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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.