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Holy Names Sister volunteers to welcome strangers at border

Musician Karen Conlin serves at respite center near border

By Catherine Ferguson SNJM

Holy Names Sister Karen Conlin, a cello teacher at Holy Names Music Center who has lived in Spokane most of her life, left her familiar world in June and traveled to Laredo, Texas, for the first time so she could join in efforts there to "welcome strangers."

She went to volunteer at La Frontera Humanitarian Respite Care Center at the request of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) and invitation of the U.S.-Ontario Province of the Sisters of the Holy Names. The center is a Catholic Charities sponsored respite center for migrants seeking asylum in the United States. Many other religious groups sponsor such centers and invite volunteers.

"When I first heard this invitation in April, it just wouldn't let go, said Karen. "I wrote to the contact person and said I was thinking of going but wasn't sure of my motivation. I started to explore possibilities in San Diego, San Antonio and several other places where LCWR said help was needed.

For the last four years, the situation at the border has disturbed her. 

"I thought of the scriptures telling us to 'welcome the stranger' and the teaching in the Hebrew scriptures: 'When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.' (Lev 19:33)," she said.

Karen realized that answering this invitation was something she could do in response to what was gnawing at her.

She felt blessed to have the physical energy and good health to be able to serve meals, make beds, clean rooms and do the other tasks at a respite center that serves people desperate enough to make the journey to come to the United States and seek asylum.

The work is quite a contrast to her years in music, including many years of playing in the Spokane Symphony.  She is retired from that now.

Karen recently shared her observations of what is happening at the border there.

"As I met the people and heard some of the stories from the center director, Rebecca Solloa, I realized that these were truly desperate people who had only left their homes because of violence and oppression that made it impossible for them and their children to survive there," Karen said.

She heard the story of a Guatemalan family whose older daughter was kidnapped and held for ransom when she went to the market to buy supplies for their bakery. The family couldn't raise all the money the kidnappers were asking but they tried to raise as much as they could. They told the kidnappers they were getting what they could and asked that they not harm the girl.

They managed to raise some of the money, and the girl was returned to them but she had been raped and beaten. They were then told that if they reported the kidnapping to anyone, someone would come after their 11-year-old daughter. 

"How" Karen asked, "could they stay in this place with such violence, especially to their children?"

The respite center where Karen volunteered is typical of many along the U.S. southern border. This one welcomes those seeking asylum who have already been processed by U.S. Customs and Immigration, have been tested for COVID and have sponsors.

As asylum seekers come out of the immigration building, they are transported to the Respite Center for assistance in contacting sponsors and buying bus or plane tickets for transportation to wherever the sponsor lives. Once this is done, if the asylum seekers leave the same day, the center helps transport them to the airport or bus station. If not, there are overnight accommodations—one building for men, and one for women and children.

Most of those coming to this center were families or single persons seeking asylum.

According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR), an asylum seeker is one who seeks international protection, someone whose claim has not yet been finally decided on by the country in which the claim is submitted.

 In other words, the center is only a temporary stop on the refugee's journey. Their sojourn with their sponsors is also only a temporary stop, Karen explained. 

At some point, each asylum seeker is given an immigration court date.  During their appearance, they will present their case for asylum, which the presiding immigration judge decides. It is unknown how many of those currently being processed at the border will eventually be allowed to remain in the U.S., but in 2019 the U.S. admitted only 29,916 refugees, down significantly from the 84,998 peak in 2016.

When immigrants arrive at the Respite Center and the arrangements are made for transport, they are given hygiene supplies and clothing if needed, as most do. Because shoelaces and belts are taken from them at customs, the center has supplies of these for everyone. It also offers an opportunity to shower.

Volunteers help prepare and serve meals for everyone at breakfast and lunch. There are cases of bottled water to quench their thirst because some have waited in line outside the customs office until their case was processed. Some have even waded across the Rio Grande, which is narrow near Laredo.

Many now coming through customs are persons who were either not processed or expelled during the Trump era. In some cases, this was because Title 42, a little-known provision of U.S. health law, allows any customs officers to "prohibit … the introduction" into the U.S. of individuals when the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes "there is serious danger of the introduction of [a communicable] disease into the United States."

Effectively this allows any customs officer to expel asylum seekers from the U.S. without allowing them to apply, Karen pointed out.

In other cases, the U.S. government, using the "Migrant Protection Protocols" (MPP), also known as the "Remain in Mexico" policy, returned asylum-seekers to Mexico to wait for the duration of their cases pending in the U.S. immigration court system. These people now seek to enter the U.S. to await their immigration hearings because of dangers they face from gangs along the Mexican border.

"The bus driver, Sandy Ramirez, told us a story of two little girls snatched from their family while waiting in line to cross the bridge," Karen said.  "Another time, we expected two refugees—one from Haiti and one from Ethiopia. They never showed up and no one knew what happened to them.

"The experience was important for me. Those who ran the Respite Center came over the border each day from Mexico where they live," she said. "They worked hard to ensure a safe and welcoming center for the immigrants."

During Karen's 10-day stay, the center had about 16 other volunteer Sisters, primarily from the Midwest. Although there was no set length of time for volunteering, the number of volunteers stayed fairly constant during her stay. She was particularly impressed by three volunteers from Texas who would help for two weeks, travel home to rest up for a couple of weeks and then return to assist again.

"The volunteers were competent, caring, able to respond to the needs around them without having to be told what to do at each step. Some spoke Spanish fluently. Others like me didn't, but there was still plenty I could do to 'welcome the stranger'."

The center had resources to provide meals, clothing if needed, transportation to the bus or the airport, and overnight stays if needed.

Volunteers were the human face to all of this. They greeted people, served at mealtimes and, if needed, overnight. They assisted by giving the people a sense that someone cared and was there for them, Karen said.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, October, 2021