Sacrifice at last

All my life, I have waited to be asked
To sacrifice something for my country
Not myself alone or those who suffer too much
Even in the best of times.
But the rest of us, the comfortable, satisfied, secure
Who did not go to war when others did
Who prospered while others lost their homes and livelihoods.
In my parents’ time, a Great Depression and World War.
Everyone sacrificed something- meat, butter, nylons, lives.
The Greatest Generation and we, their children
Dreaming of a better world
But no one asked for sacrifice.
Our leaders sent guns to Vietnam and fed us butter,
Afraid to ask us to pay for their foolish war.
After 9/11, this command to patriots:
Crowd the shopping malls
Spend our way to safety
Lest the economy stumble
And cost more than towers and lives.
Now comes at last the request for sacrifice
•Use up what I have
•Take no more than I need
•Share what I can
•Be patient and kind
•Open my heart to needs greater than mine
Lessons for children, simple and hard.

Looking back, what will matter?
How well I paid attention,
How much I gave away.

Sheltered at the border

Casa de Refugiado, the El Paso immigrant refuge where my husband and I volunteered in January, has space for 400 people, but during our two weeks there, the number of guests reached no more than 40. The main reason is the Trump Administration’s remain-in-Mexico policy, which has sent more than 60,000 Central American asylum seekers back to Mexico since January 2019. There, they must wait for months before appearing in an immigration court in the U.S. The grim consequences are well-documented: Squalid tent cities, violent crimes against immigrants, asylum seekers giving up before their court dates arrive.

In late February, a federal appeals court found the policy legally invalid, but the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the policy to continue until the court can make a final decision about its legality.

 We visited one small refuge in Ciudad Juarez to talk with families affected by that policy. Here’s what we learned.

At first glance, the refuge looks like the scene of a poor man’s house arrest: A modest house above and dim cement-block basement below, all surrounded by a high metal fence with concertina wire coiled on top. Outside the fence is Anapra, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where rutted dirt roads are dotted with stray dogs, broken sewer pipes and people selling old clothes. A few blocks to the north, the rust-colored border wall stretches in both directions across the desert landscape. Beyond it, I-10 and the hillside homes of El Paso are visible in the distance.


Only trusted visitors pass through the refuge’s metal gate, and the basement’s residents leave only for court dates in El Paso, which are infrequent and unlikely to end as they wish. There are no bedrooms, simply bunkbeds curtained off with blankets for privacy. The only safe space outdoors is a narrow strip of land inside the fence where long strings of laundry hung the afternoon we visited.

Yet the residents of that basement – five mothers and eight children from Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala – count themselves lucky. Unlike thousands of other Central American asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico while they seek protection in the U.S., they have food, clean clothes, a safe place to stay and dedicated women from the nearby Catholic parish looking after them. Every morning, they give thanks in the basement’s tiny chapel.

“Our aim was to protect the women and children. They are the victims here,” explained Si, a lay missionary with the Columban Fathers. The Columbans operate the local Catholic parish, Corpus Christi, and parish volunteers provide food and transportation for the families. Si, who gave only her first name, served as the interpreter during our visit. She asked that we change their names and take no pictures of them in order to protect them.

Since the Trump Administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols took effect more than a year ago, more than 60,000 asylum seekers from Central America have been sent to wait for months in Mexico for a date in a U.S. immigration court.  When it’s time to appear before a U.S. immigration judge, asylum seekers must walk across the bridge into El Paso and reënter U.S. custody. At the end of the day’s proceedings, they’re bused back to Mexico, where they must remain until their next court date.

Rosa, who lives in the refuge with her two small children, left Guatemala last summer to follow her husband, who fled before them after gangs threatened to kill him if he didn’t join up. He made it to New York, but the rest of the family is stuck in Juarez. Rosa has been to immigration court in El Paso three times since last summer; her next hearing is scheduled for August.

The Department of Homeland Security’s website describes the Migrant Protection Protocols as a way to restore a “safe and orderly process” for people seeking asylum in the U.S. “Mexico will provide them with all appropriate humanitarian protections for the duration of their stay,” the website promises.

The reality is otherwise. Families fleeing violence and poverty in Central America must wait for months in towns like Juarez. Even if they can find lawyers and make it across the border for multiple hearings, their requests for asylum are likely to denied.

