February 22, 2019

By Mary Becker, SNJM and Mary Ondreyco, SNJM

Two Holy Names Sisters are among the many volunteers who have been serving guests of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas. They recently returned and shared their experiences in this report.

Annunciation House has been accompanying migrant, homeless and economically vulnerable peoples of the border since 1978. Recently with the influx of people from Latin America, Annunciation House has set up nine centers to continue this outreach and support. The people of El Paso have responded generously by providing daily meals, laundry service, transportation to bus stations or airport, translation services and clothes and food donations. Through the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Annunciation House asked for religious Sisters and people affiliated with their communities to volunteer and help at the various centers. Many responded to this request. The Sisters of Loretto have provided housing for volunteers at their El Convento residence.

Ruben Garcia, the executive director of Annunciation House, has a working relationship with ICE. When the immigrants and asylum seekers are released daily from the Sub-Stations or Detention Centers, Ruben is notified and ICE buses then bring people to the Centers. The majority of people who arrive at our Center, Nazareth House, are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries. They come with the clothes on their backs, worn shoes, hungry, thirsty, often carrying a baby or with young children prone to illness. Through all this they arrive with inner strength, hope, a desire to live in peace and to work and support their families.

All the guests had documents received from ICE that are their current ID. With these documents they can travel legally and are given a hearing date – usually within two weeks – where they need to appear in a federal court as part of the asylum process. At that hearing, depending on the judge, they could be allowed to continue the asylum process or they might be deported. 

We realize that the immigration issue in the U.S. is a very complex issue and we continue to read and discuss articles that help us to better understand this reality. Several articles we recommend are: “Moving ‘Beyond the Wall’: Immigration panel talks moral, practical solutions” (National Catholic Reporter, Feb.5, 2019) and these links to two articles: “The Ethics of Trump’s Border Wall” by Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin (New York Times, Jan. 30, 2019) and “Trump Does His Divisive El Paso Number” by Roger Cohen (New York Times, Feb. 8, 2019).

The receiving centers have 24-hour coverage by a site coordinator (7:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m.) and by volunteers during the day and through the night. We worked the 10:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. shift each day and each of us took one night shift from 10:00 p.m.-7:00 a.m.   

During the day shift many things happened:

  • ICE officials brought those released from the processing centers to Nazareth House. Most days, two busloads of people arrived and the center accommodated up to 50 new arrivals along with the 40 or 50 others waiting for their departures to sponsors in various states.
  • Spanish-speaking volunteers helped with the intake procedure as well as welcoming the guests who weren’t quite sure where they were and who was helping them in this next step of the process. Water, snacks or a meal were provided and each new arrival was helped to select a change of gently used, clean clothing. Towels, toiletries, sheets, pillows and blankets were provided, and all enjoyed a hot refreshing shower.
  • Most meals were provided by El Paso volunteers but on several occasions we, the day volunteers, cooked and prepared the lunch or dinner for around 100 people. We always asked some of our guests to help us with the meal preparation, the serving of the meal and then the clean-up of the many pots and pans. The guests loved working with us in these activities.
  • Volunteers also aided in the general maintenance of the center – folding clean sheets, checking rooms, preparing snack bags for all traveling by bus or plane to their new locales and helping with medical needs or emergencies. (Nursing experience would have been helpful here!)

Before the volunteer time with Annunciation House, Mary O. participated in Capacitar workshops (holistic wellness practices) with people in Juarez and El Paso. Capacitar leaders have been working at the border for more than 10 years, and around 95 people participated in these workshops. The SNJM Ministry Fund provided funding for these workshops and for the planning of future workshops in border areas in El Paso and central and southern California.

On returning home and reflecting on our experiences, we are very grateful to the Holy Names community for your support, prayer and encouragement. We carried some of your donations with us and these enabled us to buy fresh salad, fruit and meat for the meals that we prepared for our guests. But most of all, we are grateful for the memories of the children and families, our guests, who left behind the violence and poverty of their home countries (as our own ancestors did) to start a new life here in the U.S., bringing with them much hope, spirit, determination and initiative.

Both Marys helping with serving dinner.

Guests in prayer.

Mary O. organizes clothing for guests’ travel.

Mary O. and guests clean up the kitchen.

Mary B and Sr. Alicia, SL, locate a guest’s family.

Cathy Olds, OP and Mary O. prepare intake packets.

Volunteers, Mary O. and Mary B. prepare dinner.