Yoel had only been in Texas four days, but after all he’d endured, it felt like eternity. Originally from the Venezuelan state of Yaracuy, he’d chosen to leave in search of work, freedom, and, above all, dignity. He first tried to find them in Chile, but in December 2022, he decided to set out for the United States. For months, by bus and truck and on foot, he journeyed toward the U.S.-Mexico border. Finally, on May 27, he crossed into El Paso. He spent his four days there at a shelter provided by a Sacred Heart Church and was getting restless when a new opportunity presented itself. Finally, he thought, the dignity he’d come all this way for was in reach.

Wilkendry is older than Yoel—thirty-one to Yoel’s twenty-two—but he also fled Venezuela and ended up in El Paso by way of Chile. He’d been there two weeks longer than Yoel when men who identified themselves as ex-Miami police officers approached him with some big promises. They told Wilkendry and some fellow migrants that they all had seats on a flight to California, where work and housing were readily available. The situation was confusing, Wilkendry says. What were ex-Miami cops doing in Texas, offering passage to California? He still feared deportation and didn’t know what to make of the offer. It could be a ruse; the plane could take him right back to Venezuela. But with no sign in Texas of the opportunity he’d come for, he decided to take the risk. So did Yoel when he heard about the same flight and promises secondhand; two women picked up their group and headed to the airport around ten o’clock that night.

What Yoel and Wilkendry didn’t know was that a few days earlier, this same group had sent another plane of migrants to Sacramento. When that plane landed, strangers met the migrants and took them to the offices of the local Catholic diocese—a red-brick building tucked behind an ARCO gas station, about ten minutes from the state Capitol. Then, with barely a word, the strangers left. The migrants, numbering around sixteen and mostly from Venezuela, waited. There was nothing else they could do. They were in a city they knew nothing about, with no money or resources, and the people who’d brought them had disappeared.

A man who worked for the diocese eventually noticed them; he thought they might be protesters. He called Gabby Trejo, who leads an organization called SacACT, or Sacramento Area Congregations Together. “There’s a group of people outside,” he told her. “I don’t really know what they want. But it’s a lot of them.” SacACT’s offices are nearby, so she sent representatives to figure out what was going on. All the migrants could say was that a bus had dropped them off and that whoever brought them had left with these parting words: “Someone will come help you.”


This first flight arrived on a Friday in early June, with the second following on Monday. By Tuesday, Florida governor Ron DeSantis’s office had taken formal credit for the operation. In an email to the Sacramento Bee, his spokeswoman pushed back against the allegation that the migrants had been coerced into going to California. “Florida’s voluntary relocation is precisely that—voluntary,” she said. “Through verbal and written consent, these volunteers indicated they wanted to go to California.” But Yoel and Wilkendry had boarded the flight solely because of what they were promised. “It was completely different than what I expected,” Yoel says in Spanish. “I came to work and to find somewhere to live, and this was something else. I never imagined something like this would happen.”

DeSantis has made provocation on immigration a cornerstone of his presidential campaign. In June 2022, he signed a budget earmarking $12 million to “facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens out of Florida.” Soon he decided that the money could be used preemptively to transport migrants who might end up in Florida. That September, he organized his first migrant flight, sending forty-eight asylum seekers from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. “We take what’s happening at the southern border very seriously…unlike the president of the United States, who has refused to lift a finger to secure that border,” DeSantis said in defense of the flights. This was just one of his “innovative ways to protect Florida.”

Texas’s Republican government has taken similar steps. Since April 2022, the state’s Operation Lone Star program has bused more than twenty thousand migrants to major cities across the nation, including New York, Chicago, and Denver. One bus even dropped migrants directly outside the Naval Observatory, Vice President Kamala Harris’s home. Texas governor Greg Abbott defends the program on both practical and political grounds: it helps thousands of migrants get to places across the United States while alleviating the pressure on Texas border towns. “We’ve got to secure our border because the Biden administration is not securing it,” Abbott said in a 2022 “Nightline” interview.

DeSantis chose the Catholic diocese in Sacramento to further highlight his fight with Biden and the federal government. “A contractor was present and ensured they made it safely to a 3rd-party NGO,” his spokesperson told the Bee. “The specific NGO, Catholic Charities, is used and funded by the federal government.” Therefore, DeSantis apparently reasoned, it should have no problem helping, without warning, the thirty-six migrants—almost all of them young men—who arrived on the two flights.


Gabby Trejo was raised by her grandparents in Tijuana before immigrating to California. Her grandfather, a “bracero,” regularly crossed the border to work on short-term agricultural contracts in the United States. Both her grandparents were illiterate, but in Trejo’s eyes, that never stopped them from understanding the values espoused by the Bible. They’d often house acquaintances from their home village for long stretches. “My family just modeled what it means to be a person who lives their faith,” Trejo says. She often recalls a quote from Pope John Paul II: “Nobody is so poor he has nothing to give, and nobody is so rich he has nothing to receive.”

She often recalls a quote from Pope John Paul II: “Nobody is so poor he has nothing to give, and nobody is so rich he has nothing to receive.”

When Trejo was in middle school in California in 1994, state voters passed Proposition 187, denying access to social services like health care and education to undocumented immigrants and their children, including Trejo and most of the people she knew. Her community pushed back, introducing her to the advocacy work that later became her profession. Ten years ago, after she’d moved to Sacramento, she stumbled across SacACT, a branch of a national interfaith organization called Faith in Action. She’d never considered faith-based advocacy before, but she was intrigued. Trejo came on first as an immigration organizer, and, six years ago, she became SacACT’s executive director. “It allowed me to live my faith in a way where I didn’t have to be convincing people that there’s only one way, but that we can experience God in many ways,” she says. “I’m Catholic, and I’m an immigrant myself. And as part of my faith, I’m called to seek justice and take care of my neighbors.”

Trejo didn’t want to walk away, but SacACT had never handled anything like these abandoned migrants directly before. The organization has assembled groups to advocate on behalf of Sacramento’s homeless population, but it doesn’t itself provide services, food, or shelter. Usually, the projects it takes on are specific and local, and it tries to avoid certain controversial national issues that divide member congregations. “If we were working on LGBTQ rights, or abortion,” Trejo says, “we may not be able to bring [our congregations] to the table.” But they can bring Catholics and Unitarians together to address the impacts of climate change, for example, or Muslim and Jewish leaders to work on building better schools. Similarly, despite the national political attention, offering assistance to migrants in need was not controversial. “I think that all faith traditions—especially the congregations that work with us—understand that their faith calls them to seek justice,” Trejo says. “To stand with the most vulnerable.”

Even though SacACT itself lacked experience, many of its member groups did have relevant expertise. “We said yes to supporting them in the beginning,” Trejo said, “without any kind of assurance that we would have any sort of income or funding for it, but really trusting that the faith community would step up and answer our call for help.”

One of the first calls Trejo made was to Fr. Juan Francisco Bracamontes-Monjaraz, the pastor of Sacramento’s Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. He opened the doors of his church as makeshift accommodation for the migrants for as long as they needed. Luckily, the local diocese soon stepped in and paid for a temporary hotel. Meanwhile, Catholic Charities provided pro-bono immigration attorneys to help them understand their rights and legal futures. All of them, it turned out, were legal asylum seekers.

In those early days, the leaders of the Catholic community also took a leading role in advocating for the immigrants in the press. Sacramento Bishop Jamie Soto, in an interview with the Associated Press, explained the situation in blunt terms: “We had no idea that they were coming,” he said. Soto and Catholic leaders across the country were enraged that the migrants were used as political weapons without the slightest consideration of their well-being. “What is transpiring in Sacramento,” Soto wrote in America magazine, “is part of a long, sorrowful litany of migrants being shuffled around as fodder for the propaganda of feeble, failed ideas”

Trejo tried to reassure the migrants that however they got here, it didn’t matter to her or SacACT and its partners. Catholic parishes organized activities including guitar lessons and bike rides. For their part, the migrants tried to repay the kindness right away. On their first Sunday in town, a few of them told Trejo they hoped to attend Mass. When the offering plate came around, one man, Diego, placed a crumpled dollar bill inside. Trejo teared up. “He didn’t need to do that. He needed that dollar more than the Church.”


