By Sister Andrea Balconis, OP, MD
September 24, 2019, Laredo, Texas – Responding to an invitation from Catholic Charities, I went to Laredo, Texas, for two weeks in August to volunteer at the migrant shelter, La Frontera. I was told ahead of time that the situation was very “fluid” as our government policy was constantly changing, and indeed, that was the case.
Last May, the shelter was receiving about 250 migrants on a daily basis, but toward the end of July, migrants were only being released from detention on the weekends when government buses were not available to transport them back to Mexico to await their court hearings scheduled for one month later.
The weekend I arrived, only 60 migrants were released from the detention center after spending four days there in the most deplorable of conditions. This was after traveling for about a month from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala with only the clothes on their backs and the name and address of a family member or other contact in the United States.
At the shelter, the migrants are provided with clean clothing, a shower, food, and lodging. Staff at the shelter helped our guests contact their relatives, arrange for bus tickets to their final destination, and transport to the bus station.
When migrants arrive at the shelter, they are very apprehensive and frightened about what will happen to them next, but they soon realize they are safe. Staff members report that when the women are allowed to go to the clothing room and spend time picking out clothes for themselves and their children, they start to feel that they are in control of their situation, being allowed finally to make decisions in a non-threatening environment. For us it seems like a small thing, but for them, to be able to choose a blue T-shirt instead of a red one is a small sign of returning to a normal environment.
About half of our guests required some medical attention, which was provided by Kelly Garcia, a volunteer pediatric nurse practitioner from Minnesota, and myself. We had a very small clinic space to work in, but we made do with what we had. Luckily for us, Kristan Schlichte arrived from Catholic Charities in Alexandria, Virginia, and responded to our wish list for basic supplies, such as an ice chest, a pill cutter, and a pill sorter. The lack of a sink with running water for hand washing was a challenge, but before my departure, plans were being made to transfer the clinic to a room in the shelter that was equipped with a sink, cupboards, and much more space.
It was heart-breaking to hear the stories that our guests told of the hardships they had to endure to travel so far, seeking freedom at last from violence in their native countries. Small children complained of headaches, stomach aches, and back pain, describing how they were given food they could not eat, not being able to take a shower or brush their teeth, and sleeping in cold rooms on a concrete floor while in the detention center.
Some of the adults had their medications taken away from them while they were in detention. We found that many had extremely high blood pressure and elevated blood sugar levels.
One man with a seizure disorder had his medicines confiscated. On the fourth day without his medications, he had a seizure and was sent to the hospital emergency room for treatment. He was sent the next day to our facility. He was so weak when he came to our clinic that staff members helped him to lie on the floor, as he did not have the strength to stand. He was refusing food for a few days, saying he had no appetite.
We got his proper medication and put him in an observation bed upstairs in the facility, while providing him with gentle hydration and nutrition. His 14-year-old daughter looked on. His condition improved after four days and he was well enough to travel by bus to be reunited with his wife in North Carolina. We provided him with a month’s supply of his medication and the phone number of a clinic he could call when he reached his destination so that he could continue to receive medical care.
Before he left he thanked us profusely and asked to have a picture taken with us so that he could show his wife the people who helped him on his journey. He told us he was sure he would have died if we hadn’t been there to assist him when he was so ill. Lucas and his daughter each gave us a huge abrazo (hug) and when they left, we all had tears in our eyes. We cannot make up for their ill treatment along the way, but we can offer them a new sign of hope, bringing to life the mission of Jesus proclaimed in Luke 4:18: “announcing good news to the poor, proclaiming that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free.”
For the past few weeks, the hallways have remained empty and the beds ready for new guests. Stories abound of migrants being returned to the streets in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, only to become victims of street gangs and drug cartels who take advantage of those who are defenseless and homeless. Many are being kidnapped and held against their will in “private” shelters, where they are held for ransom or human trafficking.
More than 20,000 asylum seekers have been sent back across the border to await their court hearings since the “Remain in Mexico” policy was announced. Our own State Department has posted a travel advisory about Nuevo Laredo, citing the enhanced risks of murder, armed robbery, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault.
It was considered an emergency situation when the shelter was overflowing with more than 200 guests per day. Now, with no one being released from detention, we face a new emergency and need to respond to it.
Sister Andrea Balconis, OP, MD, and Kelly Garcia, a nurse practitioner, spent much of their volunteer time serving in the medical clinic at La Frontera Shelter in Laredo, Texas.
