Seeking Refuge

Life & Death at the Border

I have only just arrived at La Posada Providencia, an emergency shelter for homeless migrants and asylum seekers in San Benito, Texas, when Sr. Zita Telkamp receives a call from a Homeland Security center in the neighboring town of Harlingen. “They’ve got another mother and child for us,” says Sr. Zita. A few minutes later she is barreling down Highway 77 through sheets of rain in the shelter’s communal minivan. You would never know by her lead foot that she is in her eighties—she has been a Sister of Divine Providence for sixty-five years, six of those as program director of La Posada.

La Posada has become a trusted resource for Harlingen’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility, which is overflowing with undocumented migrants, many of them women and children. The number of Central American mothers and children coming through south Texas has been steadily increasing since 2011, but last summer it skyrocketed. Some compare the situation to the European refugee crisis following World War II. United States Customs and Border Protection reports that about seventy thousand unaccompanied minors were apprehended in 2014. An array of religious leaders, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has been calling on Washington to respond to this ongoing humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, the crisis continues.

Since it opened its doors nearly twenty-five years ago, La Posada has received men, women, and children from over seventy nations. On the day of my visit, there were clients from Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba, Sudan, and Eritrea, but come another day and you could meet someone from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Romania, Rwanda, Yemen, Afghanistan, China, or Peru. Last year, La Posada served clients from twenty-five nations. The people who have passed through its doors are survivors of human atrocities of nearly every kind—religious and political persecution, ethnic cleansing, human trafficking and slavery, extortion, kidnapping, mass murders, terrorism, forced conscription, rape, and other gender-based violence. They come because home is no longer safe.

That’s why the United Nations has urged the U.S. government to designate many of these women and children as refugees rather than migrants—especially those coming from Central America. Rather than being sent home, the UN argues, these people should receive international protection. The internationally agreed-upon definition of a refugee is someone who has fled her country based on a well-founded fear of persecution, and who does not feel that her own government can protect her. Refugees, according to the traditional understanding, are persecuted for their race, religion, or political affiliation. When we hear the word “refugee,” we may associate it with places like Syria, Iraq, or Sudan. Countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are not in the throes of civil war, yet the hundreds of thousands who have traveled to the United States from Central America in recent years are fleeing civil strife.

In a March 2014 report by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees titled “Children on the Run,” the agency concluded that more than half of the four hundred migrant children interviewed for the report qualified for international protection based on their stories of extortion, rape, murder, gang conscription, and other chilling human rights abuses. These grim realities have prompted human-rights organizations to pressure receiving nations to recognize these emerging forms of displacement. They urge countries like the United States to respond to each asylum-seeker on a case-by-case basis, knowing that deporting all these people means sending some of them back to a place where they face the threat of death—or worse.

At La Posada, the numbers tell the story of this crisis: For the five years preceding fiscal year 2013, La Posada served an average of 210 migrants and asylum-seekers a year, while in fiscal year 2013 La Posada served 589. By fiscal year 2014, those numbers more than doubled: they received 1,411 clients, including 631 children under the age of 18, and 555 women.

The women’s dormitory consists of just one bedroom shared by all the female clients and their children. Six twin beds fill the room end to end and are usually shared by several children at a time. To one side is a tiny bathroom that has been completely demolished. Because La Posada doesn’t have the resources to pay professionals to rebuild the bathroom, Sr. Zita has been taking trips to Home Depot for materials and having some of La Posada’s male clients do the work. That sort of creative problem-solving is how La Posada keeps running despite the many setbacks. “Somehow God always provides for us,” she says.

Tucked away at the end of a tranquil road, La Posada is surrounded by verdant corn fields and a meandering resaca—a marshy stream—used to irrigate the papaya trees and vegetable garden tended by guests. La Posada was originally located in Harlingen, where the organization sometimes faced opposition from locals with anti-immigrant views. They blame increased crime on the high level of immigration, or are simply uncomfortable with certain aspects of the asylum process. Sr. Zita says La Posada gets less grief out in the middle of nowhere.

When Sr. Zita and I arrive at the Homeland Security center in Harlingen, there are two mothers standing outside in the rain, each with a young son. They are from El Salvador. “Who am I taking?” Sr. Zita asks both mothers, but neither speaks English—and Sr. Zita doesn’t speak Spanish. An ICE agent explains that one of the mothers has received a money transfer from relatives in San Antonio and is waiting for a taxi to take her and her child to the bus terminal. The other mother is headed with her son to Chicago, but they have no money, which is why Homeland Security called Sr. Zita.

Because of the sheer numbers of mothers and children inundating Homeland Security facilities like the one in Harlingen, ICE has been releasing them with papers to reappear in court for immigration hearings at a later date. Many never show up. Some of them have no money and nothing but the clothes on their backs. That’s where La Posada comes in. The only nonprofit shelter of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley, the organization provides short-term and long-term shelter for its clients, as well as ESL and life-skills training, and legal and medical services. It also provides three meals a day, including a home-cooked dinner attended by all clients.