To secure long-term housing, Trejo turned to Rabbi Mona Alfi, leader of congregation B’nai Israel, which had experience working with refugees, particularly from Afghanistan. Rabbi Alfi’s members had voted several years earlier to declare themselves a “sanctuary congregation,” meaning its members are “ready to provide shelter when we are called upon,” both spiritually and literally. In 2018, a teenage member started a program called Camp Nefesh—a two-week day camp held each summer for refugee children in the region.

Trejo called on a Friday afternoon, just before the Jewish Sabbath was to begin. Alfi said her congregation could probably help, but given the inopportune timing, not that night. Luckily, with weekend sleeping accommodations taken care of by the diocese, Alfi had time to share the situation with her congregation. When she did, donations poured in. Not just money, but clothes, food, and help making the necessary arrangements. Her congregation also leveraged connections with the mayor’s office and state government to bring in doctors, psychologists, lawyers to help with asylum applications, and even barbers.

Volunteers host a bike-riding clinic outside the St. Anthony Catholic Parish in Sacramento, California, shortly after the migrants’ arrival (Gabby Trejo)

Alfi suspects the overwhelming response was indicative of something deeper with the culture of American Judaism. “In just about every Jewish family, you have an immigrant story,” she explains. “Looking at their faces,” she says of the migrants, “it was really emotional thinking: ‘Oh, my God, this is exactly what my family experienced. How can I not help them?’” Her concern was forward-looking, too. She has a twenty-year-old son, and many of the migrants were around his age. “That just killed me,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine my son going through what they’ve gone through.” One of her first priorities became securing phones they could use to update their families.

Despite B’Nai Israel’s previous experience with refugees, much of this was new. “This was definitely a much more direct-service, crisis mode than we’ve ever been in,” she says. It was made more difficult by the fact that secrecy was a requirement. Even now, Alfi doesn’t want to reveal the shelter where the migrants were housed using cots and bedding acquired by the congregation. If the need arises again in the future, she wants the location to stay secret, to avoid protests and harassment.

She has good reason to be afraid. In August, at a meeting of city leaders in Chicago, many residents voiced disapproval about migrants being housed at a hotel in their neighborhood. “How do we know that these are not criminals coming into our community?” one woman asked. In September, protesters on Staten Island tried to block a group of migrants from entering a shelter, chanting, “Take them back! Take them back!” Likewise, in Sacramento, as soon as the issue became publicized, SacACT was inundated with calls. “I can’t believe that you’re standing with these people,” Trejo remembers callers complaining. “There’s so much need in our community. Why are you helping them?”


The Very Rev. Matthew Woodward, dean of Sacramento’s Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, has an answer to that question. Raised in England, in the Pentecostal tradition, Rev. Woodward attended what was then called the London Bible College, where he immersed himself in the Christian tradition and eventually felt called to the Anglican Church. Its liturgical calendar, with different moods and seasons, seemed to match his own impulses. At the age of the thirty-five, he came to the United States and became Episcopalian—basically the American version of Anglican. When he came on as dean at Trinity, one of his tasks was to develop a strategic plan. He defined his church by three pillars: worship, learning, and service, with the idea that the cathedral should become more involved in community problems.

One of Trinity’s biggest projects involves working with the local homeless community. It offers meal programs, a drop-in center, and the congregation has even opened up their Great Hall to a rotational shelter program. “We don’t get a choice about whether members of the unhoused community are going to come to our doorstep,” Woodward explains. “We just get a choice about how we welcome them.”

Matthew 25 tells of how on Judgment Day, God will separate the blessed from the condemned, like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. Jesus will tell the righteous that whenever they clothed or fed or sheltered or cared for “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” they also did so for Him. “The image of Christ is in each of us, in every person,” Woodward says of those verses. “I don’t care what your economic circumstances are, what your background is, or what your immigration status is, you bear the image of the Divine.”