July 30, 2019, Washington, D.C. – Four representatives of the Adrian Dominican Congregation participated in a campaign by a coalition of Catholic organizations to end the abuse of immigrant children and families at the border of the United States and Mexico.
Phase One – the Catholic Day of Action for Immigrant Children – was a prayerful direct action in Washington, D.C., on July 18, 2019, in which more than 300 people participated. The event included a rally on the south lawn of the U.S. Capitol with a prayer service and speakers. About 70 people then participated in a public action in the Rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building. In a peaceful protest, five formed a living, human cross on the Rotunda floor while the others prayed before all were arrested.
Representing the Adrian Dominican Congregation were Sister Kathleen Nolan, OP, Director of the Congregation’s Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation; Sisters Susan Van Baalen, OP, and Maurine Barzantni, OP; and Lisa Boris, Campus Minister at Regina Dominican High School, an all-girls school in Wilmette, Illinois, sponsored by the Congregation. None of the Adrian Dominican contingent was arrested.
Among the Catholic organizations involved in planning the event were NETWORK, a Catholic Social Justice Lobby; the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization of the elected leadership of about 80 percent of the Catholic Sisters in the United States; and Pax Christi, a Catholic organization working toward peace.
Dominican Sisters attending the Catholic Action in Washington, D.C. were: back row, from left, Sisters Susan Van Baalen, OP, and Maurine Barzantni, OP, Adrian; Sisters Quincey Howard, OP, and Peggy Ryan, OP, Sinsinawa; Sister Kathleen Nolan, Adrian; Sister Mary Feigen, OP, Hope; and Sister Ellenrita Purcaro, OP, Blauvelt; and front row, from left, Sisters Reg McKillip, OP, Sinsinawa; Sisters Carol Gilbert, OP, and Ardeth Platte, OP, Grand Rapids; and Sister Didi Madden, OP, Blauvelt.
“The purpose was to take a stand – to be visible and to make public the Catholic social document on immigration, Welcoming the Stranger,” Sister Maurine said.
Sister Susan spoke of making a statement by attending the rally and of being a source of support for those who had chosen to take direct action and be arrested. “It was clear that the people who made that decision couldn’t have done it without support – the support I was able to give by my presence,” she said.
Lisa said many of her friends are first- or second-generation immigrants. “To support my friends and strangers in this way was huge,” she added. “These are real people, and decisions made here in Washington are impacting and ending their lives.”
The prayer service included quotes from immigrant children in the detention centers who spoke of not being able to shower and of being afraid to ask for food. “These were kids who tried to escape a horrible situation [in their home countries] and wound up in a situation as bad or worse,” Lisa said. She hopes that by taking this action, she will inspire the students at Regina Dominican to become involved in justice and peace work.
The three Adrian Dominican Sisters traveled to Washington, D.C., on July 17, 2019, and spent that evening at the Stuart Center, a facility founded by a religious congregation, the Society of the Sacred Heart. There, they met Lisa and other Sisters and lay people who were involved in the event.
“The highlight was having a chance to share with other people who are committed to Catholic social teachings,” Sister Maurine said. They had the opportunity to share their experiences of the immigration issue the day before the event, as well as during a meeting afterwards.
For Sister Susan, the highlight was “the opportunity to share with other people and to hear from them how deep their concerns were and what a global issue it is.” The witnesses of the people who had been to the border and seen the conditions of the detention centers were also impressive, she said.
Lisa commented on how humbling it was to be surrounded by people who care about the immigration issue and allowed themselves to be arrested in their efforts for justice. She said the July 17 action and others that follow are being organized “until they close the detention camps and they’re not holding people without food and water and freedom.” The hope that the practice of detaining immigrants, especially children, “seems like an unrealistic hope, but educating the people and helping them to see what’s going on so they close the camps” is key, she added.
Sister Susan said that “in unity there is strength, and I hope that groups coming together to offer this kind of support will inspire others to join them. The churches, I believe, do have a Gospel mandate to be present and to respond. … It might not be through physical presence but it might be through the ballot box or funding.”
In the meantime, the Catholic organizations plan to continue their efforts on behalf of the immigrant families at the border. Sister Kathleen said the Catholic Action on July 18 is only phase one in the Catholic coalition’s efforts to persuade the government to not detain immigrant children in such inhumane conditions. “The organizers made it clear that there would be at least two more events – maybe one in August and one in September,” she said.
Read more about Catholic Action for Immigrants in recent articles from The Washington Post and The Catholic News Service.