Kelly Hickman and Claire Lucas understand firsthand the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The women, representing the Archdiocese of Seattle Missions Office, traveled to a humanitarian center in McAllen, Texas, where they worked for a couple of days in December to ease the plight of migrants.
Mostly from Central America, the men, women and children of all ages arrive in dire need of the most basic things, and some are ill, said Hickman, assistant Missions director.
“It was a moment, a meeting point when, on the final leg of their journey … we could provide kindness and dignity so they could feel human again,” Hickman said of the experience at the Humanitarian Respite Center, operated by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.
She and Lucas, an intern for the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Campaign for Human Development, were volunteers in the chaotic world where migrants seeking safety and asylum are delivered by buses twice a day by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The McAllen center is over capacity now, sometimes taking in 300 people a day, according to Hickman. Since 2014, the center has helped more than 100,000 migrants.
The crisis and political rhetoric have deepened since Hickman and Lucas returned from McAllen. January 6–12 is National Migration Week, a time that for nearly 50 years the Catholic Church has set aside for reflecting on immigrants’ hardships. It is also a time when the federal government is in a partial shutdown over funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
A place of transition
The migrants dropped off at the McAllen center stay about 24 hours — just enough time to grab a shower, hot meal, change of clothing and snack pack for the next chapter of their journey. It’s a place of transition before they board buses to be reunited with family or connected with people who have agreed to shelter them while they await immigration hearings. Most are wearing electronic monitoring ankle bracelets, according to Hickman.
She and Lucas were assigned to the women’s clothing closet at the center, where they provided migrants with clothing appropriate for the climate of their next destination.
“Where are you going?” the women asked them.
“Washington state,” said one mom and her son.
“That’s where we’re from,” Hickman responded, creating an instant bond across the hardships that mother and son had endured in the journey from Central America.
“The work was endless,” Hickman wrote in an email after her return. Now she will advocate for migrants and tell their stories; in February, she will meet with Washington’s congressional delegation and then state legislators to talk about her experiences.
Missionaries of Jesus Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, met with Kelly Hickman, left, and Claire Lucas from the Archdiocese of Seattle when they volunteered at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. Photo: Courtesy Kelly Hickman
Others join the effort
Hickman and Lucas aren’t the only volunteers in the Archdiocese of Seattle helping at the respite center.
In 2016, parishioners from Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Seattle and their pastor, Father Jack Walmesley, went to McAllen. Their experience sharply contrasts with that of Hickman and Lucas, according to Jennifer Ibach, pastoral assistant for outreach. Each day, a maximum of 17 migrants would come through the center and the OLG parishioners were able to applaud them, welcome them, and accompany a family from start to finish, Ibach said.
“We would give them water, instructions, say here are your bus tickets and where you are going,” she said. “We would explain the bus transfers and tell them whether they should get off the bus or not” at various stops. “We got to know them.”
That trip inspired an active immigration ministry in the parish, Ibach said, and a commitment “to look at our own community, at our own neighbors so we get to know them in our area.”
In February, a group from Holy Family Parish in Kirkland will travel to McAllen, following up on a September trip made by Andrea Liggett, pastoral assistant for outreach and social justice, and four others from the parish. They saw the need and were inspired to do more.
“The folks we are helping were brought to us by ICE,” Liggett said. “They are ankle-braceleted. They are in the process. We are working to help and the need is huge,” she said.
“ICE would be in big trouble without the Catholic Church,” she added.
Donate to the McAllen center: https://www.catholiccharitiesrgv.org/Donations.aspx
Resources for responding to the crisis
Justice for Immigrants campaign of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
Kino Border Initiative – Jesuit Father Matt Holland, pastor of St. Leo the Great Parish in Tacoma, traveled in August 2018 to Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, as part of the Jesuits’ work with migrants.
Janet Cleaveland is a member of the Proto-Cathedral of St. James the Greater in Vancouver.
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