A few statistics illustrate the risks they face in Mexico.  Juarez is twice as big as El Paso, but in 2018, it had 54 times as many homicides:1,247 in Juarez compared to 23 in El Paso. Gangs, government corruption and the failure by police to investigate most crimes all contribute to the high crime rate. During our stay, the Sunday newspaper in Juarez reported that five Mexican national guardsmen assigned to the Juarez airport were being investigated for kidnapping and abuse of authority.

“It’s a very big danger,” says Gertrud, who came to the border last July with her five-year-old daughter when gang violence in Honduras made it impossible for her to feed her family at home. She worked in a bakery and a factory that made cement blocks, but gang members showed up on payday to steal workers’ money.

Like most asylum seekers, Gertrud has family in the U.S. with whom she and her daughter could stay while awaiting their asylum hearing. That’s the way things worked before the Trump administration implemented the remain-in-Mexico policy. After being interviewed by immigration officials, Gertrud would have received an ankle bracelet and been released with her daughter to stay with family until making her case before an immigration judge. The people we served in El Paso had made it through that process and were on their way to join their family members.

But in Mexico, the Central Americans’ accents, clothing, even the lack of shoelaces (ICE takes them from people in detention) make them targets for thieves and kidnappers. So does the awareness that family members in the U.S. can pay ransom. One mother at our El Paso refuge had to raise $8,000 to pay kidnappers to return her three boys – ages 7, 8 and 12. Another mother reported that a man in Juarez tried to steal the baby she carried on her back.

These aren’t isolated incidents. As of January 21, there had been at least 816 cases of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, and other violent assaults against asylum seekers forced to return to Mexico, reports Human Rights First, a nonpartisan human rights group based in New York and Washington,.

Unlike in El Paso, where religious and community groups ensure that no immigrant family is left on the street, Juarez has too few refuges. Si keeps a list of 400 immigrant families waiting in Juarez who need shelter. “And there’s many more,” she says.

Merely supporting the five families in the refuge in Anapra requires great effort. A Corpus Christi member named Cristina Coronado organized the basement refuge in space donated by the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, who also pay for utilities. Cristina also persuaded the Juarez cathedral to donate space where asylum-seekers can get necessities and legal counsel. Outside donors also help. My Catholic parish in Minneapolis donated $4,000 at Christmas.

But being confined for months with strangers, with little privacy or contact with the outside world, presents its own challenges. The children aren’t in school; local residents fear they would attract gangs. The women take turns cooking and cleaning, but boredom and depression set in.Gertrud's sunflowers

To help, Cristina’s sister taught the women to embroider bright patterns onto cloth bags. Sunflowers, roses, a peacock displaying its tail feathers, each design takes about two days to complete and sells for $35 at the farmers market in nearby Las Cruces, N.M. Of that, $20 goes for materials and house expenses; the resident keeps $15. Gertrud sends what she earns to Honduras to help the husband and three children she left behind.

Each bag carries a tag with the maker’s story.  Gertrud’s tag explains, “In Honduras, the rise of organized crime and insecurity is threatening our nation…It is an injustice that we have to wait in a country where we are not seeking asylum.”

Across the circle of the women bent over their needle work, she delivers a more direct message – about the lack of health care and education back home, the narco-traffickers who control so much in Honduras and the U.S. government’s support for a government that serves its people so badly.

“Don’t support a corrupt government,” she pleads. And then she turns back to her work.




Learning across generations in El Paso

Volunteers Christa Kuck, at right, along with the author and her husband, Elissa Rothman and Nate Putnam. Putnam and Kuck are opening an Annunciation House refuge for families waiting in Juarez.

Ok Boomer vs. Gen Z. We are accustomed to seeing divisions among generations. In this corner sit older Americans, white, clueless and desperate to hang onto privilege. Over there sit the young, diverse, debt-laden and eager to topple the status quo.

During two weeks volunteering at Casa de Refugiado in El Paso, Texas, my husband and I were lucky to be led by volunteers young enough to be our grandchildren. We gave two weeks of time to mop floors, hand out clothes and do whatever else was needed. The young gave months of their lives, living in an old warehouse turned refuge and leading the work.  The guests’ needs, so vastly greater than our own, brought us together to serve and learn from each other.

