Annunciation House is a non-profit organization that sustains a network of shelters, facilities, and services for migrants in El Paso, Texas. When I applied to be a volunteer, I had no expectations or even knowledge of what lay ahead, no idea what I was getting into. I only knew I wanted to help migrants.
The sense of injustice I feel about migrant issues grew from my experience living in Mexico and then working with undocumented Mexicans in the United States during the 1990s. I saw with my own eyes, and felt with my own heart, the pain my compañeros suffered while separated from their wives and children. Latin culture is quite different from typical North American culture. Whereas many of us who grew up in the U.S. leave our parents at an early age and settle in different parts of the country – often not seeing our immediate families for months or even years – the Mexicans I knew were very close to each other. They would often marry and raise their new families within a few blocks from their parents and siblings.
The refugees who arrive at the doors of Annunciation House are considered guests, and we are offering hospitality. While sharing their lives and their stories, they unintentionally teach us about hope, vision, and strength. In the two-plus years I’ve lived in Annunciation House shelters, the resilience shown by the immigrants I’ve come to know is beyond my ability to comprehend. After risking everything to finally arrive at the border, some are drowned while attempting to cross the Rio Grande. Many others suffer serious injuries or death after falling from the border wall. Those who make it over the wall alive might be hit by a car when crossing the adjacent highway.
It is not uncommon for asylum seekers to be kidnapped by gangs or smugglers who try to extort ransom money from their families. One woman arrived at Annunciation House with a newborn baby who had been born while she was being held captive. When her labor pains began, she begged her captors to take her to a hospital. Instead, they invited a neighbor to assist with the birth. Then the new mother and baby were driven to an isolated area and set free beside the road.
Fortunately, the mother was offered help by a kind passer-by who took her to the hospital. She stayed at our house for almost nine months until her new son was awarded an American birth certificate. During that time, we watched him grow and become a happy cherubic little boy. All of us – guests and volunteers – grew very fond of him. We all shared tearful, happy goodbyes when the necessary documents were in order, and mother and son were able to leave our house to reunite with her husband, who was already waiting in the United States.
Living in solidarity with our asylum-seeking guests helps us to see each of them as a “fellow traveler.” Welcoming new people, day after day, each with unique and often complex needs, can make a volunteer weary. But as each new seeker comes to our door, we find ourselves energized, eager to meet a new personality or a new family of personalities. We list them on our records by their nationalities, but as we live together with each of them – eating, cleaning, and working together to arrange their travel onward – we get to know them as friends, not only as people from foreign countries. Working side by side, brushing our teeth at the same sink, laughing together, empathizing – these create bonds that respect culture and nationality, but are not defined by them.
I think most people in the U.S. tend to feel sympathy for migrants from places like war-torn Ukraine, more so, perhaps, because these migrants are white-skinned. However, most North Americans live far from our country’s southern border, and they don’t seem to understand the suffering Latin Americans experience from crime, poverty, and corrupt governments, and from lack of jobs, food, and health care. It seems difficult for North Americans to feel empathy toward migrants from Latin America.
In contrast, the citizens of El Paso will readily extend helping hands to all migrants. For example, during the latest “border crisis,” in December 2022, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents began releasing thousands of migrants onto the streets of El Paso after all the local shelters became full. The outpouring of support from the citizens of El Paso and surrounding areas was more than generous. The street where our shelter is located became filled with migrants sleeping outside in the freezing, windy, and rainy weather. Cars of caring members of the community arrived daily to distribute food, clothing, blankets, hygiene products, and other supplies. Some even invited the migrants to stay in their homes!
News reports commonly paint migrants – especially those from Haiti, Central America, and South America, and especially black and brown people – as criminals or as cheaters who want to take advantage of opportunities to become comfortable and wealthy in the United States. The truth is that the decision to leave their homes is extremely difficult for most migrants, and they suffer severe hardship on their perilous journeys to the United States. Too often, North Americans seem unable to conceive what it would be like to be forced to leave their own homes and their husbands, wives, parents, and children – attempting to arrive in another country with only the smallest possibility of earning money to send home to their loved ones.
Too commonly, North Americans see “migrants” as a faceless mob, but it’s a different experience meeting someone face-to-face and hearing their story. Bureaucrats can more easily treat migrants as political pawns when they view them narrowly as numbers or statistics. At Annunciation House, we view migrants as people, guests, and friends. Therefore, we feel moved to provide for their well-being in a human and humane way.
A dominant national narrative says that we can’t provide for all the people who want to come to our country, when in fact, we do need workers who want to provide for themselves while contributing to our economy. Immigration is often framed as a “problem” in the U.S., but at Annunciation House we see refugee resettlement as a goal our nation can accomplish if we work together. Whenever I hear the mantra that migrants who want to come to the U.S. should “do it the legal way,” I roll my eyes. Government bureaucracy makes it virtually impossible for anyone to go through the asylum process, especially when they are applying while still living in another country.
Working at a welcoming shelter and meeting the migrants who come to us is a privilege. I have learned that there is always a larger table, another place to sleep, a little more food to share. Sometimes someone will step in to personally assist and encourage me to “go take a rest.” Many times, that someone is an asylum seeker who cares about my welfare and wants to help.
During my time volunteering with Annunciation House, I have become good friends with people who initially seemed extremely different from me. I have learned that my role as a volunteer is to share, not simply to give. By this, I mean that I understand “giving” to be an act of charity, reflecting that my status is different from the receiver. Sharing means living in solidarity. ~~~
Justine McCoy is a full-time volunteer with Annunciation House in El Paso, TX. She is a vegan and a passionate advocate for animal rights as well as human rights. She attends El Paso Friends Meeting. (IMYM)
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