U.S. The detention centers are infamous for their mistreatment of the migrant families: not providing decent food, keeping the temperatures very cold, not providing for health care needs, not providing showers, soap, toothpaste etc.

On the other hand, the shelter organized by Annunciation House, provided three meals a day, cots, blankets, clean clothing, showers, toilets, a well-equipped play room for the children, a clinic staffed with nurse practitioners and physician assistants, a center to prepare sandwiches and travel bags for the travelers, and a chapel. The volunteers, many who spoke Spanish, organized all these things.

Most important, the volunteers connect the immigrant guests to their sponsors in the U.S. and transport the immigrants to the bus stations or airports for their transportation to places all over the U.S. Our neighbor, Mike, a competent Spanish speaker, drove people to their transportation several times every day.

While we were at CDR, people headed off to Philadelphia, Chicago, Northern Minnesota, North Carolina, Tennessee, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, and San Jose, San Francisco, Vallejo, Stockton, Los Angeles and other California cities.

Photos of the guests, the migrants, at Casa Del Refugiado were not allowed, but the hopeful and determined spirit of the place and all the people it houses is expressed in this mural.

Our group arrived in El Paso just after President Trump had announced new draconian measures to halt immigrants from Central America. The numbers of immigrants released from detention was much smaller than the numbers last spring when we signed up to go to El Paso. Not many were from Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras. Most were from Mexico and Brazil. Volunteers needed to use Google translators to communicate with the Portuguese speakers.

Spanish speakers in our group helped on intake – welcoming the guests, getting the information needed to connect with their sponsors, showing where all the facilities were located, and transporting them to bus stations and airports.

Fellow volunteer Michael summed it up: “I counted that I had contact – via intake interview, longer interviews, and trips to bus stations and airport – with 25 families. Five of them were from Central America – Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador. One from Cuba.”

Trump made an agreement with the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) – in exchange for trade and tariff concessions – called the Migrant Protection Protocols, a program commonly known as “Remain in Mexico.” Under MPP, some of the migrants crossing the border to request asylum in the U.S. are sent back to Mexico to wait for their day in U.S. immigration court. Most are from Central America. The majority of Mexicans passing through the CDR came from Michoacan and Zacatecas – cartel strongholds.

I and other non-Spanish speakers did mountains of laundry, cleaning tasks (my sister and I washed all the Legos and other toys in the playroom), served meals, made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, packed travel bags, organized boxes of different sizes of diapers, packed infant formula and baby wipes, distributed clothing in a well organized clothing room with men’s, women’s, children’s, teens’ and baby clothing organized by type and size, so families could select sets of clothing and pick up warm jackets, especially for those traveling north. Some in our group had the difficult cleaning job of washing many, many cots and carrying them to dry.

At meal times we got to visit with the guests and learn about their experiences if they wanted to tell us. This was often sad and outrageous. One Brazilian family explained that the food they were provided in detention was cookies and chips.

More than one family released to the shelter had been separated from an 18 year old child who was kept in detention, considered an adult. One woman in her 80s was alone; her daughter was still in detention. One very elderly man was in a wheelchair. Grandchildren were caring for him.

Many, many incidents were heartbreaking. This is probably what made many of us more tired than the strenuous physical work. But, it felt good to be of use to people in such desperate straits.

Eight of our San Francisco delegation had the amazing experience of visiting Casa Tabor in Ciudad Juarez on our day off from CDR. There we met with Father Peter Hinde, 96 years old! and Sister Betty Campbell, 85 years old. These wonderful friends asked us about ourselves and told us about their mission in Juarez.

As Father Peter explains in an excellent interview on You Tube (watch it below), their role is as “reverse missionaries” – bringing the truth about Latin America, and how U.S. imperialism is largely responsible for the calamities there, to the people of North America, to us. They told us about the maquilas in Northern Mexico and the huge differential in wages paid by U.S. companies to Mexican workers and U.S. workers.

Sister Betty told us about organizing women to take on the huge explosion of violence – femicide – against women in Juarez and about the self-organization of women in their neighborhood and beyond. Father Peter and Sister Betty have the beautiful idea of not presenting themselves as leaders of the struggles of migrants, but as people who accompany those who struggle for justice. That seems to me to be a most worthy way to be. They consciously try to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ in this respect.

This mural, naming the staggering number of Mexican journalists murdered for telling the truth, evokes profound sorrow and fear but also the determination to end this reign of terror instigated mainly by policies of the United States. – Photo: Carole Seligman

While we were in Juarez, we caught a glimpse of the families waiting in the street, some with tents, children sitting on the curb, waiting for their turn to cross the bridge into El Paso to apply for asylum. What an outrage for people to have to wait for weeks in the street to ask for asylum. Requesting asylum is an international human right!

As an atheist and a Jew, I must say that I was very happy to learn about the many Catholics who were devoted to the cause of the migrants. I have nothing but respect for people who try to put the ideals of their faith in action. Many, I think most, of the volunteers at Annunciation House and its projects and shelters are Catholics, although we met Christians of other denominations, Jews and non-religious people like my sister and me.

Most of the people we met had, like us, been horrified by the words and actions of the U.S. government, led by President Trump, against immigrants, and wanted to actively oppose the xenophobia. All religions that we know of have the principle of welcoming the stranger, and this teaching is so actively violated by the government. We met really wonderful people – both guests, volunteers and volunteer leaders who organized us for the necessary tasks.

Meeting the wonderful people we met helps to restore my faith in humanity, although that faith is surely challenged by the people in the government and their cruel racist actions.

Carole Seligman is an activist in the Kevin Cooper Defense Committee and co-editor of Socialist Viewpoint. She can be reached at caroleseligman@sbcglobal.net.