First, some background: Casa de Refugiado is one of several sites run by Annunciation House, a nonprofit that has served poor immigrants in El Paso for more than four decades. Along with local volunteers, out-of-town helpers fall into three groups: Retired religious sisters, secular retirees like Steve and me and young people in their 20s, just out of college or gypsies moving among different types of social justice work. Most retirees volunteer for two weeks, while many of the young give three months, a year or more before going on to the rest of their lives.

So what do we learn from each other?

Christa Kuck, a slender, soft-spoken woman from Michigan with a seriousness beyond her 24 years, has volunteered full-time with Annunciation House since August 2018. After serving as site coordinator of a refuge in El Paso, she is helping open a small house to shelter a few of the hundreds of immigrant families forced to wait across the border in Juarez, Mexico.

Her greatest teachers at the refuge have been religious sisters in their 70s and 80s, women who’ve given decades to working with poor immigrants in the U.S. and overseas. Anti-consumer, feminist, and joyful, they model dedication and enduring faith without being didactic or judgmental.

“The sisters we work with are some of the most radical people I’ve met,” says Kuck, who describes herself as spiritual but not religious. The sisters listen but never proselytize, guide but never preach. (To learn more about rich relationships between young activists and religious sisters, see Nones & Nuns,  and work by writer Kaya Oakes.)

Their example gives Kuck, who will start medical school this fall, a vision for her own future. “It’s finding people who are in their 80s who aren’t cynical and are still passionate about making change in the world…I found a flexibility and a warmth that I haven’t found in religious and nonreligious people.”

The admiration is mutual. Sr. Sandy Wardell, a soft-spoken Ursuline sister who taught poor children in the South Bronx for 40 years, sees in the young volunteers at the refuge an echo of her younger self, when she spent summers working with the poor in West Virginia.

“For me, it’s so encouraging, so hopeful to see this generation so generous, so unafraid to face whatever experience comes their way…I see how much joy they get from what they’re doing.”

Age brings plenty of fears: Illness, senility, death and now the prospect of leaving behind a world plagued with inequality, warming temperatures and social division.  Working with young, we take hope from their strength and energy, laughter and courage.

Larry Wight, a retired high school teacher and school administrator, left four kids and five grandkids behind in Seattle in order to spend four months volunteering at the refuge. A lean, muscled man with a shock of white hair, he still hikes and runs at 77 and came to El Paso in search of service and adventure,  “not being afraid to do something that’s out of my comfort zone.”  He found something far more profound.

Larry Wight in the dining room of the refuge

Since arriving in November, he’s quietly organized mountains of donations and overseen painting and other projects to make the gloomy warehouse feel more like a home. He’s missed his family greatly.  But living and working at the refuge, working with immigrants and young volunteers, have opened his heart.

He savors lying on his bed in a dim room at the back of the warehouse, hearing younger volunteers talking and laughing in the next room but feeling no need to join them. He enjoys taking young volunteers on hikes and playing ping-pong with a 17-year-old, feeling not competition but friendship.

Most powerful have been his encounters with immigrants, who often spend weeks traveling to the border, months waiting in Juarez and days in ICE custody before arriving at the refuge. He tears up when he recalls the Brazilian father who fell into his arms, weeping with relief, gratitude and uncertainty as his family left to join family in another city.

“Whatever trauma he had experienced, whatever trauma I had experienced, in that moment we were one and the world was good.”  Wight points to his heart before continuing. “Never in my life has my heart been so open.”

It’s this part of the experience of working at the border that’s hardest to explain, that service is both hard work and a great privilege.  Making a salad, handing out toiletries and helping a mother find a warm coat doesn’t move immigration policy, but it responds to basic needs with love and welcome. More importantly, it opens the heart.

And everywhere one looks, volunteers use their skills and connections to tackle some small part of the huge problem. Midwife Kata Burke and her husband Miguel, a nurse practitioner, left their home, family and jobs in Rochester, N.Y., to manage Casa Del Refugiado for a year. While there, they are collecting 200 bottles of prenatal vitamins to give to pregnant women who pass through the refuge. Sr. Andrea Koverman, who works with poor and disabled children in Juarez, is collecting 100 books in Spanish to start a small library for children in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

One of my teachers this year was Sr. Sandy, who first volunteered at the border six years ago when she was 72 and newly retired. Two of her birth sisters had died that year, and she had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. If she wanted to do other things in life, she decided, it was time to get moving. She went first to Laredo, Texas, after seeing news video showing white women screaming words of hate at a bus full of immigrant children. Since then she’s been on extended retreat in England, Bible study in Israel and run an after-school program and Sunday school in South Africa for a year.

