In late May, together with two other members of their San Francisco parish, returned Maryknoll lay missioners Jim and Roberta McLaughlin (Class of 2003, Cambodia) traveled to El Paso, Texas, to volunteer at Annunciation House.
A hospitality house for migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and homeless and vulnerable people, Annunciation House has been at the center of helping refugees at the U.S.-Mexico border. This spring, as many as a thousand refugees per day were sent to its network of shelters and helping organizations, prompting an urgent call for volunteers from around the country to help.
That influx has been reduced dramatically since the Trump administration has enforced its Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico,” which is now quickly returning asylum seekers to Mexico and requiring them to wait there until their asylum applications can be adjudicated.
We were answering a desperate plea from Maryknoll Sister Lil Mattingly, who was the only Spanish-speaking person doing the intake of refugees one afternoon. Heidi Cerneka, a Maryknoll lay missioner and an immigration attorney for Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, was one of the local people who helped us make the arrangements for our volunteer work.
When our group from St. John of God Catholic Community in San Francisco got the OK from Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House, we were on a plane the following week.
For four weeks, we stayed at the Columban Mission Center, where Father Bob was a most gracious host. We rented a 15-seater van so Jim and Ken could take turns driving the migrants to the bus stations and to the airport. In between runs, Ken repaired a staircase, fixed a food cart and a doorknob, while Jim, Roberta and Claudia did the intake of the refugee families and phoned sponsoring families. The phones never stopped ringing as the families would call back with bus or plane schedules and confirmation numbers.
We received 350-420 migrants per day while we were there. It was hectic. Other volunteers made 500 sandwiches a day for the travel packages. Jim would make runs to buy another 100 loaves of bread and more peanut butter and jelly. Jim shopped around for cheaper bread sources. More volunteers organized the donated clothing so families could select clean clothing and shoes if we had them. There was a constant need to fill baby bottles and get diapers. There were never enough volunteers!
We woke up at 5:30 every morning and worked long hours. On our one day off, we just slept. Of course we got sick. All the volunteers were sniffling and coughing. Our clinic was staffed with a nurse if we were lucky but otherwise we took temps of sick and crying babies and dispensed Tylenol and Pedialyte.
If we were exhausted, what must the migrants be experiencing! They would rest on their cots and wait eagerly for mealtimes. There was no indoor plumbing and we all used the 100 or so porta potties. There was a big truck that housed the shower facilities. There was running water inside the warehouse shelter, so bottles could be filled and migrants could be coached in refilling bottles and not tossing them away.
There was precious little time to talk to people and hear their stories, as we were always busy. Luckily someone brought in coloring books and crayons. Beach balls were a highlight. Soccer balls had to be used outside as the close quarters made it a bit precarious for indoor play.
When Ken and Claudia left after two weeks, another parishioner from St. John of God, Karen, arrived and joined us. She became the airport greeter and met the vans to show people how to get their tickets and how to maneuver through the TSA lines. For those who had an early morning flight, they were shown some comfortable chairs where they could spend the night. The Greyhound bus station was not as welcoming, and the police were called to kick out people. Often we had to make a rescue run to the bus station if a family member had mistakenly purchased a ticket leaving from San Antonio or Houston.
The immigration documents that ICE or the Border Patrol provided only allowed for the migrant to leave from El Paso. Buses were overbooked, and while the ticket counter agents were polite and helpful, the bus system was not.
We met so very many wonderful people from all over the country who came in response to such a dire need. Religious sisters from every order were there to do whatever they could. Maryknoll Sister Len Montiel, just back from serving 20 years in Cambodia, was such a Godsend. She took night duty in the tree-house every night, so no one else had to sleep in the huge dormitory with 400 people and crying babies. We went home to sleep.
All of Len’s years of program management in Cambodia showed itself daily in her skills in coordinating transportation and getting the early-morning bus riders on their way.
The local volunteers were outstanding people. Many had volunteered for years at another Annunciation House shelter. We served at Casa del Refugiado, a warehouse shelter that was only a month old.
During our last week, we saw a huge decrease in the number of migrants. Trump’s new policy of “Remain in Mexico” saw the numbers fluctuate to 80-100 per day. But we heard from priests working in Ciudad Juárez that the situation there was desperate. The Casa de Migrantes shelter was filled to capacity and overflowing.
When we crossed the border bridge walking back to the U.S., we saw migrants in a big outdoor area with only tarps over their heads. The migrants yelled to us. “We have been here 35 days. Please help.”
So the huge numbers have shifted to Mexico and the infrastructure that allowed the migrants to be given better treatment at church run facilities in the U.S. does not exist in Mexico. Something must be done to alleviate the situation there, otherwise we will be seeing more desperate fathers taking a chance in swimming across the Rio Grande River after they have been refused entry to claim asylum. We must demand that there be no more deaths like Oscar and his daughter, Valeria. We must. We must.