LAS CRUCES – As sunset approaches on a recent day, a white-and-silver bus swings into the parking lot of a small Methodist church in central Las Cruces and comes to a halt. Inside the bus, still out of sight, are 23 women, men and children — asylum-seeking immigrants from Central America.
Standing outside the bus at the head of a small, friendly greeting party is Rev. George Miller, pastor of El Calvario United Methodist Church. The church is preparing to receive the group of migrants, who’ll stay at least overnight and possibly a couple of days.
“The people we’re housing are refugees,” he told the Sun-News. “They’ve come to the border and applied legally. They’re fleeing persecution and violence, and they’ve been released by the federal government to us.”
A hint of anxiety is apparent among the volunteers as the bus arrives. That’s not because they’re afraid of the immigrants. Rather, the process of feeding, housing and coordinating cross-country travel for a group of strangers whose home countries are thousands of miles away is fraught with logistical challenges. And all manner of problems can and do arise.
The volunteers have been prepping for hours to receive this once-a-week drop-off of immigrants at the church. And, without fanfare, the immigrants begin to file off of the bus. One dark-haired woman cradles a baby. A number of young children can be seen. Some immigrants smile cautiously, as they’re warmly greeted by volunteers. With strands of hair straying from pony tails and clothing showing signs of dirt and wear, most people appear haggard, a consequence of their 2,000-mile (or longer) journeys, as well as their recent time spent in U.S. detention centers.
One migrant’s story
The group is whisked into the church’s chapel, where a quick prayer service ensues. For many migrants, this is the first haven of sorts that they’ve experienced in the United States, and the emotion appeared to overwhelm some of them.
Riccy, a 25-year-old woman who the Sun-News is identifying only by her first name, knelt in prayer. With her 9-year-old son and 14-month-old daughter, she left Honduras on Oct. 16, traveling by car and bus. She walked a small part of the trip.
Meanwhile, in the nearby kitchen, volunteers have a meal of rice, beans, chicken and corn tortillas ready to go. The immigrants are shepherded into the church’s small dining hall.
Wearing a dusty denim shirt and black pants, Riccy now sits at at one of three circular tables occupied by immigrants and a few volunteers who dine with them. Her 14-month-old daughter — a toddler with short, dark curly hair — moves around in a nearby corner of the room, happily playing with other children and a batch of toys.
Speaking to the Sun-News with the help of a translator, Riccy, who speaks Spanish, admits it was difficult traveling with two children. But she says her son helped her care for her toddler as the small family made their way through the interior of Mexico. She’s relieved, she says, to be in the United States.
Not all refugees from Central America speak Spanish. Volunteers at times encounter indigenous people who know little or no Spanish, but rather speak local native dialects.
In another small side room, a volunteer whisks through the paperwork of the new arriving immigrants — making sure it’s all intact (problems arise for the migrants if it’s not), tallying numbers of people (for instance, how many families and children are there?), and attempting to arrange their transportation to destinations elsewhere in the United States.
A short-term stay in Las Cruces
Just where are these immigrants going?
They’re bound for U.S. cities where their legal sponsor families live; most often this is a relative already living in the United States. Once they get there, they’re obligated to appear at a federal immigration court hearing, as part of their asylum cases.
By the time the immigrants reach El Calvario Methodist Church and several other Las Cruces churches participating in temporary shelter projects, these hearing dates have already been set. So, arranging transportation out of Las Cruces for these migrants as quickly as possible is key, volunteers said.
Anselmo Delgado, El Calvario church’s volunteer coordinator, has a sense of compassion for migrants that arose in part from his own experience. He’s from Puerto Rico, which although a territory of the United States, is often looked down upon, he said. As a biracial person, he said he experienced discrimination when first moving to Florida in the 1960s. And for the immigrants arriving from Central America, Delgado said their culture is similar to that of Puerto Rico’s. He relates to them.
