July 17, 2019, Laredo, Texas – Two Adrian Dominican Sisters have spent weeks on the border of the United States and Mexico this summer, volunteering their services to migrant families who come to La Frontera Migrant Shelter in Laredo, Texas.
Sisters Patricia Erickson, OP, and Sharon Spanbauer, OP – along with other Adrian Dominican Sisters – have been serving at the shelter at the invitation and encouragement of the General Council of the Adrian Dominican Sisters, as well as the invitation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). Sister Sharon served at La Frontera from May 31, 2019, through June 22, 2019. Sister Pat arrived at the shelter on June 23, 2019, and will serve through July 20, 2019. Sisters have also volunteered their time at similar hospitality houses in El Paso and McAllen, Texas.
Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Laredo recently opened La Frontera when the Border Patrol announced that it would be releasing immigrants from detention centers to the streets. Twice a day, Border Patrol buses drop off migrant families who have been in detention centers to La Frontera. Up to 250 migrants come to the shelter each day.
Sister Sharon explained that the migrants who are released to La Frontera all have host families in the United States. New arrivals at La Frontera go through an intake and assessment process and then receive clean clothes, a shower, a meal, and help in getting to their host families.
“Mostly they were young families and some came in with vacant eyes, they were so exhausted,” Sister Sharon said. “Once people have had a shower, clean clothes, and a meal, they’re looking a lot better.”
Typically, the migrants arrive at La Frontera after traveling for weeks from their homes in Central America to the border and after spending time being processed in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers. “The resilience of the people coming to the shelter is amazing,” Sister Pat said. She recalled a young father who had traveled for three months with an 8-month-old infant. There were many similar stories and Sister Pat the “sheer determination” needed for families to make that journey.
“Walking into the shelter, some of the people are smiling and some are apprehensive about what they will experience in yet another facility,” Sister Pat wrote in a reflection on her experience. “We greet them with smiles and say ‘Welcome,’ hoping to alleviate their fears and say that this is a safe place.”
Volunteers at La Frontera serve in a variety of ways: preparing mattresses for the guests who will spend the night in the bedrooms on the second floor of the shelter; monitoring the men’s and women’s showers; organizing donations; preparing meals; making bag lunches for migrants to take when they leave; and helping guests select new clothes from a room full of donated clothing. Spanish-speaking volunteers can also help the migrants make arrangements to get to their host families – either arranging for a time for the host families to pick them up or for transportation of the migrants to their new homes.
Both Sister Pat and Sister Sharon – a nurse practitioner – used their skills to provide some medical care for the migrants. Sister Pat handed out over-the-counter medicine for minor aches and pains and colds. Sister Sharon served for part of the time in the health clinic at the shelter. “I could see patients and assess them and give them over-the-counter medicines,” Sister Sharon said. “I was able to be a resource and use some of my skills.”
Sister Sharon also spent much of her time changing sheets after one group of migrants left, preparing for the arrival of the next group. “It felt so appropriate that I was making their beds,” she said, adding that many immigrants make the beds in hotels and motels in the United States. “It touched me that I was cleaning for them, but that’s the way it should be.”
Both Sisters Pat and Sharon were impressed and inspired by the migrant families who came to La Frontera. “The people in the shelter are so grateful for everything they receive, saying ‘Gracias’ after being given a bottle of water, after each meal, after getting clean clothes, a shower, even when told that we don’t have a certain item,” Sister Pat wrote. “As people leave to go to the bus station, there are smiles on their faces and again ‘gracias por todo’ – thank you for everything. There are hugs and even tears as they leave to continue their journey.”
Sister Sharon described her experience in June as three weeks of payback. “I’ve been given so many things in my life,” she said. “This has just been an opportunity to pay it forward, not expecting anything in return.” She said her experience at La Frontera “put a face” on the issue of immigration. “Personally, I’ve always felt that each immigrant who comes improves the United States – anyone who has the gumption to get up and leave their home and get here brings a blessing.”
Both Sister Sharon and Sister Pat encouraged people to volunteer at La Frontera or other shelters or hospitality houses for immigrants – especially if they speak Spanish. “You can do anything there – whatever the gift is, and whenever you see that something needs to be done, you just do it,” Sister Sharon said. “You have to be willing to pitch in wherever you’re needed.”
Sister Pat, after a previous experience at McAllen Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, gave similar advice. “It’s a great experience,” she said. “Go without any expectations and be open to whatever comes your way. … You’re just there to be with people and to do whatever you can to help.”
While not everybody can travel to Texas to serve as volunteers at the hospitality centers and shelters, Sister Sharon noted that La Frontera is looking for donations of children’s, women’s, and men’s slacks, shirts, socks, and undergarments in sizes small and medium; practical shoes but no heels; and socks and belts for men. Donations can be sent to La Frontera Migrant Shelter, 1616 Callaghan Street, Laredo, Texas 78040. For information or to volunteer, contact Benjamin De la Garza at 956-220-3785.
