While the number of asylum seekers is growing -- now over 2,000 men women and children -- some have been waiting for their turn for a hearing for over a year.
Today we have great "breaking news" every hour on the news channels, we have COVID-19 guidelines and many are still isolating ourselves behind our front doors, or behind masks if we venture outside. And now we are in discussions about how and if to go back to school. Our focus is absorbed by these great issues that have become part of our daily lives. This past week at Mass, we heard the reading from Kings, where Jeremiah was waiting for the Lord to pass by. Maybe, in the tumult of everything going on these days, we feel like Jeremiah in the cave waiting for the Lord to pass by -- witnessing racial injustice and a pandemic -- simultaneously live on TV. Where is God?
In February this year, a small group from Holy Name Parish went to the border city of McAllen, Texas to visit the Humanitarian Respite Center for Catholic Charities of Rio Grande Valley. The Respite Center was transporting food and basic supplies from McAllen to Brownsville. In Brownsville, the food was packed into fold-up wagons and pulled over the Gateway International Bridge into Matamoros, Mexico and distributed to hundreds of families living in a tent city. While the number of asylum seekers is growing -- now over 2,000 men, women, and children -- some have been waiting for their turn for a hearing for over a year.
The current administration has made more than 400 executive actions on immigration over the last three years. All of these actions are aimed at discouraging immigration of any kind, and some have directly affected these Matamoros Tent City asylum seekers. In spite of the administration's efforts, they wait in the hope that they might get their chance for a hearing to claim asylum. Their right to seek asylum in modern times was part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights accepted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Currently, our border is closed to asylum seekers.
The residents of the Matamoros Tent City wait. They waited through a hurricane this summer that brought heavy rains and high winds. The winds destroyed tents, and the heavy rains caused flooding that forced many of the residents to move to higher ground. The high water caused the snakes and rats and other rodents to crawl into the camps -- often at night while children and adults were sleeping. Sister Norma Pimentel, head of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (www.catholiccharitiesrgv.org) recently shared how her team now brings one or two new heavy-duty tents across with them when they are allowed. They are also working on getting the tents off the ground so the vermin will stay out.
Mosquitoes are another new plague, and Sister Norma has recently arranged for spraying to reduce the infestation. Spraying will have to be done on a recurring basis. And of course, this entire camp is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Sister Norma said that the virus has hit the camp hard. Since Catholic Charities can no longer bring food across the border in wagons because the Mexican Government has placed restrictions on goods coming from the U.S., Sister Norma and her team now purchase food from the Walmart in Matamoros. Sister Norma also contracts with local restaurants to feed the asylum seekers. The new tents and mosquito spraying are new underfunded budget items.
Marjean Perhot, Director of Refugee and Immigration Services for Catholic Charities Archdiocese of Boston, works with refugees and asylum seekers in the Boston area who came through the border before it was shut down. These immigration seekers have a date for their asylum hearings, but many of these dates have been rescheduled or postponed until the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
When asked about the impact of the over 400 executive actions that have taken effect over the last three years, Majean commented that the weight of so many changes is discouraging for her team. The issue is bigger than the rule changes themselves. The new rules make each step of any immigration process harder to complete and requires more time. The cumulative effect is overall discouragement.
Jeremiah endured the wind and earthquake and the fire -- and then he heard the Lord in a whisper. In Matamoros, Sister Norma and her team have faced hurricanes and wind and mosquitoes. But Sister Norma finds her inspiration for tomorrow in the faces of the children she serves. The whisper of the Lord is present in the faces of the children of the Matamoros Tent City.
DEACON TIM DONOHUE IS A PERMANENT DEACON OF THE ARCHDIOCESE OF BOSTON SERVING AT HOLY NAME PARISH, WEST ROXBURY.
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