On a recent, typically scorching hot day in the Southwest, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and a lay associate plunged into the immigration situation at the Mexican border offering head, hands and heart.

 In Tucson, Arizona, and El Paso, Texas, these women religious volunteers — my fellow CSJs — were trained and provided as much help as they could for women and children refugees who had arrived from “processing” with the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

It is not easy to learn of the talents and expertise of those who arrive to help, and immediately put that expertise to good work. Yet, as I have spoken with other Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet helping in Arizona and Texas, I am quite proud of what these women are doing.

For they follow the Gospel teachings. Where there is hunger and thirst, they provide. For refugees weary and damaged by smugglers, these Sisters offer physical, emotional and spiritual healing. For those who arrive sick and in distress, they provide comfort and a smile.

In Arizona

Sister Loraine Polacci and lay associate Isabel Malloy, members of my religious community from San Francisco, have volunteered with Catholic Community Services in Tucson and Nogales. Noted Sister Loraine:

“We just met a woman who arrived at the border yesterday and almost immediately she gave birth. She traveled through that desert in her ninth month, but knew she had to do it for the same of her unborn child. In the woman’s home country, children as young as two months routinely arrive at the morgue as victims of gang violence.”

The majority of those who arrive are women and children — but all too often they are children traveling alone in search of family members. Sister Loraine said that a few days before, she had gone through Red Cross training at another border town. Routinely Catholic Community Services personnel process the children, then volunteers help the children who have arrived alone. The sisters in El Paso work through Catholic Charities organizations.

The previous evening Sister Loraine attended a training session at Catholic Social Services. Volunteers accompany women, their children and pregnant women who have been dropped at the Greyhound Bus station, and help the women get from one bus to another. They also make sure that there is housing for those whose bus will not leave until the next day. Other volunteers help unaccompanied minors make phone calls to family in their home country or the relative who will accept them in the United States until further processing. 

 “Your sisters are needed!” was the message Sister Theresa Kvale received as she attended a recent meeting at Catholic Community Services. Sister Theresa, a CSJ from the Los Angeles Province, and an RN with experience in Peru and other third world countries, attended the meeting led by Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson. Also attending were the mayor of Tucson and representatives from more than 20 other agencies.

The lack of trained women volunteers to help care for the influx of children — amid Border Patrol agents who are mostly men — was pointed out to the whole group. “Your sisters are needed!” the Sisters were told.

In Texas

Sister Ida Robertine Berresheim, an 86-years-young CSJ, and Sister Sandy Straub, who both have served in Peru, are volunteers in El Paso with Catholic Charities. By phone Sister Sandy told me that she and Sister Ida are ideally suited to work with these women and children after their many experiences in Peru.

“We believe in the ministry of presence to all people,” she said. “Sometimes what the poor really need are beyond the necessities of food and clothing. They also need a ministry of presence, someone to listen to their story. That is one way to minister.”

Sister Ida is the “housemother” for a large group of volunteers and works with four other volunteers to provide for the physical needs of those helping. Sister Sandy is picked up each day and taken to one of five centers in El Paso, where data is taken. The arrivals receive clean clothes, move into dorms with 150 cots, shower and get something to eat. These people will call family members and are already in the court system.

“Our place is to treat the immediate needs of the person,” said Sister Sandy. “In one month’s time 2,000 were placed. The people of El Paso are extremely welcoming, generous and kind.”

Aside from the constant physical needs of those who arrive at the border, simple understanding is essential. Sister Sandy commented that mainly those arriving at the border are from El Salvador and Honduras. The centers are very well organized and staffed by bilingual church related volunteers.

Crossing the border is difficult and dangerous. One 20-year-old mother with a one-month-old baby girl was desperate to make a life for her baby. At the Mexican border, the river was waist-high in filth. She carried her baby above the dirt, paid the man from Mexico who got her that far, and, almost immediately, was met by border patrol agents. She was processed and sent to El Paso and very soon will be met by her sister who lives in the United States.

One mother and her pre-teen daughter were told at the border that they had to throw everything else away. But she got to keep her Bible. She had to leave her mother and a 17-year-old daughter, and will have very little to take to her family in New York.

One great difficulty faced by those who have risked so much to reach the border with the United States is that they are unable to go back home again. Rapidly escalating violence, especially in El Salvador and Honduras, is due mainly to the increase in violent gang activity where little assistance is available.

The gangs are financed and protected by the rapidly growing drug cartels. Drug transport and movement of contraband items has brought about an amazing increase in profiteering. Since October 2013 adults with children (39,000) have been detained, and it is anticipated that 240,000 illegal migrants — close to 200,000 from Central America alone — will be apprehended.

What numbers do not say is the horror of the violence in Central America. Stories are frequently chronicled in major daily newspapers. Some of the worst violence victimizes children. One recent New York Times article told of a family whose 13-year-old son disappeared. A seven-year old brother went out looking for him. Both were found beaten, tortured and dead.

Coroners in that town say children as young as two months old have been killed by bullets. The gangs rule whole cities and neighborhoods as they transport drugs and fight for supremacy among themselves, and thus cause the large increase in refugees attempting to escape and protect their children.     

‘In our hearts’

Sister Loraine shares a final story:

“On another day, Theresa Kvale and I were sent to the bus station to make sure a woman and her nine-year-old son Pasqual got on the right bus. Maria speaks no English, and her son very little. How do you explain to them that as they travel to North Carolina they will need to change buses sometimes, sometimes wait for their connection in another strange place, etc.?

“We did the best we could — which in reality was next to nothing in those circumstances — blessed them and got them seated on the right bus. Each of us continues to carry them in our hearts.

“Join us in praying for Maria and Pasqual that they will be safe and somehow reach their destination where her husband and Pasqual’s father wait.”

St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister Nancy Munro is a regular contributor to The Tidings.