Feature photo (top): Bishop James A. Tamayo of the Diocese of Laredo blesses plaques, made by a volunteer. The plaques hang in the guest rooms of La Frontera Migrant Shelter in Laredo, Texas.
Sister Patricia Erickson, OP, fourth from left, enjoys dinner at Rochas, a Mexican restaurant in Laredo, with other volunteers, Sparkill Dominican Sisters, and the coordinator of La Frontera Migrant Shelter.
By Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, JD
On November 6, in an editorial on asylum published in the Adrian Daily Telegram (see below), I stated that United States law and International law allow people to seek asylum in the United States “without regard to where they enter the country, at an airport, another official port of entry, or through the desert.” I also noted at that time that President Donald Trump had announced he was going to make it much more difficult for people to claim asylum and that he would enact a series of executive orders to ensure that this happened.
On November 9, President Trump, through the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, issued a proclamation that will deny the ability to apply for asylum to anyone who crosses the southern border of the United States at any place other than a port of entry. This change will be in effect for 90 days, with a possibility of extension after the 90 days are up.
The proclamation stipulates that only those who present themselves at ports of entry at the southern border will be eligible to apply for asylum through the “credible fear” interview process. Credible fear is the first step toward asylum and indicates a “significant possibility” that a person meets the asylum standard of proof.
According to President Trump’s recent order, those who enter the southern border anyplace other than a port of entry, they will not – no matter how credible their claim – be able to apply for asylum. Instead, they may be allowed to apply to stay in the U.S. through Withholding of Removal or the Convention Against Torture. In both of these cases, one must meet a higher “reasonable fear” standard of proof than those applying for asylum. Even if successful through either the Withholding of Removal or the Convention Against Torture, people are not granted permanent forms of protection – they are not allowed to apply for residence in the United States, not allowed to travel outside the United States, and cannot apply for family members to join them in the U.S. In contrast, if a person is granted asylum, they will later be granted legal permanent residence and eventually citizenship.
Asylum has always been a safeguard for those people whose lives are in danger and have fled their homeland, because they faced lives of persecution and torture. How far have we as a country strayed from “send me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free?” Where is our compassion?
Asylum is Law of the Land
Published in the November 6, 2018, issue of the Adrian Daily Telegram
By Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, JD
Are you as mystified as I am as to why our administration is sending 5,200 members of our military (more than double the number serving in Syria) to our southern border?
Despite public rhetoric around the migrants traveling through Mexico, there is no crisis at our southern border. Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC), an organization that conducts extensive research in all areas of immigration, reports that over the years, similar groups of migrants have been organized and have been processed without the least bit of fanfare. This was demonstrated by the most recent example in April that began with 1,200 people, of which only 200 reached the U.S. border.
Many of those currently traveling through Mexico will not ever reach the border, and the majority of those who do will ask for asylum at points of entry, as prescribed by law.
The asylum system in the United States was established in 1968 when it signed the protocol to the 1951 United Nations Convention Related to the Status of Refugees, and when Congress passed the 1980 Refugee Act, which was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter.
The law says a person may apply for asylum at a port of entry or from within the United States. In order to seek asylum at a port of entry, asylum seekers must declare that they fear being returned to their home country and are seeking asylum. According to the law, the person is to be promptly interviewed by an asylum officer, who makes an initial determination on whether the asylum-seeker’s fear is credible. If deemed credible, the case will be heard by a judge, who will make a final decision. If the claim is considered not credible, the asylum-seeker may be allowed to stay in the U.S. in order to file an appeal in Immigration Court. If it is denied, the asylum-seeker will be deported.
Military personnel are not trained as asylum officers, so what could they be doing at the border?
Asylum laws were established by Congress in accordance with our obligation as a country and under international accords we signed with our allies to protect refugees worldwide. Therefore, any of the migrants traveling through Mexico who reach our border should be processed through the asylum system, just as all migrants arriving at our borders have been for many years. Yet on November 1, President Trump indicated that he would make it much more difficult to claim asylum and would enact a series of executive orders to shut down access to asylum for people who seek safety in the United States unless they go to legal ports of entry. Let us remember that our laws explicitly allow people to seek asylum here without regard to where they enter the country, at an airport, another official port of entry, or through the desert. Asylum is the law of the land and the administration must follow it as enacted by Congress.
Many of those in the caravan now traveling to the U.S. are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – three countries known for having high murder rates, and where people’s lives are threatened by gangs, drug traffickers, and organized crime on so many levels. These people are forced to flee because their governments will not or cannot provide protection for their own citizens. They are fleeing to find a safe place to live and to raise their families.
It is good to remind ourselves that as people of faith from many traditions, we are called to protect all of God’s children, especially those who are vulnerable. We believe in human dignity and the value of all people, regardless of where they’re from or what they look like, or what language they speak or how much money they have in their pockets. In our Christian tradition we are reminded in the Gospel of Mark 12:31, “The second commandment is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, JD, is an immigration lawyer and Director of the Adrian Dominican Sisters Immigration Assistance Office. She may be reached at 517-266-3448 or firstname.lastname@example.org.