A smile can make a huge difference. That is what two of my congregants and I discovered when we came to McAllen, Texas to volunteer for a week with the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center for immigrants newly released from detention. McAllen is the largest processing center for immigrants seeking to enter the United States. After arriving at the border, they are detained by immigration authorities. If and when they are released, they are taken to the Central Bus Station. That is where staff and volunteers from the Respite Center pick them up and bring them to the center for a hot meal, a shower, a change of clothes, before being accompanied back to the bus station where they are sent off across the country to meet their sponsor — usually a family member. Once there, they will face a court date and the decision of a judge as to whether they can stay here or be deported back home.
These are the lucky ones. They are not placed in detention beyond a few days, and they are not being permanently separated from their children. It is not entirely clear why they are being released while so many others are kept in detention for many months. It may be because they have a sponsor and a credible case for asylum, but no one we spoke to was entirely sure as the system seems to be somewhat arbitrary. However, their situation is far from fortunate. They come primarily from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, countries torn apart by violence and plagued by extreme poverty. These immigrants are fleeing the violence, often fearful for their own lives and that of their children. Their dangerous journeys average 3-4 weeks during which they travel by foot, by bus, and/or on La Bestia, the freight trains which they ride on the roof. Some of the women are pregnant, some of the adults are carrying newborns.
Once they turn themselves in or are arrested at the border, they are put into detention for 3-4 days in what the immigrants call “La Hielera” — the Ice Box — because of how cold it is in there. One woman, Maria Luisa, told us that she was separated from her two sons, forbidden from hugging them, forced to sleep on the floor with only an aluminum blanket, barely fed a frozen burrito, allowed to shower once for three minutes, and kicked awake at 3 o’clock in the morning. She along with all the others who are released, was forced to wear an ankle monitor to ensure that she would appear for her court date. Her ankle bracelet, as was the case with the others we saw, was tight and uncomfortable, and made her leg swell.
This inhumane treatment is in marked contrast to how these immigrants are welcomed at the Respite Center, which was established four years ago by Sister Norma Pimentel. In that time, something like 100,000 immigrants have come through their doors. The motto over the front door, “Restoring Human Dignity,” is what drives the staff and the revolving groups of volunteers from around the country. The immigrants here are met with kindness, concern and care. When they first arrive, they are rather stone-faced and wary, but soon they relax and respond to the warmth being shown to them. We tried as much as possible to look them each in the face and to smile, acknowledging their humanity. We served them a bowl of chicken soup, helped them find a fresh set of clothes and shoes, and guided them to the showers where we kept two washing machines and two dryers going constantly to keep up with the volume of towels. Because the clothes on their backs have been worn for close to a month, we threw them away. We also put together snack bags and sandwiches to take with them when they returned to the bus station for the next step of their journey.
One of my congregants was asked by some of her friends whether the children we saw actually belonged to the adults they were with. There is no question that these adults were their parents! They demonstrated a great deal of love and affection for their children, and the children were clearly very attached to them. They are people like you and I, seeking a better life for themselves and their family. “There but for the grace of God go I…” They are looking for a new start, one with possibilities, one with hope. As we enter the month of Elul on the road to the High Holy Days, we too are in search of a new beginning. Let us be thankful for our good fortune. Let us also resolve to remember those whose lives have been disrupted by war, civil unrest, gangs, and poverty. At the very least, we can offer them a smile, a reminder that they too are created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image.
Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California.