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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Clad in his red vestments, Father Charles McCarthy kicked off the start of Holy Week on Sunday with a message to the two dozen or so asylum seekers inside the makeshift church set up in an Albuquerque hotel lobby.
“Just like you,” the priest told them in Spanish, “Jesus was rejected when he walked on the Earth.”
The migrants, some holding palms shaped into crosses, listened attentively as McCarthy continued his Palm Sunday Mass.
For these parents and children, the Mass marked a respite from the journey that has brought them to this moment, both in their own lives and in the history of the United States, which has been struggling to deal with an influx of migrants at the southern border.
Also struggling are the charitable organizations in El Paso and elsewhere along the border, and many of them are turning to nearby cities like Albuquerque to help fill the overwhelming need they’re seeing. Albuquerque residents and businesses have stepped up, providing food, fresh clothes, warm beds for them to sleep in, and even spiritual counseling before they depart to cities across the country to join their sponsors. In total, Albuquerque organizations have worked with about 1,400 immigrants, volunteers said.
And as they do that work, many have been moved by what they’ve seen.
There was the volunteer who broke down crying after she spoke with an asylum seeker as he prayed.
“When he saw her he said, ‘Oh I’m praying for all of you, and I’m praying for all the children and for the United States,’ ” Carla Lanting Shibuya said. “Here this man has been through hell and he’s thinking about us.”
And the woman from Honduras who was headed to Miami to meet her sister.
“And I just thought, I have two sisters,” Lanting Shibuya said. “We’re really close. She hadn’t seen her sister in I don’t know how many years, and it just killed me.”
And then there was the exterminator who was working at one of the hotels hosting a large group of immigrants who made a donation and offered to provide a meal.
“He said to me, ‘For me this is personal,’ ” she said. “And one of the little kids ran by and he pointed and said, ‘That was me.’ And then he just started crying.”
According to volunteer Eleanor Milroy, many of these asylum seekers have been traveling for weeks before they cross into the United States. They’re then taken into ICE custody where they eat sandwiches and sleep under aluminum blankets, volunteers said. Days later they’re released.
They arrive in Albuquerque on ICE buses that have bars on the windows and carry about 50 people each.
And that’s where people like Milroy and Lanting Shibuya, of Albuquerque Interfaith, step in to greet them. Since March 11, they’ve worked with about 600 people. And Albuquerque Interfaith is just one of five groups around the city providing accommodations for groups of asylum seekers. Most stay for a few days at most before traveling by bus or by plane to their final destinations.
“And when they leave, they’re showered, they’ve had a good night’s sleep, they’re in fresh clothes, I mean it’s totally different from the minute they get off the bus,” Milroy said. “I mean you wouldn’t believe the transformation.”
Milroy says that El Paso-area organizations reached capacity last month and contacted other cities for help. Each morning, an organizer there sends a text message that says how many people are being released from ICE custody in El Paso and how many will be sent to each site. ICE then buses those groups to their respective stay-over cities. On Sunday, that message says that 902 people are being released. In mid-March, Milroy said, daily numbers were generally in the high 200s. She worries the situation is unsustainable.
Volunteers charged with intake duties were stationed at the hotel Saturday afternoon when a group of 100 arrived. They let the immigrants know who they are and what they can offer.
“We are not ICE. We are here to help you get on the road to your loved ones, and in the mean time, you stay here, you get to sleep in a bed, you get a shower, and you get food and you get some TLC,” Milroy said. “That’s pretty special.”
Albuquerque Interfaith’s operation, directed by Milroy and Lanting Shibuya, includes a clothing distribution room, where families dig through piles of donated clothing. Kids get their pick of stuffed toys kept in a bin. One boy smiles as he flies his new hummingbird through the hotel room.
This particular hotel, which the organization has asked the Journal not to name, has given the group access to what’s normally a housekeeping room, and volunteers have transformed it into an activity room for kids, complete with beads, blocks and crayons. Doors down is a logistics room, where Spanish-speaking volunteers work with sponsors, often family members, who purchase plane and bus reservations. A transportation team takes families to the airport or bus station in time to make their next trip. By Sunday, about a third of that group of 100 had already left.
“I think the hardest part is when we say goodbye,” Lanting Shibuya said. “And just hoping for their future knowing we probably will never hear from them again.”
At the airport, they’re greeted by yet another squad of volunteers who help them make their way through security.