Border dioceses prepare to aid migrants heading to U.S. in caravans

bishops at CC RGV US bishops and Sister Norma Pimentel at the Catholic Charities Immigrant Respite Center in McAllen Texas, July 1, 2018. | Pablo Kay/Angelus News

Catholic agencies along the U.S.-Mexico border are bolstering refugee aid efforts as thousands of people in multiple migrant caravans continue to trek north through Mexico to the border.

Thousands of migrants, primarily from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, started multiple caravans to the United States border earlier this month in order to seek asylum. While the caravans are still weeks out, Catholic charities along the border are preparing for an increased influx of refugees.

Teresa Cavendish, director of operations for Catholic Community Services in Tucson, Arizona told CNA that while they are monitoring the caravans, the agency is accustomed to receiving and helping large numbers of migrants with food and clothing, and then connecting them to their family in the U.S.

"In Arizona and all along the southern border last week there have been large numbers of releases anyway," Cavendish told CNA.

"They (ICE) released upwards of 1,100 people in Arizona within a week, and that was around the first weekend through the middle of the month here in October, so that kind of rapid response on a mass scale is something that we have experience with," she said.

The largest of the migrant caravans currently en route started in Honduras mid-October with about 160 people, and peaked at about 7,000 people. At this point, an estimated 2,000 or more migrants have either fallen behind or have decided to stay in Mexico, which has offered some work and health care benefits.

The Honduras caravan sparked others, including a group of about 200 people from El Salvador who are now also making the trek north to the U.S.

Cavendish told CNA that when Catholic Community Services (CCS) receives refugees who have been released by ICE, the first thing they do is "reaffirm their human dignity, we make sure they understand that they're safe and welcome and give them a hot meal and something to drink."

These refugees then spend about 24 hours in a CCS-established shelter while they are provided with food, clothing and shelter while arrangements are made to get them to their families in the U.S.

"Everyone who comes to us has sponsors here in the United States, and so we help them to reach out to their families and we help make their travel arrangements," she said.

Every asylum seeker has 15 days of what is called "humanitarian parole" during which they are expected to connect with their families and attend their first immigration hearing.

Cavendish said that CCS provides those in their care with information about their legal rights, as well as on resources available to them in their destination city.

The migrant caravans are still weeks away from reaching the United States, but Cavendish said that CCS plans to employ essentially the same efforts that they have used in the past when there have been large numbers of migrant releases from ICE.

"We've had to do things like work with large church groups, and open up gymnasiums," she said. She recalled several occasions where ICE released several hundred people at a time, and CCS rented out hotel rooms and provided services for the migrants there.

"So for us as we're considering something like a caravan and how you would respond to that, it's going to be deploying those same types of efforts," she said.

Tucson is located further north and west than the Diocese of Las Cruces in New Mexico, or the five border dioceses of Texas. Cavendish said while at first the Honduras caravan was expected to land in Arizona, now it seems it will head toward the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. ICE will transfer migrants to other locations as needed, if aid facilities become too overwhelmed, she said.

In the Archdiocese of San Antonio, Catholic Charities Executive Director Antonio Fernandez told local media that the agency is planning to take 200 refugees from detention centers in Laredo and El Paso in order to free up room for migrants from the caravans.

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Fernandez also asked for increased donations of food, water and clothing as the agency prepares for the influx of refugees. "We help everybody, we are not here to judge," Fernandez told Channel 4 News of San Antonio.

Jordan McMorrough of the Archdiocese of San Antonio told CNA that the archdiocese plans to partner with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley based in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas to help with migrant caravan relief efforts.

McMorrough said the archdiocese is still monitoring the specifics of the situation to know how many people to expect and how that will affect their efforts, but he said the caravans are not unlike other surges of migrants that they've seen in the past.

Brenda Riojas, the media relations director for the Diocese of Brownsville, told CNA that Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley is also keeping an eye on the migrant caravan situation.

"Sister Norma Pimentel (the executive director of CCRGV) and hundreds of volunteers (Catholics and other faiths communities) are continuing their day to day efforts at the Respite Center that has been receiving up to 550 to 600 people a day," she said.

"We are also in close contact with shelters on the Mexican side of the border and will be sending donations their way."

Deacon Lonnie Briseno, director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico, told CNA that he is concerned the migrant caravan could overwhelm an already-full immigration relief system.

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"Our hands are full right now with the overflow that are currently in our system," he told CNA.

"Our ICE detention facilities on the border are completely full, you're having double the people in a cell that was it was designed for, so we're talking about parents with children, parents with infants," he said.

"And so what ICE does then is they release them on their own recognizance, so we received an email, and today is the day we run a shelter. So they released 260 refugees, and the church I work with tonight will receive 40," Briseno said.

Different parishes in the Las Cruces area volunteer to serve as a temporary 24-hour shelters for the migrants throughout the week. Like CCS in Tucson, the shelters in Las Cruces feed and clothe the migrants, and help connect them with family and transportation.

The parishes that trade off hosting the migrants are very active parishes, Briseno said, and so they can typically only house migrants for their allotted 24 hour period.

What concerns Briseno is what happens when both ICE and the parishes run out of room.

"On Friday they released 75 refugees in downtown El Paso, no money, no phone, no food, no shelter," he said.

Briseno said that he had spent time in meetings with other diocesan leaders about the migrant caravans, and he said the diocese hopes to have three more temporary shelters available by the time the caravans arrive.

"I'm also hoping that other faith organizations and non-faith organizations will step forward and say hey, we want to shelter once a week," he said.

Briseno said the diocese is also hoping for additional donations ahead of the migrant caravan.

"We're always in need of donations to feed and clothe and provide toiletries," he said.

Sometimes a migrant's family in the U.S. will send money for transportation, he said, but won't be able to provide money for meals or a phone while the migrants are travelling.

"I hate to send a single mom with two little kids on a bus without a phone, so those monetary donations are always needed," he said.

In light of the likely increase of asylum seekers in coming weeks, "it's really important that the Catholic churches practice the corporal works of mercy, Matthew 25," Briseno added.

"It's just so important that we rise to the challenge, regardless of what we believe individually politically or how we see the situation," he said.

"The truth is that we have brothers and sisters who are in need of basic hospitality."