Walking With Refugees on the Border

Walking With Refugees on the Border

This summer, Joe spent two weeks in Texas serving Latin American refugees who just crossed the Mexican border and are waiting to connect with family in the U.S. He kept this record of his experiences and conversations, which offers a window into the humanitarian crisis unfolding there right now. He also is a Holy Cross priest and friend of Sister Norma Pimentel, MJ — she leads the Humanitarian Respite Center (HRC) in McAllen where Father Joe volunteered.

Day 1: July 26, 2021 

There were so many people at the HRC that I had to fight my way in. Upon entering, there was a sea of people from wall to wall — people in every imaginable spot. Most were standing up because it was almost impossible to sit anywhere. I learned later that day that Border Patrol dropped off about 2,000 refugees at the HRC.

As I tried to make my way to the main reception counter — saying, “Con permiso” about a hundred times — I was struck by the number of infants and children. Many of the children were sleeping in the most contorted positions on the backs of their moms or dads or over a shoulder. 

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I immediately went to work at the “pharmacy/personal hygiene” counter.  For hours and hours, I gave out aspirin, Pedialyte, cough syrup, baggies of powdered milk, pampers, toothbrushes and toothpaste, baby powder, combs, razors, shampoo, soap, shoelaces, and so much more. People would always ask for the needs of their children first.

That afternoon, Sister Norma had to make the difficult decision to call Border Patrol and to ask them not to send any more refugees until the numbers went down and things were more manageable.

When I went to bed that night in the rectory in my double bed in my own room, I thought of all the people at the HRC and wondered how there would even be enough space for them to lie down and try to sleep. I learned a few days later that buses come at night and take 300 of the people to a Catholic church in a nearby town where they sleep on the floor of the church hall.     

On my drive to McAllen, I passed through a lot of road construction. I would often see signs that read UNEVEN LANES. That phrase comes to mind now as I lie in my own bed and in my own room while hundreds and hundreds of people are cramped together and trying to find a place to put their head down for the night.

Day 2: July 27, 2021

There were considerably less people at the HRC today. This means that several hundred people were on buses or planes traveling to cities where relatives would take them in and who had sent the money for them to travel: Denver, Miami, San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore.

After working at the pharmacy/personal hygiene counter, I helped with dinner. There is an assembly line of 10 people getting the plates ready. It’s no small feat to prepare and then serve dinner to 1,000 people.

I enjoyed this task so much because most of the people in the assembly line were refugees, including one 8-year-old boy who worked as hard as any adult I have ever seen work. When I see a young child like him, I cannot help but think what a different life he would have were he born in a typical Midwestern town instead of Tegucigalpa; what a different life she would have if she were going to school today and not staying at a shelter for refugees. All of these uneven lanes.

Day 4: July 29, 2021

Somehow, I ended up giving out crayons and coloring sheets to the children today. They are such beautiful children, content with a couple of crayons and a piece of paper to color. You already can see which children can color within the lines and which children can’t — or won’t. When a child finishes his or her coloring, we hang their artwork on the walls of the HRC. They are happy to see their artwork hanging there!

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Again and again, I think of how different their lives would be if they were born in the United States in a city with good Catholic schools or in communities with a high tax rate that generously funds public schools. 

I marvel at the beauty of the children and their smiles — they have no idea what’s going on in their lives, or even where they are. They have the trust and confidence that their parents will care for them. 

Of course, this made me think of our relationship with God. I look at those children and wish that I could have that same kind of trust in God, who is even much better and more loving than any earthly parent. 

Day 5: July 30, 2021

At a shelter I visited on the Mexico side of the border, I spoke at length to a woman from El Salvador. She tried to cross into the United States last week with her 8-year-old daughter. She was not given permission and was sent back to Mexico.

Her husband is already in the United States with another child. The mom has two options: 1) Keep trying to cross the border; or 2) Send her daughter as an unaccompanied minor across the border with contact information for her dad, hoping that her daughter will find him. Though she thinks about it, she does not think that she will choose option 2.  “Pero cualquier cosa para una vida major para mi hija,” she says — “I’m willing to try anything for a better life for my daughter.”

I learned today from Sister Norma that there are 1,100 refugees who have tested positive for Covid. They are staying in 10 hotels in cities in the Rio Grande Valley. Catholic Charities brings food to these 1,100 people every day.

Day 6: July 31, 2021

We cannot begin to understand why there are so many refugees coming from Central America without learning why they are coming. The numbers are very large and are getting bigger all the time.

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One has to ask why people are leaving Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador — what is going on in those countries? The answer is not easy, but much of it goes back to the cartels. These cartels do more than sell drugs — they traffic people, they kill people and sell organs, they commit every kind of sin against human beings.

It’s hot here in McAllen. It’s 97 degrees each day with a “feels like” temperature of 104. The humidity is always more than 90 percent. I think of the hundreds of refugees I see each day who get, at most, one shower a day, and then put the same clothes back on. The unfairness of life — the uneven lanes of life. The poor suffer in every possible way.

