Catholic Charities at the US border — what we saw at the border in Tucson and Laredo.

What we saw at the border — a collective story as we encountered families seeking asylum at the US Southern Border — Part 3

Rio Grande: view from Laredo, TX

Continued from Part 2: why we were assembling chairs and bedrooms in a Tuscon, AZ youth detention center

Read our blog from the beginning!

At Laredo, TX, we saw a closed border, and tent courts erected on a flood plain

As told by CFC case manager in Aging and Adult Services, Estella VelezUpegui

When our team arrived in Laredo, TX, we found that the border at Laredo had been closed, with most seeking asylum being sent back to Mexico to await their hearing date in court. (This is called Migrant Protection Protocols) Folks being held in the detention center were not being released. For our team, this meant that few-to-no asylum seekers were being released to seek medical care, food and assistance to rejoin families or sponsors. Some of our team were able to help asylum seekers already in the US with paperwork and assisted in connecting them with aid they required, but most volunteers were diverted to other locations, such as Tucson, AZ, to help operations there.

“court tents” at the Laredo, TX border

Sidebar: Court tents

We observed that the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Laredo was building temporary court rooms in 20–27 tents in Laredo. The intention is to have judges who will Skype in and hear asylum cases, with a goal to increase the amount of asylum cases that can be heard a day to 200–600 a day. These tent courts are slated to begin hearings by the end of August or early September. The city and county are concerned that the tents have been erected on a floodplain, either resulting in it being shutdown should heavy rains occur, or requiring relocation and rebuilding.

More on the tents:

Our team heard and saw matters that made their hearts very sad. In addition to witnessing the erection of “court tents” on a flood plain, our volunteers watched as families and people seeking asylum were turned away from the border and sent back to Mexico. The heard stories of the experiences in the detention center in Laredo, which were consistent with stories reported elsewhere: Families would be separated, and hairbands, shoe laces and belts confiscated. Mothers would be separated from sons, and 16–17 children were sent back to Mexico by themselves, where ‘coyotes’ and cartel members might kidnap and otherwise “press” them into service. Families would spend up to 20 days in the detention centers (named by the clients “la heladera” — the refrigerator — because of the excessively low temperature of the place). These were all measures considered to be deterrents to people presenting themselves for asylum status.

As of this writing, asylum seekers are now being returned to Mexico immediately, with many being sent by the Mexican government to Chiapas State, which is on the border with Guatemala.

Here’s what we learned was the typical experience earlier in 2019: local non-profit organizations had negotiated with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities to help those being released. Thereafter, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) would call one of these organizations, which would send a bus to transport individuals and families to their shelter. In the shelter, they would be given access to showers, a bed, clean clothes, nutritious food, etc… Volunteers would help them call their families and arrange for bus tickets to reunite them where the family/sponsor is living.

Catholic Charities’ refurbished shelter in Laredo, TX

The local Catholic Charities agency in Laredo rented a former shelter for battered women for 6 months to host these asylum seekers, who are referred to as “guests”. We found that it was unfortunately located in a neighborhood struggling with violence and poverty (two people were shot during the week we were there). It has capacity for 230 people, with an average stay of 2–7 days. Until August, 2019, there were only 4 full time staff running this shelter, with the rest of the work being done by volunteers from the Laredo community.

During our time there, we were given an opportunity to assist the shelter staff in record keeping and reporting tasks, many of which were nearly impossible in the beginning months of operation. Volumes were so unexpected and sudden, and communication was chaotic between volunteer agencies and US CBP. There were no consistent ways of recording and measuring who was a guest in the shelter. After spending just two days going through each guest waiver that and organizing records by timeline, family size, ages, etc… the following are estimates of how many people the shelter served:

· May: 2,108

· June: 2,019

· July: 865

· August: approaching 0

Left: CFC team visiting Laredo, TX shelter; Right: Catholic Charities of Laredo staff and volunteers

On the last working day of our stay we were sent to the central offices of the Diocese of Laredo to organize the food pantry there, and discarding expired items. The Consulate of Guatemala had established a temporary office at the Diocese of Laredo to assist undocumented Guatemalans, principally updating their passports or providing IDs. We were helping some of these clients fill out the needed forms.

Our big takeaway: Although we were not able to directly help undocumented immigrants, we feel that we contributed to make the shelter a better place for future arrivals. In listening to the stories of volunteers and staff in Laredo, we are convinced of the important role that CCUSA is having in helping fellow human beings looking for better lives for themselves and their families. Thank you for listening to our story.

You can read more about the “Remain in Mexico” policy, and its effects here.

We call them “guests”…an Interpreter’s perspective

As told by CFC staff member, Cynthia Williams

I joined my CFC team on this journey, I knew my fluency in Spanish would be of particular help, and expected to be asked to do a wider range of direct support tasks than my fellow volunteers. Because my background includes not only fluency from my time living in Guatemala, but also a degree in nursing, I was assigned to assist with medical intake interviews and questionnaires.

The need was so great, and my experience so profound, that I received permission to stay an extra week to continue my services as long as possible.