“I just want to go to Chicago now,” one of the mothers says through tears. Her fifteen-year-old son made the journey first; he is waiting for her in Chicago. Her younger son, who is nine, is silent and bleary-eyed. Over the course of eight days, they traveled from La Paz, El Salvador, through Mexico, and crossed the border near McAllen, where Border Patrol found them. La Paz means “peace,” but, as this mother tells me, “No hay paz en La Paz.” She says she has known countless people who have left La Paz for the United States, despite the perilous journey through Mexico, where criminals prey on vulnerable migrants, many of whom are extorted, murdered, kidnapped, trafficked, and sexually assaulted. Thousands more die in the scorching wilderness of the borderlands. But this mother, like so many others, was willing to take the risk because the situation at home is so dire. El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world, largely the result of gang violence and drug trafficking.

When we return to La Posada, Sr. Zita ushers mother and child into the main house where the woman calls her contact in Chicago. The contact will wire money to Sr. Zita, and when it arrives she will drive them to the bus depot in Harlingen. In the meantime, they will both get showers, clean clothes, a warm meal, and a safe place to sleep.

Also at La Posada are two young mothers—one from Eritrea, the other from Sudan—who arrived in the spring after fleeing civil unrest in their home countries. The Sudanese woman arrived with her three-year-old daughter and her six-month-old son. The Eritrean woman came to La Posada with her two-year-old daughter—and four months pregnant. She traveled with her husband, but, while Homeland Security released the mother and child to La Posada, the husband was placed in a detention center. He was later transferred to a different facility in Georgia, although his wife was not contacted about his move and did not know for several weeks where he was being held.

The women paid $8,000 each to make the journey. They began in Brazil, which they entered with forged documents, then traveled by taxi, bus, car, and foot through the jungles, mountains, and deserts of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. In each country, one guide handed them off to another. Neither has any family in the United States. They know very little English. Rather than trying to enter the United States illegally, they went straight to U.S. border officials and declared themselves asylum-seekers—as their guides advised them to do.

 

HOW SHOULD THE United States respond to the crisis? Is it our moral duty to give shelter and asylum to these mothers and children? “These unaccompanied minors should be cared for in their home countries, rather than burdening our already unsustainable entitlement systems,” Texas Governor Rick Perry wrote to Obama in May 2012. Perry, along with many other Republicans, blames the federal government’s border policies—the lack of effective border security as well as the administration’s supposedly lax deportation policy—for the surge in migrant children. Apparently he is not aware that Obama has deported more migrants than any other president.

Meanwhile, in states as far north as Massachusetts, officials scrambled to open shelters for these children. In an emotional speech in July, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick announced plans to open a facility to house a thousand migrant children. Flanked by Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, Patrick said that decision was based on “love of country and lessons of faith.” He reminded the public of how the United States turned away a boat of Jewish children in 1939, an act that “remains a blight on our national reputation.” Through tears, Patrick spoke of his most personal reason for defending these children who have come here alone: his faith. “Every major faith tradition on the planet charges its followers to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. I don’t know what good there is in faith if we can’t and won’t turn to it in times of need,” Patrick said.

Another woman religious, Sr. Pamela Marie Buganski, SND, responded to the crisis by moving from Toledo to Brooks County, Texas—ground zero of migrant deaths in the state—to help Eddie Canales, founder and director of the South Texas Human Rights Center. Sr. Pam has been assisting Canales in his effort to end migrant suffering along the Texas-Mexico border. “How do you get out in front of a disaster like this?” she asks. She has been responding to a seemingly endless series of calls from the relatives of migrants who have gone missing in Texas.

One unexpected way Sr. Pam found herself helping was by providing pastoral care for the forensic teams who have been working to exhume the remains of border crossers who have died in the vast brushland of Brooks County, which is not equipped to deal with the escalating numbers of dead migrants. As a result, most of them have been buried in common graves without proper forensic analysis. For the past few summers, volunteer forensic teams have spent weeks exhuming the bodies of migrants in the hope of identifying the dead and repatriating them so that their loved ones can bury them properly. This summer the team recovered more than fifty sets of remains: Bones buried in shopping bags; skulls in biohazard bags; clothed skeletons thrown into the ground. Krista Latham, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Indiana, headed up this year’s effort. “These are human beings who are refugees of extreme poverty and institutionalized violence,” says Latham. “These are human beings who died trying to get to a place they thought would bring freedom and safety. Human beings who were invisible in life and who were being forgotten in death. Human beings who have family members wondering what happened to them.”

In our last conversation, Sr. Pam called me from McAllen, Texas, where she was volunteering with Catholic Charities for the day. She was in charge of a mother and daughter who had not bathed in a week. “Sometimes all you can do in the face of such a disaster is be present,” she said. She had spent the day helping other mothers and children that had been released from detention. “I’m not a doctor,” Sr. Pam told me. “I can’t fix bodies. I’m not a lawyer. I can’t represent these mothers and children in court. But I can simply be with them.”

This past summer, La Posada welcomed its eight thousandth client, a man from East Africa who had been assaulted by terrorist groups there. “What a privilege it has been for the Sisters of Divine Providence, staff, volunteers, and donors to have touched so many lives, making God’s Providence more visible in the world and giving hope to thousands,” says Sr. Zita. “It’s a wonderful feeling that I have to make them feel welcome and loved not only by God, but by us.” One of Sr. Zita’s colleague’s echoed that sentiment: “The whole point of much of the Lord’s teaching is having that sense of, ‘When I was hungry you gave me to eat, when I was a stranger you welcomed me.’ That is what La Posada is all about.”

Published in the January 9, 2015 issue: 

Ananda Rose holds a doctorate from Harvard University and is the author of Showdown in the Sonoran Desert: Religious Law and the Immigration Controversy (Oxford University Press).

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