When Trejo called Woodward that Monday, the day the second group of migrants arrived, he was already aware of the situation. He’d authorized a member of his congregation to use some of the church’s discretionary funds to purchase clothes and other resources for the migrants. But Trejo also had a more specific request: SacACT wanted to hold a press conference to explain what had happened and solicit help from the public—and she wanted to host it at Trinity Cathedral. Woodward didn’t have to think too hard. “It’s kind of easy when you’ve done some thinking about what your purpose is.”


Parkside Community Church describes itself as a non-denominational, “progressive Christian community” that takes pride in the pursuit of justice and human dignity. The Rev. Rajeev Rambob, Parkside’s pastor, learned of the migrants’ arrival from Trejo on the day the first group arrived. Before he began that Sunday’s service, he told them he’d be holding an optional meeting afterward to discuss how they could help. “Not a single person got up” at the end of the service, Parkside member Jessica Vroman remembers. “Every single person there that Sunday stuck around to hear more about how they could help.”

They decided on a few measures, including a clothing drive and a simple effort to spend time with the migrants. Rambob cited Mother Teresa: “The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.” But the main way they could help, the congregation decided, was to provide food. Vroman volunteered to lead the effort and worked with members of other congregations to ensure that the migrants had at least three meals a day. In her mind, it wasn’t even a choice. “It’s easy to talk about what you would do when it’s not in front of you,” she says. “But when these people have really shown up on your doorstep, what are you going to do? My faith tells me I have to say yes.”

Many of the migrants are eager to repay the favor. Diego, the same man who put the dollar in the offering plate at Mass, now plans to stay and make Sacramento his home.

The mother of three young boys, she’d often bring them along for meal deliveries. The migrants’ shelter had a playground nearby, and one day, her boys wandered over and started swinging on the equipment, in view of a group of migrants. She noticed the group was watching them like it was a feel-good movie. They all smiled and laughed. “They probably haven’t seen kids playing like that in a long time,” she thought to herself.


SacACT’s work with this group of migrants is largely complete, but another group could arrive any day. The Florida legislature passed a bill earlier this year that allocates another $12 million toward “unauthorized alien transport,” with no strings attached this time. DeSantis has made clear that he has no plans to end the program. A day after the second flight arrived in Sacramento, he told a group of Arizona sheriffs, “I think the border should be closed. I don’t think we should have any of this. But if there’s a policy to have an open border, then I think the sanctuary jurisdictions should be the ones that have to bear that.”

SacACT and its partners have helped many of the migrants arrange transportation to chosen destinations across the county. In other cases, they’ve found more stable housing through other organizations. The Venezuelans in particular have a new lease on their American futures, given President Joe Biden’s decision in late September to expand Temporary Protected Status, which makes them eligible to apply for work permits.

That’s what Yoel and Wilkendry are most eager to do: “Work hard,” Wilkendry says. “Just work hard in this country, in construction or whatever else, without hurting anyone. That’s my hope: To thrive by working hard.” Whether that’s in Sacramento or not, they’re grateful for the help offered by the city’s faith community. “I have no words. They offered true support, substantial support,” Yoel says. “I feel very lucky, very blessed. I thank God for putting these people in my path.” “It was a blessing to get the help,” Wilkendry adds, “even if it came out of deceit.”

To those people who decided to help, the ordeal proves what can be accomplished when faith communities coalesce around shared values. Rambob summarized it like this: “I’m not Catholic…. I’m not Jewish. I’m a very liberal, protestant Christian. But all of these people are my siblings…. We have some differences in how we do things, and in the scriptures and the prayers and rituals, but they’re all beautiful. And, if done with good intentions, this is the result: We help each other.”

Many of the migrants are eager to repay the favor. Diego, the same man who put the dollar in the offering plate at Mass, now plans to stay and make Sacramento his home. He recently purchased his first car, and he still talks with Trejo often. On an evening in late September, he sent her a text. “If you ever need anything, whatever it is, call me,” he wrote. “I will be right there for you.”

Ethan Bauer is a staff writer at Deseret magazine based in Provo, Utah. A graduate of the University of Florida originally from Miami, his writing has also appeared in the Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times, and the Miami Native.

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