At 78, she’s happy she can still contribute. “I can make sandwiches. I can do laundry. I can be with a mother and child who’s not feeling well.”

The refugees exemplify courage and resilience. My fellow volunteers – young and old — model what I can do, not what I can’t, and how powerful it is when we work together.

News from the border: First, care for the children

My husband Steve, friend Kathleen and I arrived in El Paso on Saturday to volunteer at a refuge for immigrants for two weeks. Yesterday, as Kathleen and I cleaned rooms in the vast converted warehouse and outfitted refugee families with used clothing, I thought how little is required to make children happy: Clean clothes, full bellies, a chance to play, a warm bed, the love and security of their family. All the things we lavish on our own grandchildren – skating lessons and gaming systems, LOL dolls and LEGO blocks – are wanted and delighted in. But they are not required.

And yet we have as a nation repeatedly denied these most basic needs to immigrant children who crossed the border with their families over the past three years. Seven hundred families have been separated; seven children have died while in government custody. Last summer in Clint, Texas, less than 30 miles from El Paso, immigrant children taken from their families were held in conditions that Elora Mukherjee, a professor at Columbia Law School, described asappalling”:  “In 12 years representing immigrant children in detention, I have never seen such degradation and inhumanity. Children were dirty, they were scared, and they were hungry.”

All this has been done in the name of deterrence. In other words, if we can make coming to America more horrible than the violence and poverty that drive people to leave Guatemala, Venezuela and Mexico, we’ll stop what President Trump likes to call the “invasion” at our southern border.

No surprise there: The first step to hardening the heart is always to dehumanize the other, to make the weary father from Morales and smiling baby from Cuba alien and dangerous, part of an invading horde that will displace our workers and overwhelm our resources. Hardening the heart can lead to far more dangerous acts. Last August, a young white supremacist targeting Latino immigrants drove 600 miles from Dallas to El Paso, entered a Walmart, killed 22 people and injured 24 injured more. Because of that, our refuge has security cameras and no exterior signage. The tall fence is topped with razor wire.

As regular readers of this blog know, I support neither walls nor open borders. This year, I want to explore the vast territory in between. What principles should guide us? What policies can best implement those principles? Coming to El Paso and serving immigrants through Annunciation House, which has been doing this work for more than 40 years, is a place to begin.

At the Annunciation House shelter, the process of welcoming families newly released from ICE custody follows a routine. An ICE bus pulls up to a back gate of the warehouse and exhausted families step off. They are welcomed warmly, then interviewed and asked to call family or friends in the U.S. who will buy their bus or air tickets. A day or two later, families leave us and travel to Houston or Chicago, Miami or Boston. There they will wait for a chance to make their case for asylum before an immigration judge.

At the shelter, after the interview and phone call, there is a simple routine: Collect bedding and toiletries, choose a set of used clothes and take a shower, often their first in days.

Yesterday afternoon, the job of finding clothes fell to Kathleen and me. First, we brushed up on vocabulary: Socks are calcetines, underwear ropa interior. One by one, the families arrived: The tiny 19-year-old Guatemalan woman – exhausted, pregnant and dressed in grey ICE sweatpants. Her husband was turned back to wait in Mexico; her face looked as shattered as her spirit must be. The best we could do was find pants that fit, a pretty blouse, a warm wool jacket and soft, pretty scarf that coaxed a small smile. In a day or two, she will leave on her lonely trip to New York.

I think too of the seven-year-old boy, bound for Chicago, who came with his exhausted parents and six-month-old brother. He delighted in finding himself a forest green jacket, lime green gloves and kelly green hat and a hooded Christmas outfit for his baby brother.

The small kindness of clean clothing is made possible by the people who donated it, Sr. Edith and others who spent months giving it order and the volunteers who come daily to help guests find something fit for their journey, maybe even a little stylish.

The shelter’s numbers are down significantly because of President Trump’s remain-in-Mexico policy. It opened last year with room for 500 people. Last night there were fewer than 30. One mother, traveling from Guatemala with three boys, spent three months waiting in Juarez before being allowed to cross into the U.S. Yesterday, freshly showered and dressed, the boys wore their new gloves as they careened down a ramp riding a toy car.

Regardless of what happens in Iowa next week or at the polls next November, the issue of immigration will remain: Who will we allow to come? How will we welcome them? And do we have the collective will to make good on the pledge we learned as children – to be “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all”?