Some immigrants have experienced trauma and poor treatment on their journeys — not only in Mexico but in the United States, too. And Delgado said he’s always on the lookout for people who are extremely withdrawn. He said he tries to lend a listening ear, encouraging them when he can. Delgado is proud of the small effort El Calvario is making to help migrants, which requires a lot of time and dedication.
“This has got to be the smallest church with the biggest heart in Las Cruces,” he said.
An estimated 35 volunteers each week help run El Calvario’s short-term shelter. Some are church members, but others aren’t religious or are from faiths other than Christianity. Volunteers said they work in shifts, and different volunteers have different roles. Some prepare the food; others dole out donated clothing to migrants. Others launder bedding once all the migrants have left for the week.
Louis Raney, a member of University United Methodist Church, was among the volunteer group receiving immigrants at El Calvario. He’s done charitable missions previously to impoverished communities in Mexico, and said volunteering is a way of life.
“It’s fun. It’s interesting. It’s humbling,” he said. “It makes me appreciate what I have.”
With a recent shift in practices by the federal government, asylum-seeking immigrants are likely to be released from detention at a faster rate. Combined with a surge of immigrants to the U.S.-Mexico border, volunteers are expecting more migrants to be in need of short-term shelters. But whether there will be enough shelter capacity to accommodate the migrants remains up in the air.
Reaching their destinations
For the most part, it is family members already living in the United States who pay the travel costs for newly arriving immigrants to get from the U.S.-Mexico border region to other places in the United States. Most depart Las Cruces on buses. But a few are able to fly to their destinations, catching flights out of El Paso. In those cases, volunteers with the Las Cruces churches will drive the immigrants to the airport.
For the 23 people — a total of 10 families — arriving on a recent day at El Calvario Methodist Church, their destinations are wide-ranging: Murfreesboro, Tennessee; Lynn, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Immokalee, Florida; and Panorama City, California, among others.
The same day, another 50 immigrants were housed at two other Las Cruces church facilities that also run short-term shelters.
El Calvario happens to be the last bus drop-off point of the day for asylum-seeking immigrants. That means volunteers from other churches have a head start on booking bus travel for the immigrants in their care. And the outbound buses from Las Cruces fill up quickly. While the church’s volunteers attempt to usher families on their way within 24 hours, immigrants sometimes stay longer at the shelters if there’s no available transportation out of Las Cruces.
The fact that many immigrants don’t speak English, and some don’t speak Spanish either, can pose a challenge in traveling to their destinations. Not only are there language barriers, but the immigrants tend to stand out, Delgado said, which can make them targets for criminals in the United States.
Delgado recounted a migrant woman from Honduras who stayed at El Calvario about a week ago. She left on a bus, and had to stop in Dallas. There, she was robbed.
“She was stuck there two days,” he said.
Fortunately, she was able to reach her destination in time appear in time at her first immigration court hearing.
In search of opportunity
As Riccy speaks with the Sun-News, a volunteer approaches, asking if it’s OK for her son to go see a volunteer physician. Riccy agrees. Medical professionals from throughout the community and from different faiths — one volunteer, for instance, is Muslim — lend their expertise to examine newly arriving migrants.
Asked if she experienced any danger in her home country, Riccy says she wasn’t afraid of gang violence or other threats. But she is seeking better economic opportunity and better educational opportunities for her children. She worked in a low-paying government job in Honduras. She’s hopeful to earn enough money working in the United States to send some back to help her parents. As Riccy describes her outlook, she says she has a lot of aspirations.
As Riccy talks with the Sun-News, more volunteers pack up tables and start pulling out fold-away cots. Soon, the cots line the room.
Riccy isn’t without family in the United States. She has a sister who’s lived here about eight years. She’s going to stay with her. Riccy says she’s eager for her first immigration court hearing. She’ll be disappointed if she has to return to Honduras.
In response to a farewell message of “buena suerte,” or “good luck,” Riccy replies, “thank you.” Luck, she says, is one thing she’s going to need.
Diana Alba Soular may be reached at 575-541-5443, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AlbaSoular on Twitter.
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