Day 8: August 2, 2021

Today, I decided that I was just going to visit with people and learn as much of their stories as they wanted to share.

First, I spoke with Raul and his wife, Isadora. They have a 3-year-old daughter whose name is Ana. They are from Honduras. They fled Honduras for two main reasons: The cartels kept coming after Raul, and were using every means of extortion to get money from him. Raul worked in a pawn shop. The cartels got money from the shop and from him personally. Raul and Isadora decided that they had to leave.

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Raul and Isadora told me what their trip was like from the day they left their village in Honduras until they arrived at the Rio Grande river to cross over into the United States. The trip took more than 30 days, a combination of walking, buses, trains, cars, and then rafts to cross the river at night into the United States.  

Raul’s eye looked strange. I asked him what was wrong with his eye. He told me that he has a cataract in it. He doesn’t have the money to have the cataract removed. 

I also spoke with Alberto and his wife, Maria. They have three children with them. They fled Honduras for the same reasons that Raul and Isadora did — the cartels have taken over their city and they cannot escape them.

Everyone I talked to confirmed that anyone who makes it to the United States arrives in debt to everyone they know. The average coyote charges $6,000 per person to lead people the last 20 miles or so from Mexico, across the river, and into the United States.

They all describe the same process that happens next: they get off the rafts, start walking, are apprehended by Border Patrol. Border Patrol runs criminal checks on them and if none are found, then they go to the next stage, which is showing an officer the name and phone number of the family who will receive this person seeking asylum. Border Patrol verifies the address and phone number, calls the phone number, and talks to someone who will take responsibility for all the Rauls and Isadoras, the Albertos and Marias who are crossing into the United States.

The number of people crossing every day is astronomical. I do not know what the solution is other than to somehow take on the cartels. 

Days 9 and 10: August 3-4, 2021

The immigrants and refugees come up to the pharmacy continually with so many needs. They come for bandages and gauze — so many have blisters from walking miles and miles often barefoot or in shoes that don’t fit them. Today, a man needed Neosporin and gauze and adhesive tape to clean out a wound from falling on the trip. There is so much suffering and sadness. I often just want to cry. Every day I feel so inadequate to the needs in front of me.  

Because Border Patrol is dropping off 500-1,000 refugees a day, we are almost out of clothing. Most people have not had a change of clothing in more than a week. I feel so badly that we cannot offer them clean clothes before their trip. I can only imagine how they feel getting on a plane and how people must look at them. 

The uneven lanes of life.

Day 11: August 5, 2021

I had a long talk today with a man and his wife from Guatemala. They have a 4-year-old girl with them — she is cute as a button! I asked them if they had other children, and the man said to me, “Si, los tuve que dejar en Guatemala con todo el dolor de un alma” — “Yes, I had to leave them in Guatemala with the heaviest pain in my soul.” I wanted to cry for him. Those children he left behind are 8 and 12 and they are staying with his mom and dad. He explained plainly that they did not have enough money to bring all the children.  

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He explained in detail what it is like once you cross the river. After they cross and are apprehended by CPB, they stay under the bridge for three to five days while their papers are being processed. He said that at any given time there are between 4,000 and 5,000 people under the bridge. There are no restroom facilities, nowhere to sleep, no change of clothing, no medicine. They are given two burritos a day.

Every day I see the big white buses pulling up to the HRC where hundreds of people are dropped off. They have nothing — nothing, except the clothing on their back and an envelope with important papers in it.

First, they go into a big building across the street where they are tested for Covid. Those who test positive go into a separate part of the HRC. Those who are negative go into the main part of the HRC. After the first week of working at the HRC, those with Covid were moved to outdoor tents near the water. They will stay there until their time of quarantine ends. 

It’s almost impossible to describe what this looks like every day. I get so tired of hundreds and hundreds of people coming to the pharmacy and asking for everything from toothbrushes to deodorant to rubber bands for their children’s hair. I remind myself over and over again that they have nothing, nothing, nothing. 

There are some things that move me to tears. One of them is a man asking for powdered milk for his baby.

Days 12-15, August 6-9, 2021

While working at the HRC, I was often reminded of Father Zozisma’s words in Dostoevsky’s famous novel, the Brothers Karamazov. Dorothy Day quoted these words often: “Love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” 

Serving refugees with love is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to serving refugees in dreams. Working in the pharmacy/personal hygiene counter is exhausting. It is nonstop. It is very difficult to hear because there is so much noise from 1,000 people in the same room, and wearing masks makes it even more challenging. 

The refugees have so many needs. They ask the same question multiple times. They smell. There is no end to the line.

Leche, por favor.” 

Panales, por favor.” 

Mi nene tiene calentura.” 

Tiene cordones?”  

When I get irritated or frustrated, I remind myself that I can’t even begin to imagine what they have been through. Though I have listened to lots of stories, I still can’t imagine what they have been through. And now they are in a foreign country where they don’t speak the language, where they are afraid, where they do not know where their next meal is coming from, where they don’t understand the system, where they are going to fly for the first time, and so much more.

What must their lives be like? What are they thinking and feeling? What’s next for them? 

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