A New Year’s invitation: Join me for a deeper look at immigration

With 10 months to go before we elect a President, I’m frustrated by the political debate over immigration. It’s as stubborn and narrow as a schoolyard quarrel. On one side, President Trump shouts Build a wall and Send her back. On the other, Democratic candidates condemn his bigotry and focus on the easy parts of immigration policy. They oppose separating immigrant families at the border and support DACA, the Obama-era program that allows young adults brought to the U.S. as children to work, get drivers’ licenses and go to college.

But immigration is much bigger and more complex than this. How many immigrants and refugees should be admitted each year? Do the country’s economic needs or humanitarian concerns matter more? How important is family reunification? Should climate change or poverty in one’s home country be sufficient reason to be admitted to the U.S.? What is our political, social and economic capacity to absorb such vast need? And how should we treat 11 million undocumented immigrants who’ve worked hard, built families and contributed to this country, often for decades? How can paths to legal status be built for them?

I’m overwhelmed by the complexity of those questions, which have moral, political and economic dimensions. So is Congress, which has thrown up its hands over the broken immigration system for decades under Republican and Democratic presidents alike. But our political stalemate carries an enormous cost. It consigns millions of undocumented workers and their families to lives of fear and uncertainty. It requires a huge, costly, often cruel system of enforcement and punishment. It feeds the scapegoating and backlash that President Trump exploits. It diminishes us as people and a nation.

Addressing the question of immigration with depth and compassion requires head and heart, openness to listen and willingness to learn. This year, I want to do some of that work and share it with you via regular blogs.

Who am I, a retired white journalist with no title or special knowledge to tackle this? Because I’m a citizen, a journalist and a person of faith who knows that people like me need to better understand the issues and pressure public officials to address them with greater candor and courage.

Here’s where I’m coming from. For 30 years, I was a newspaper reporter and editor in the Minnesota, focused on economic issues and then politics, including welfare policy. For 12 years, I ran a journalism program that trained teens, particularly those from low-income, minority and immigrant communities, to ask questions, think critically, ask questions and tell stories.

Since retiring, I’ve gotten involved in immigration issues through my church, a Catholic church in south Minneapolis that’s been invigorated and enriched by the growth of Latino membership. Last year, I volunteered for 10 days at a hospitality center for asylum-seekers in El Paso, Texas. In a few weeks, I’ll return there with my husband and two friends.

Immigration has touched my life in other ways. Each Monday, I volunteer at a neighborhood ESL class. For four months, we shared our home with a new immigrant from Senegal. My daughter-in-law is from Singapore, and my grandchildren – Tamil on their mother’s side, German and Irish on their father’s – are part of an increasingly diverse country.  I don’t remember a single kid of color in my 1950’s Catholic grade school in suburban Kansas City. At their public grade school in suburban Eden Prairie, white kids are a minority.

Immigrants are some of the most hopeful and hard-working people I know. At a time when many of us are cynical about democracy and the American Dream, my immigrant friends remain determined to build better lives for their children through work and education. The forces of hate and bigotry are out in force, but they remain convinced that they can be part of this nation’s future.

Ok, Boomer. It’s fashionable to see us Baby Boomers as tired, out of touch, desperate to keep our arthritic hands on the controls when we should be shuffling onto an ice floe and pushed out to sea. That’s just desserts for a generation that once pledged to trust no one older than 30. But we’re still here. And I’d like to think we have something to contribute.


An invitation to a American family reunion

So much of the news this August is about what tears our country apart – race, religion, politics, guns. But quietly, in backyards and public parks, cabins and resorts, people gather to celebrate and strengthen the simple fact of being part of the same family.

Fresh off a week of such celebrations – four generations converged in Minneapolis to celebrate my mom’s 95th birthday — it occurs to me that our country needs a reunion.

Or rather 10,000 reunions with guest lists drawn not by surname or bloodline but by more essential denominators – love of children, belief in equality, hard work and decency as guiding life principles, and a fierce desire to overcome the hate and division that lower our flags to half-mast and fill our hearts with fear and shame.

The family reunion can serve as a model. Separated by time zones and generation, we don’t always know each other well. Hugs help move past the awkwardness. So do silly games.

We don’t always agree, and in this winner-take-all age, our skill at navigating differences is pretty rusty. Listening, teasing and biting one’s tongue can help.

