By Lucy Nigh, SSND, Central Pacific Province
For five days during Thanksgiving week, our School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) community of four from Douglas, Arizona, was privileged to serve families in transit from the border to sponsors all over the United States. Most travelers came from Central America to plead an asylum case. They arrived having spent one-three days in immigration custody and were given a court date in a city near their final destination. Most were released with GPS ankle monitors.
We served near the immigration processing center in El Paso, Texas, where immigrants were released to the care of Annunciation House, which has organized volunteers to serve at several different places of hospitality. There, volunteer teams welcome them (mostly mothers or fathers with children), do an intake procedure and receive contact information of their U. S. sponsor. The travelers are able to bathe, find another set of clothing and eat something besides what they were given while held by immigration. A volunteer communicates with each sponsor, advising him or her of their need to determine and pay for the transportation to the final destination of the persons they sponsor.
We helped with phone calls to sponsors, serving and making meals, giving out medication, sorting and giving out donated clothing, providing transportation to and from the bus station or airport and troubleshooting whatever else needed to be done. Each day 40-90 new travelers arrived and stayed one to three nights, depending on the travel arrangements. Final destinations were to Maryland, New York, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, California, Nebraska, Iowa and all places in between.
Our days were busy and very satisfying, including an opportunity to hear stories of what was left behind, experiences along the way, and dreams of what lay ahead. Special moments to remember: beautiful smiles while serving the meals; hugs and tears of gratitude for EVERY thing (especially after explaining the complicated bus route of three days or finding a flying companion to help when a family’s transportation included a connecting flight); the excitement and wonder of children experiencing things for the first time; a parent’s appreciation for medication that helped their sick child; encouraging children to practice simple phrases or to count in English; and, making new friends with other volunteers and the facility’s regular staff—folks from El Paso, who have been tirelessly extending their generosity to immigrants for years! Special thanks to the Loretto Sisters, who invited us and provided our hospitality, including hosting Thanksgiving dinner, and other Leadership Conference of Women Religious Sisters who responded to the need for volunteers.
The immigration detention cells are notoriously cold; what a privilege to be the first to warmly welcome these travelers to the United States and show them the true spirit of this country! We hope and pray that the communities, churches, organizations and schools where these folks find homes will also give them welcome and support!