CSS Provides Help to Separated Families
For the past four years, Catholic Social Services of Columbus’ (CSS) sister agency, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, has been providing assistance to tens of thousands of refugees and immigrants at its Humanitarian Respite Center 10 miles from the Mexican border. The Center has been on the front lines since well before the policy to separate immigrant children from their parents went into effect. Much like CSS’ Our Lady of Guadalupe Center in Columbus, Ohio, the Respite Center acts as a starting point for families, providing them with food, shelter, and emergency assistance.
As the July 26 deadline to reunite all separated families at the border approached, the Center saw a mass increase in the number of families it needed to serve. Catholic Charities USA called upon our agency to provide assistance to the staff at the Center. On July 17, we deployed a team of three CSS staff members to the Texas border to provide much-needed support.
Our team didn’t know what to expect. By now, everyone has heard heart-wrenching stories about family separation at the border, but few people know what it actually looks like. Our team discovered that—regardless of politics or policy, the situation was simple: Families needed help. Help in the form of basic necessities and support. Help getting connected to family members. And help navigating a complicated system.
When families are reunited and released from detention centers they get on buses with their court dates and approval to travel. The first bus station is in McAllen, Texas, just two blocks from the Humanitarian Respite Center. Without the Center, newly released families—hungry, tired, and affected by recent trauma—would find themselves standing at a bus station in a strange city with nothing but their identification and the clothes given to them at the detention center. They would have no idea what to do next and no way to contact their US support.
Ramona Reyes, Director of CSS’ Our Lady of Guadalupe Center, knows from her work with immigrants in Columbus that, “The right intervention, whether a bus pass or a hot meal, can be source of hope when done with compassion. I’m honored to have this opportunity to be of some comfort to these children and their parents in their time of need.” While Ramona and the CSS team were there, the Center processed upwards of 300 families a day, and some days as many as 1,000.
Our team at the Center welcomed these families with smiles and greetings, attended to their immediate needs—clothing and food—then helped them figure out how to get to their next destination. Thankfully, around 98% of the families have a US supporter—a family member or friend who can make travel arrangements for the new family to reach their destination. The problem is making contact. With the help of a generous cell phone provider, our team gave each family a phone with a plan that would last six months. They helped families get in contact with their supporters to arrange travel, then assisted with paperwork to change addresses and court dates. Finally, we ensured they had a place to rest and made it on time to their plane or bus.
In the eight 12–15-hour days our team worked at the Humanitarian Respite Center, they helped 1,800 families make travel arrangements and get safely to their destinations. They organized two 1,200 square-foot warehouses, coordinated volunteers from all over the country, and served three hot meals each day.
The immigrant families were mainly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, but our team assisted Brazilians, Ukrainians, and Romanians, too. Most families were fleeing poverty, crime, or gang-related violence. Our team didn’t know the details of the families’ stories, but they didn’t need to know details to see the needs—or to recognize the families’ intense gratitude.
Children and their parents—who had recently been separated from each other for anywhere from two weeks to two months—would not let go of each other’s hands. Individuals who had been wearing the same set of detention center clothes for days or weeks wanted nothing more than to shower and put on fresh clothes. An eight-year-old boy wanted nothing but a cup of coffee with milk and sugar for his birthday.
And the families expressed their gratitude in more than words. As families waited for their departure dates, they pitched in with sorting donations, moving heavy boxes, and cleaning. Their gratitude was so great that no task was too trivial.
One night, as Fr. Jorge, the head priest of the San Juan Basilica, said good night to the families, they told him, “This is the first night in months we can rest in peace.”
The hardest part for our team was seeing families leave, because they didn’t know what would happen to them next. One of them recalled, “We had worked tirelessly with the same couple of families for a few days and once they left we had no way of knowing what would happen to them—whether they’ll be able to stay in the US or not. We could only hope for the best. In all honesty that could have been me. It could have been any one of us, but we were lucky enough to be born where we are and not have to worry about starting over in a foreign country in order to seek a better life.”
This is why CSS President Rachel Lustig didn’t have to think twice before agreeing to help our colleagues in Texas. As one of our team members put it, “At the end of the day, CSS is about treating people with dignity and respect—we didn’t talk about the politics of it.”