Sometimes avoidance is the best option. When one relative – a Trump supporter – visited this spring, we agreed not to talk politics or religion. That allowed us to see beyond the caricatures we’ve drawn of each other and talk about the rest of our lives. We finished the evening holding hands.

Sometimes we don’t even like each other all that well. There’s often a mean gossip, a bratty child, a cousin who drinks too much, a know-it-all sister. A stubborn few of us stay trapped in the slights and offenses from decades past.

Yet, we search for commonalities – bunioned feet, a love of gardening, the baby who looks like his great-uncle did at that age. We give tokens — old photos, favorite recipes, silver cufflinks – whose value comes from the act of giving.

Tattooed hipster and white-haired granny, atheist and believer, teetotaler and barfly, city slicker and small-town kid, we come together in the heat and fullness of the dwindling summer to eat too much, tell old stories, snap photos, remember our grandmother’s glorious pies. Together we conjure up the past and see into the future.

Of course, this is harder to do with strangers. Our foods, games and memories are different. Our languages may be as well. But it’s possible. At reunions, there’s always a new baby, new boyfriend and some relative who’s stayed away far too long. Generally, they’re welcomed into the fold because, well, we’re family.

One of Aesop’s fables describes a father who teaches his quarreling sons the importance of unity by handing them a bunch of sticks. One stick snaps easily. A bundle is impossible to break.

After 10 days of visitors and celebrations, I am eager to reclaim my life. But I am warmed by the knowledge that we strengthened old connections and built new ones. I feel freshly part of something larger and more enduring than my small self. And I wish this for my countrymen, my American family.

Living a day inside the polar vortex

Popping tires, frozen pipes, closed schools, temperatures so low that the mailman won’t come. Hospitals are treating cases of frostbite. The tarmac equipment at the airport has turned balky. When an old man wrapped in a blanket hobbles across a busy road and waves at cars, drivers stop and give him what they can – money, food, a ride to a shelter.

That’s what it is for us Minnesotans to be trapped inside a polar vortex today. We have a reputation for toughness, but with temperatures nearing 30 below in the Twin Cities, we’re feeling tested. Thirty below is normal for January in the Arctic. We have to reach back more than a century — to 1887 – to find a record low today’s won’t beat.

Those of us with working furnaces and no place to go can find a kind of pleasure in the forced indolence. There is hot tea, a hot bath, messages of sympathy from distant friends. There are recipes for pot roast and macaroni and cheese – the homemade kind made with whole milk and three kinds of cheese. We have books to read, photos to organize and a clear view of a sun-shot world glittering with frost and chimneys chugging out wisps of steam.

Tomorrow the temperature will rise to 2 below and climb to 44 above by Sunday. Pipes will be thawed, machinery humming. And this rare, flash-frozen stasis in our lives will be gone.

An army of solidarity in El Paso

Chef Alex St. Marks making breakfast for Casa Nazareth guests

Yesterday morning was my last in El Paso. With a noon flight, I didn’t sign up for a shift at Casa Nazareth, the refuge for immigrant families where I’d volunteered the previous eight days. I stayed away from the kitchen, where I spent a lot of time helping prepare meals for an ever-changing population of guests.

The need was still there. The previous night’s 65 guests had to be fed and sent on their way to relatives across the country. New families – fresh from ICE detention – had to be prepared for. But other volunteers would do that.   A trio of grey-haired nuns had just arrived from Ohio. A retired couple from California were in the office, arranging for volunteers to drive guests the bus station and airport. The out-of-work chef who volunteers to make breakfast every Wednesday was busy peeling potatoes and chopping ham in the kitchen with three other volunteers.

It was time, as they say, for me to let go and let God. God and what a long-time volunteer calls “the army of solidarity” that serves immigrants at Casa Nazareth and other sites operated by its parent, Annunciation House.

Of all the lessons I carry home from my experience at this border refuge, the combined power of faith and solidarity is the greatest.  Day after day, volunteers with willing hands and open hearts feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give rest and comfort to the weary and fearful.  Retired couples, college students and religious sisters well past retirement age stream to Casa Nazareth from across the country. New college grads dedicate themselves to serving poor immigrants for a year without pay.


A vast team of El Paso residents are the frame that holds up the enterprise, though. Local churches bring many meals. Local volunteers run the daily operation as shift supervisors. People who see a bargain at the grocery store buy extra for the shelter. As a Minnesotan living far from the southern border, I feel enormous gratitude and humility for their commitment and generosity.

