BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC
The sheer exhaustion – from walking across a desert for weeks.
The hunger pangs – from not having a good meal in who knows how long.
The questions – Will I ever see my family again? Will I ever feel safe?
“They have been through hell,” said Deacon Chris Gutiérrez, of more than 800 migrants he encountered during a week in May 2019 while volunteering with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Laredo, Texas.
Deacon Gutiérrez, the director of Hispanic/Latino Ministry in the Diocese of Owensboro, had accompanied Susan Montalvo-Gesser and Charlotte Hedges of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Owensboro and Fr. Carmelo Jimenez of St. Michael Parish in Sebree, Ky.
For several months now, Laredo’s Catholic Charities has operated a shelter for migrants who are dropped off there by U.S. Border Patrol agents, after the migrants are released from detention facilities. The Laredo location is one of 17 Catholic Charities-run shelters welcoming these individuals.
Fr. Jimenez said one evening at the shelter, as everyone else gathered for dinner, he saw a man standing outside the dining room with a baby girl.
“My son, come to dinner, we have enough,” Fr. Jimenez called to the man.
But in response, the man erupted in a string of profanities aimed at Fr. Jimenez. When he had finished, Fr. Jimenez left, went to the kitchen, and brought some food back for the man. He left the man to eat, and then returned a bit later and said, “We need to talk.”
As Montalvo-Gesser held the baby, Fr. Jimenez spoke with the man for a long time, and learned his story. The man was miserable, exhausted and shaken from his journey.
“The worse is past; now you are home,” Fr. Jimenez told him. “You are free here.”
Deacon Gutiérrez said the migrants they served during the week of May 12 were mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – three countries particularly affected by poverty, crime and gang violence.
He explained that these individuals had left their home countries, walked for weeks across deserts and sometimes crossed several international borders. They concluded their journey by arriving at the U.S. border and voluntarily turning themselves in to Border Patrol.
After they were arrested, they were kept in detention centers – the duration varying from two days to over a year, depending on the circumstances – and then released and given court dates for their cases to be processed.
Their ultimate goal? To be granted asylum in the United States.
“In their countries there has been a complete breakdown in governance and safety,” said Montalvo-Gesser. She said the court systems in these countries are not the same as in the U.S.
“There is no (legal) recourse; a lot of people have seen family members killed in front of them,” she said, adding that “there is no domestic violence protection,” nor is there a way to prevent a gang from taking over a person’s house.
Due to increasing poverty, crime and gang violence in South and Central America, the United States has seen a growing number of undocumented immigrants arriving at its borders. According to a June 5 story by The Associated Press, May 2019 saw the highest migrant detentions at the border since 2007.
And with more and more people to assist, the Catholic Charities staff in Laredo has welcomed volunteers from around the country – including the group from Owensboro.
Montalvo-Gesser recalled entering the shelter for the first time.
She saw the line of asylum seekers with their children, automatically lining themselves up against the wall as they had become accustomed to doing in detention. The people, unused to being treated kindly, were fearful.
Seeing these families reminded Montalvo-Gesser of a line from Emma Lazarus’ poem inside the Statue of Liberty: “Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
As an immigration attorney, Montalvo-Gesser has worked with countless people who came to the U.S. and ended up living in Kentucky.
But, “I never got the raw story, like I did (in Laredo),” she said.
‘We’re alive, we made it’
After arriving at the shelter, the families and individuals were taken through a series of steps.
First, each family received a Red Cross bag with personal care items. Next, they went to the intake room where they met with Montalvo-Gesser – sometimes accompanied by Laredo’s Bishop James Anthony Tamayo. The volunteers entered the migrants’ information into a database, such as country of origin and family contacts.
Then they went to the call room, where Deacon Gutiérrez and Fr. Jimenez helped people phone their relatives who lived in the U.S. to say, “We’re alive, we made it.”
The deacon and priest also helped them connect with flights or bus tickets to reach their relatives; while unable to purchase tickets for the people, Catholic Charities did provide a shuttle service to the airport and bus stations.
After that, the individuals went to Hedges, who oversaw the donated clothing room. Many of the people had been in the same clothes for over a month.
Hedges said only one family was permitted in the clothing room at a time, to keep everything in order as they looked for fresh, clean clothing that fit.
Then each person was permitted a five-minute shower, limited due to the sheer number of people (Montalvo-Gesser said approximately 90-120 per day) going through the shelter.
“After their shower they’d put on their clean clothes, and dignity was restored,” said Montalvo-Gesser. “The smiles returned… they felt human again.”
One day at the shelter, Hedges had helped a little girl pick out some new clothes. The simple act of finding a purple blouse and pink skirt made the child’s eyes “light up,” said Hedges.
At the end of the week, when Hedges and Montalvo-Gesser were at the Dallas airport, preparing to fly back home, Hedges saw the little girl and her father in the distance. The child was wearing the outfit they had selected together.
Due to weather-induced flight problems, Hedges and Montalvo-Gesser ended up spending about 28 hours at the airport. And later, as they continued waiting for their flight, Hedges again saw the little girl in the purple shirt.
The girl spotted Hedges and ran over to offer her a bag of snack mix. Hedges declined, realizing this might be the only food the child would have all day. But after the girl insisted, Hedges realized this was the child’s way of saying “thank-you.”
She accepted the snack mix – but also shared some of her own food with the girl.
The entire week’s experience made Hedges reflect on “just how blessed I have been in my entire life.”
“I grew up in America, with two parents who were always there; there was always enough food, shelter, a roof over my head,” said Hedges.
“What’s expected of me, because I’ve been given so much?” she said.
Copyright © 2019 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic