There are never enough winter jackets in the stacks of sorted clothes in the salon de fiestas (fellowship hall) at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas. The stream of Central American refugees who arrive there after detention by the Department of Homeland Security rarely come with warm enough clothes to head further north. The 100 or so parents and children who stream through this makeshift refugee center daily leave behind the well-worn clothing they came in — and bundle up for the journey by Greyhound to new homes on this side of the Rio Grande’s America.
This summer the border crisis received significant media attention and concern. With thousands of people landing inside the United States — at seemingly unprecedented rates for this generation — religious, government and social agencies geared up to respond to what was becoming a humanitarian and political crisis. Thanks to connections from Mennonite Central Committee staff member Saulo Padilla, I had the privilege of witnessing responses as I sought to understand the situation.
Though the tide has slowed a bit, the same issues that pushed refugees from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador persist, and when warmer weather returns there will likely be a resurgence.
Current policy at the border is to remove adults, sending them back whence they came. But parents with children, and minors under 18, are allowed to remain. As a result, the “unaccompanied minor” crisis is largely one of our own government’s making. According to those on the front lines in South Texas, very few under 18 are actually unaccompanied when they arrive on the U.S. border. Most of them traveled with someone who was turned away — a family member, a friend or, sometimes, disturbingly, a trafficker.
Some refugees immediately seek asylum. Others travel within the U.S. to join family and friends as they move through a legal process. The morning I visited, several 20-something women had arrived from Honduras with a 7- or 8-year-old child in tow.
I spoke with a representative at the center from McAllen who said the city is committed to being hospitable but orderly. Everyone is offered soup designed for nutrient-deprived people, new clothes, a shower and a chance to see one of the medical volunteers. The showers were in trailers from the Salvation Army. Refugees can rest in an army tent on long-term loan until a bus is ready to take them north — but not for more than 24 hours.
Catholic Charities staffs the center with a combination of Catholic religious workers, professionals and local volunteers. Alma, a Tejana who teaches prayer in the Brownsville diocese, explained the operation of the refugee center. She said the Franciscans in charge of the parish facilities have said it can remain as long as needed. Alma described her charge and interacted with the volunteers and refugees with sincerity, grace and deep love. She said, “I treat everyone who comes in here as if they were the living Christ. Sometimes when we pick out clothes for the children, we give them clothes that they don’t really like. I invite them to come back to the pile to pick clothes they want, because with each boy or girl it’s like I’m dressing Jesus.”
I expected to come back from my border excursion with frustration and sadness. Instead, I returned with hope, having witnessed great love. The border responses aren’t perfect. The political and economic realities are complicated. Recent refugees are being equipped with ankle monitors to track their movements once inside the U.S. The refugees call the detention centers “freezers.”
But at the same time I was glad the U.S. government was admitting some of the most vulnerable arriving at our southern doorstep, escaping violence, feeling more pushed to leave their home than pulled by the possibility that is the U.S. I’m grateful that they’re given opportunity to state their case, to be reunited with family or friends while the process moves forward. I hope we’ll find a humane way through this situation.
The solution is a long haul of U.S. policies that might strengthen Central American economies and governments and help build healthy civil societies. But until then, the Franciscans will keep the doors open. And Tejanos like Alma will keep receiving newcomers as if they were Jesus, with open arms, clean shirts, new shoes, warm showers and instructions written in English to give to anyone who might help them land at their new, though possibly temporary, home.
Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor, student and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.