We out-of-towners provide important relief and support. In return, we draw closer to the real face of our nation’s immigration crisis and can help change the story that’s being told.  I also got to live and work with a remarkable group of women – funny, smart, energetic nuns in their 70s and 80s who have served the children of God for decades. I’ll write about that another day, including their example of  how much we elders have left to give.

Thanks to the work of so many, small miracles seem to happen daily. On Tuesday, a team of students from the University of St. Thomas gave the kitchen a much-needed deep cleaning. Days earlier, a woman arrived with a huge pot of homemade chicken stew just before another ICE bus packed with hungry families arrived.

There are limits to this model of loaves and fishes. Volunteers fall sick and burn out. Cleanliness and order are transitory. With no easy way to wash dishes or recycle containers, we threw away bags full of Styrofoam cups and plates, plastic spoons and forks and other waste after every meal.  With fluctuating numbers and volunteer cooks, food is inevitably wasted.

And while Annunciation House relieves the suffering of immigrant families who cross the southern border, it cannot address the violence and poverty in their home countries that cause them to flee. Nor can it budge the political impasse that keeps Congress from undertaking humane, practical and serious immigration reform. That’s up to the rest of us.




On the day President Trump saw an invasion, I saw a different crisis

Let me describe last Thursday at Casa Nazareth in El Paso, the same day President Trump visited McAllen, another Texas border town.

Start with the basics: Casa Nazareth is a nursing home turned immigrant shelter just across the alley from a former convent that now houses nonprofits’ offices and visiting volunteers.  It is one site of Annunciation House, a volunteer-powered charity that has provided refuge to the homeless of this border town for 40 years.

Casa Nazareth is also a small village with a constantly churning population.  There are 27 bedrooms, enough beds and cots to hold 110 people, a light-filled dining room with mismatched chairs and a large play room for children. Small rooms along its corridor are stuffed with clean bedding, toiletries and donated clothes. Other rooms hold cleaning supplies and over-the-counter medicines for the illnesses that afflict poor people who have traveled far in hope of finding a better life.

Beyond the basics, there is the routine. It begins with breakfast. At 7 a.m. this day, the El Paso couple who prepare breakfast every Thursday is chattering in Spanish while chopping hotdogs, beating eggs, boiling potatoes, and warming tortillas and beans to create a meal for about 35 guests who stayed the night.  Before they eat, the cooks lead the guests in giving thanks to God for the journey, the food, the people who help them. After the meal the guests mop the floors and wipe the tables.

Most of the people eating breakfast are fathers or mothers with one child, maybe two, fleeing poverty, violence, a life without hope. Most come from Guatemala and Honduras, a few from as far away as Brazil and Cuba. Many wear thick black ankle bracelets that allow ICE to track them. Most will leave Casa Nazareth today, the day after they arrived, taking buses or airplanes to join family in small towns and big cities across the country.

Volunteers use a U.S. map posted outside the office to show guests them how far it is to Mississippi, Maryland, Florida, New Hampshire. They do not say how uncertain the immigrants’ future will be once they arrive. On the trip, travelers will carry peanut butter sandwiches, water bottles and a strip of paper that says: “I don’t speak English. Please help me find my airplane or bus.”

Soon after last night’s guests line up for rides to flights and buses, a long, white bus from Immigration and Customs detention pulls up to the door.  Out lumber 40 parents and children, their worldly possessions clutched in a plastic bag, their faces blank with weariness and uncertainty.

Most are hungry, so they eat if lunch is ready or have water and fruit if it is not. Thursday’s lunch is brought by women from a Presbyterian church – rice, chicken casserole, tangerines, cookies. After lunch, the new arrivals are registered – names, ages, country of origin and phone numbers for family or friends in the U.S.

Spanish-speaking volunteers — college students, homemakers, retired nuns from across the country – call the contacts and arrange for the families to buy bus or airline tickets. The process is not always easy. Sponsor families must gather money or learn to use credit cards. They must agree to give the new arrivals a home and support until immigration judges decide whether they can stay in the U.S.

After the calls, the new guests are guided to their rooms, which are small, scuffed and clean.  Sheets, blankets, pillows, towels, soap, toiletries are gathered, and clean clothes found among the racks stuffed with donated clothes. For the first time in days, sometimes weeks, the guests enjoy the luxury of showers, fresh clothes, beds with sheets, doors they can close.

