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April 14, 2021, El Centro, California – Newspapers and TV news broadcasts are filled with stories about the situation at the Mexico-U.S. border and the record number of migrants coming to the United States. But Sister Donna Markham, OP, PhD, saw the situation first-hand April 8 when she visited Catholic Charities workers in El Centro, California, less than 20 miles from Mexicali, Mexico.
As President of Catholic Charities USA, Sister Donna traveled to El Centro, California, to get a sense of how things are going at the California-Mexico border and to support the Catholic Charities workers who are struggling to meet the needs of record numbers of migrants coming into the United States.
“The situation of the migrants is quite fluid – literally thousands pouring into the United States every day,” Sister Donna said. “All the border agencies, as well as the Customs Border Protection workers, are stretched to try to meet the demand as best they can.”
When they arrive in the United States, migrants are placed into detention centers until they can be processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Customs and Border Protection, Sister Donna explained. Normally, people should be in detention for only 72 hours, she said, but often they are detained for up to eight days or more in some places.
“The people I saw on Thursday had been in detention for eight to 10 days, sleeping on concrete with no access to showers and no way to change their clothes,” Sister Donna said. When released, they were sent to a respite site established by Catholic Charities San Diego.
Sister Donna visited one respite site established at a local hotel. Migrants who tested negative for COVID-19 were sent to one hotel while those who tested positive were sent to another to quarantine. “Catholic Charities has been able to negotiate the use of the hotels, and is receiving funding through the state and from the Emergency Food and Shelter Board,” Sister Donna said.
Once migrants arrive at the site and Catholic Charities workers have a sense of how to locate family or friends in the United States, the migrants have the opportunity to choose clean clothes and to check into a hotel room for showers and a place to sleep, Sister Donna explained. A local restaurant supplies meals.
“Just the experience of getting clean clothes and having a clean room with their families can be wonderful” after the time they spend traveling and then in the detention center, Sister Donna said. She noted that most of the migrants enter the United States at El Centro or to any Catholic Charities site along the border are traumatized – many fleeing situations of violence or poverty in their native countries. The focus is on helping the migrants get to their final destinations: family or friends in the United States.
The sites set up by Catholic Charities San Diego have room for several hundred families. The families stay for about two days to recover from their ordeal, Sister Donna said. Catholic Charities San Diego then provides them with bus or plane tickets to the cities of their family members or friends and transportation to the bus station or airport.
In addition, she added, the migrants are connected with the Catholic Charities agencies in the areas where they are going. “It makes all the difference in the world when you can send them to another part of the country and then connect them with Catholic Charities in that area,” Sister Donna said. “Even though they have relatives, they need legal help and access to various services. It’s a big operation.”
Looking back to her experience at the border, Sister Donna said it was emotionally draining. “There’s no way you can look at that degree of human suffering and not be affected by it,” she said. “My hat is off to the people in Catholic Charities who are doing this all the time, every day.” She said she spent much of her time letting Catholic Charities workers know how much their hard work is appreciated. “Each one of them is a walking saint. They reach out in compassion and respect,” she said.
Catholic Charities workers are not alone in their efforts to help the migrants. Sister Donna said close to 200 Sisters from various congregations have volunteered their services, as have volunteers from other walks of life. “The religious congregations have been extraordinary in both their outpouring of financial support and making it possible for Sisters who are willing and vaccinated to assist the migrants.”
Sister Donna said concerned people can help by volunteering to serve at the border or with financial donations to Catholic Charities USA or their local offices. “It’s also helpful for people to pray for the migrants because they are all traumatized,” she said.
Feature photo: Sister Donna Markham, OP, PhD, takes time to chat with William and his daughter, Julia, who came to the United States from Brazil.
February 10, 2021, Adrian, Michigan – The General Council of the Adrian Dominican Sisters is among 320 national, state, and local organizations to sign on to a letter calling on President Joseph Biden to restore access to the health insurance benefits of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) to young immigrants with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status.
DACA recipients, often also called Dreamers, are U.S. residents who came to the United States as children with their parents and without legal documentation. Some immigrants who came as children have not received DACA status and are at risk of being deported to their native country. In many cases, the United States is the only home they remember.
The letter calls on President Biden to restore the access to ACA benefits to DACA recipients within the first 100 days of his presidency. Taking this action is critical, the signatories write, “for any additional delay in healthcare access during the COVID pandemic puts the health of DACA recipients, their families, and the wider community and risk.” Without access to those benefits, the signatories argue, the DACA recipients cannot obtain health insurance under Medicaid or CHIP or purchase insurance through the ACA or its health insurance marketplace.
Restoration of this healthcare benefit to DACA recipients is a matter of justice, said Sister Attracta Kelly, OP, an immigration attorney and Director of Office of Immigration Services for the Adrian Dominican Congregation. “So many of our DACA people are out there on the front lines,” Sister Attracta said. “They are the ones doing so much of the work just to keep the country going.”
Sister Attracta said that all people in the United States – citizens, residents, DACA recipients, and immigrants who have no legal status – should be vaccinated to keep the country safe from the COVID-19 virus. Her stance was supported in a recent statement by the Department of Homeland Security. The department said it supports “equal access to the COVID-19 vaccines and vaccine distribution sites for undocumented immigrants. It is a moral and public health imperative to ensure that all individuals residing in the United States have access to the vaccine.”
Sister Attracta held up the contributions made by people who live in the United States with no legal status. “We’re relying on them every day to do some of the hard work, [providing us with] food and all the other essentials. We don’t even begin to appreciate what they do.”
Sister Attracta also spoke of the need to reform the immigration system to make it more just, one that “welcomes immigrants and that keeps families together and allows people like those who are newly arrived and other people who have lived here for generations to more fully contribute to the country – which they would do if they felt safe.”
In addition, she spoke of the need to reunite families that were separated at the border. “Some of the parents are back in their home country and their children are here,” she said. “Clearly it is damaging to the parents, but it is way more damaging to the children.”
Sister Attracta spoke on February 2, 2021, hours before President Biden announced further steps to reform immigration in the United States. Among those steps were the creation of a task force to reunify the families separated at the border; development of a strategy to address “irregular immigration across the Southern border”; and re-establishment of a Task Force on New Americans to ensure a “fair and efficient” immigration system.
Immigration reform has long been an issue of concern for the Adrian Dominican Sisters. The Congregation invites all people of good will to speak out for immigration reform and on a number of social justice issues through its Action Alert page.
Feature photo: Sisters Judith Benkert, OP, left, and Maurine Barzantni, OP, speak out for justice at the border of Nogales, Arizona, and Mexico during the 2018 School of the Americas Watch Convergence at the Border. Adrian Dominican Sisters File Photo