Not only did I attend intake sessions whenever we had new arrivals, which would mean I would need to leave my fellow volunteers in the middle of whatever project I had been assigned, but anyone with a decent level of Spanish became immediately noted by all asylum seekers (Casa Alitas calls them “guests”) and volunteers as the go-to for any special requests or personal needs. So, my time was constantly being used to explain a request or direction, wherever it was taking place. I certainly spent a lot of time walking between resource areas like the clothing tent, the hygiene/shower areas, the shelter/sleeping areas, as well as the intake areas.

What I learned was that our guests received little-to-no medical evaluation or treatment at the border; however, some screenings were provided to “everyone”, such as screenings for head lice. We did see a few arrivals who still had lice present on their clothing or in their hair, and were beginning to have treatments provided in the shelter, such as providing new clothing and helping with the application of treatment shampoo and subsequent comb-out. (Old clothing was most often thrown away, but this was the guest’s choice. We were instructed to always offer the use of a sealable plastic bag; any live larvae would become inactive after 2–3 days, and the clothing could be washed and re-worn. Our guests usually requested that we throw this clothing away.)

I was always used at the time of departure for our guests. Often, I would accompany our guests to the Greyhound station, where they would obtain tickets and transfer tickets (sometimes their trips involved multiple transfers), and explain how to understand the information on the ticket, what to expect at their future arrival and/or transfer, and give advice on the best places and people to go to with questions and to ask for directions. (Answer: a Greyhound personnel and especially the bus drivers, all of whom were wonderful and focused on serving their guests and ensuring their safe arrival at their destination.) The good news for many was that their journey to their family / sponsor location involved at least one transfer to another city in the south/southwest, where finding a Spanish speaker to help with arrival and transfer questions might be relatively easy.

I also found it very important to remind all guests at departure about the importance of keeping their court dates, so as not to put at risk their ability to stay in the US.

More reflections from Tucson

As told by Ken Pitcher, CFC Outreach Specialist for Refugee Resettlement

Friends, I had the opportunity to volunteer at a shelter in Arizona for asylum seekers who’ve been released from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after seeking asylum at our southern border. After 2 days working here were some thoughts/observations that I sent out to my family back home:

- There is so much great work being done by volunteers, churches, agencies that are working closely with the Tucson city government, travel companies, etc… That level of collective collaboration and support was great to see.

- The US government agencies are cooperating with shelter Casa Alitas by bringing those they’ve released to this location. Previously they simply dropped people off at a Greyhound station or airport with no funds or ability to continue their journey. Progress is being made, although we still heard disheartening reports at times.

- The numbers of asylum seekers coming through this facility have dropped significantly. Most feel this can be attributed to dangerously high temperatures in the desert, or possibly due to the government forcing people to wait in Mexico. There have also been reports of US Border patrol generally allowing fewer people to legally claim asylum at the border.

- At this point I’ve only seen young families with kids go through this shelter. Lovely people, they are extremely grateful for the care they’ve received, especially after their long journey.

My Reflection from my time at the US Border

- I’ve seen dozens of asylum seekers who’ve been released from detention — mostly women and children, families. I did not in any way feel threatened or that they’ve come to mooch off of our system. All had family they were leaving this facility to rejoin. If we as Christians are ‘pro-family’ we need to support and welcome these folks.

- Watched a group of families from Honduras join hands in a circle as one of the women prayed for a good 5 minutes. They then hugged and all said good-bye to a young family that was boarding a bus on the next stage of their journey. A sacred moment. It made me wonder what God could teach us through these folks.

- One day, a group of 27 was dropped off by ICE, mostly women and children. The director shook his head, saying how concerned he was by a new policy initiative of the Administration to allow ICE to keep families detained indefinitely. Women and children similar to those I just saw get off the bus will simply remain in jail rather than be sent back to Mexico. They feel this will keep them in the process so they can join their families in the US, but more critically, it will prevent their children from being kidnapped by the cartels and gangs who are roaming the Mexican border, and protect the women from being sexually assaulted and raped.

- I visited the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, AZ. There, I heard stories of families on the other side of the border who are given a number in line and told to wait until the number is called allowing them to legally claim asylum. The current wait time is up to 4 months. When their number is called they are then put in detention facilities on the US side of the border. I heard many stories of families allowed in but, children over 18 were deported back to their country of origin. We’re not punishing those crossing illegally — we’re punishing everyone who is crossing, seeking asylum and safety.

Read Part 4: two weeks of witnessing fear, illness, desperation and hope.

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**Learn how you can take action and support these local efforts at the border. 100% of your donation will help our agencies along the border meet basic needs and ensure that children are being treated with care and kindness.

**Watch our international award winning series, See Their Stories, a campaign created in effort to bring clarity to the mistrust and misunderstanding of the refugee story. A series of short video-story vignettes have been created to illustrate the personal journey of refugees.

** Support to Rochester’s immigrant community has been a cornerstone of Catholic Family Center’s work since its founding in 1917. Over the past 35 years, over 15,000 refugees have resettled to Rochester, NY with the help of Catholic Family Center and our many partners. Learn more about our Refugee & Immigration Services at



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