Dinner is chicken and rice prepared by another church group. Instead of the lunchtime hush, dinner is full of talk and the perfume of clean hair and bodies.  A small boy skips to make his new sneakers light up, and his mother softly smiles. A father quietly asks if he can take a second piece of bread and another orange. A dark-haired girl who arrived alone and spent months in ICE shelters has been released because she turned 18. She clutches a stuffed animal and weeps when the crowd celebrates her birthday with a song: ”We wish you congratulations with jasmine flowers.”

This is the invasion President Trump speaks of, his reason for closing the federal government over his demand for a wall.  But there is no invasion. In 2017, border-crossing apprehensions were at their lowest point since 1971, while undetected crossings have fallen even more, the New York Times and Department of Homeland Security report.

The crisis is real, but it not the one the President talked about in his Oval Office speech on Tuesday and visit to McAllen on Thursday. It is the crisis of more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the country, some for decades, working, raising families, building communities, with no way to become legal residents or citizens. It is the crisis of an overworked, erratic, often punitive immigration system. It is the crisis of politics driven by racism and appeals to base voters rather than labor market needs and compassion.

By tomorrow or the day after, today’s guests at Casa Nazareth will be gone. By the middle of next week, I will be gone as well. But their need for help and for hope will continue.  The hospitality will continue. Unfortunately, so will the crisis.


Dismantling Tornillo

 I’ve joined my friend Sr. Margaret in El Paso, Texas, to work for 10 days with immigrant families newly released by ICE. During my time here, I’ll share my experiences via this blog. Thanks for sharing this journey with us.

Only last June, the white and beige tents of Tornillo rose in the scrubby desert of southwestern Texas. Set among pecan groves and cotton fields, snugged up against the tall fence of steel mesh that separates U.S. territory from the Rio Grande, Tornillo was built to house more than 3,000 immigrant teens who made the dangerous journey from Central America alone. The Texas Monthly estimates that the expanse of tents, fences, soccer fields, porta-potties and small army of guards, teachers, nurses, cooks and barbers cost taxpayers about $1 million a day to operate.

Yesterday, my first day in El Paso, I witnessed some of its dismantling.

Tornillo was part of the Trump administration’s strategy to deter immigration across the southern border by making weary, hungry, frightened people still more miserable. Until public outcry stopped it, small, sobbing children were separated from their parents. Even now, families are held in jail-like conditions, in icy cells, with scant, poor quality food and only thin foil blankets for warmth.

For the teens in Tornillo, most of whom have family in the U.S., there was another strategy: Require fingerprints from their sponsors and everyone in their households and share those fingerprints with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., many of whom have lived and worked here for decades. Fingerprints meant putting everyone in a household at risk of criminal prosecution and deportation. Previously, only parents or guardians seeking to sponsor a child were required to submit fingerprints and only if background checks indicated a possible threat to the child.

Predictably, under the new policy, the number of teens detained and the wait for sponsors grew from an average of 30 days at the end of the Obama administration to 75 days.

But last week, under public pressure, the Trump Administration policy changed – now only parents or potential sponsors will be required to submit fingerprints. National Public Radio reports that camp staffers are driving 100 kids a day to the El Paso airport to join sponsors and that the population at Tornillo has fallen from 3,000 to less than 1,500. Not all have found a home, though. Some will be moved to other facilities.

When I arrived in El Paso yesterday to join my friend Sr. Margaret McGuirk to work with immigrant families released by ICE, she proposed that we go to see Tornillo. So we made the 40-minute drive on I-10 and into the desert with Sisters Mary, Kay and Katherine. All of them are religious sisters in their 70s who have served Spanish-speaking communities for decades.

I was happy to see the camp with these dedicated women and grateful to meet some of front-line activists who’ve camped outside the camp to protest the detention and document what’s happening there.

Musician and activist Martin Bates drove us around the camp’s perimeter, where we watched workers taking apart the vast dining camp and tossing metal bed frames into dumpsters. As we watched, a soccer ball came flying over the fence. Plastic sheeting blocked our view into the soccer field. But Martin retrieved the ball, and one by one, we grey-haired women with arthritic fingers wrote blessings and messages of hope in Spanish.  And with a great hurl, gentle Martin tossed it back over the fence.