Diocese of Las Cruces Project Oak Tree: Helping Those Who Seek a Better Life

By KAY MATTHEWS

The mother and son spent seventeen days traveling from El Salvador to the US border, hoping to reach her brother in Oxnard, California. She left two children and a husband at home, a place she told me was “muy peligroso” (very dangerous). After being taken into US custody they were shuffled back and forth between offices where they were “processed” and a detention facility (jail) where they were blasted with constant air conditioning to “get rid of germs” (as the rationale goes), made to use open bathrooms (no doors), given a mylar blanket, a liter of water daily, and frozen burritos that were inadequately heated. The good news is they were detained for only three days instead of weeks, probably because so many immigrants are coming through the system. The bad news is, the mother was given an ankle monitor and unless this country fixes a broken immigration system she and her son will likely be denied asylum and sent back to El Salvador.

I met these refugees, along with 40 others, at the Diocese of Las Cruces Project Oak Tree shelter where they come after being released by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) from detention and before they begin their journey to their families and sponsors while they await their asylum hearings. Without the aid of the Diocese shelters they would be dropped on the streets of El Paso with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Under the direction of Deacon Leonel Briseño, five shelters in Las Cruces (and many others in El Paso under the direction of Annunciation House) provide the meals, beds, clothing, toys for the children, showers, telephones to calls families and sponsors, and transportation to the bus station and airport to travel all over the country while they wait their hearings.

Volunteers who load up supplies to take to the shelter.

I was lucky enough to be invited to work with Sylvia Corona, the volunteer coordinator at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Cathedral, who works with a crew of about 15 volunteers every Thursday and Friday when this shelter receives the immigrants that ICE releases. Sylvia, a native of Las Cruces, is a bundle of organized energy who directs the action from start to finish, beginning on Mondays sorting donated clothing and ending on Fridays driving immigrants to the bus stations or airport in El Paso. She generously offered me accommodations while I was there to interview the immigrants and help at the shelter. I also met Stephanie Gonzalez, a student from Catholic University who is doing an internship at the Diocese coordinating the five shelters of Project Oak Tree.

On Thursday, February 21, the Immaculate Heart church in Las Cruces had to arrange for the immigrants to go to an alternate shelter, Our Lady of Purification in Doña Ana, eight miles north of Las Cruces. I met the volunteer crew at the “bunker” in the parking lot of the Immaculate Heart church where we loaded all the sleeping cots, bedding, diapers, boxes of clothes, etc., into trucks and cars and headed to Doña Ana about midday. ICE had already dropped off the group of 40 immigrants by the time we got there, but volunteers were already serving a lunch of enchiladas. Sylvia told me that one of the cooks donates most of the food supplies for the two days the immigrants are at the shelters, but Deacon Lonnie (what everyone calls him) raises the money needed for the five Las Cruces shelters through an extended network of donors.

While people were eating lunch I was able to sit with them and hear their stories. Surprising to me, many of the travelers were men with their young sons. One father and teenage son had left El Salvador on February 2 and were on their way to Washington where the boy wanted to study with his uncle. He left behind two sisters. Another father and son left Honduras with only the phone number of a friend in Louisiana. They left a mother and two children there: no work, no security, even the fear of moving around because of gangs on the streets. Another son with his father from Guatemala was on his way to Washington D.C. to stay with his grandfather. They’d traveled for 11 days to the border and spent three days in detention.

Sylvia Corona and Delia Narváiz

Throughout the day Deacon Lonnie worked with the immigrants to make phone calls to families and sponsors, pin down their travel arrangements, and make sure the money had been wired to pay for tickets. We spent the rest of the day getting the cots set up and making sure everyone had clothing for their journeys the next day. I was at the coat table, trying to make sure those going to Washington or Pennsylvania got a warm enough one for the cold climate. My partner in all of this was Delia Narváiz, 85 years old, who helps Sylvia every Monday sort the clothes and works all day Thursday at the shelter. Then, because this church had no shower facilities, we took everyone to the Aquatic Center in our private vehicles. I had a child in a booster seat with his father and another father and thirteen year old son. The father spoke a little English and told me he’d spent four years in the US, in New York, where he’d worked construction. He’d been caught driving without a license and was deported, leaving behind a son, who was a US citizen. Now he was leaving behind two children in Guatemala to come back to the US to find work—and to reunite with his son.

 

 

 

 

 

The next day everyone helped break down the cots, pack up the leftover clothing and supplies, clean up the building, pack lunches for the travelers, and transport them to the bus station and airport. I took two fathers and small sons to Sylvia’s cottage where she sometimes houses them when their tickets don’t come through on time (their buses wouldn’t leave until the evening) and then rode with her to the El Paso airport with several families traveling to Virginia and North Carolina. It was here I heard the most disturbing story that I will tell as I heard it, from a woman refugee from Nicaragua. The situation in Nicaragua has been hotly debated among the US left as to whether the violence there has been perpetrated by an increasingly authoritarian government led by President Daniel Ortega, who previously led the Sandinista revolution against dictator Somoza in the 1980s, or anti-government groups financially backed by the US. You can go to sites such as Democracy Now!  and Truthdig for interviews and articles about the situation in Nicaragua.

According to the Nicaraguan refugee, after May 30 of 2018, protests against the Ortega government, largely led by students, stopped because of the violent reaction of the government—lethal shootings and prison. One of the refugees in the group she was with had been in prison. In August, when the United Nations issued a report condemning the Ortega government for its violent crackdown, its human rights delegation was ordered to leave the country. She told us that hundreds of people have died; the UN puts the number at 300. The TV station Ciento por Ciento left the country after the owner was imprisoned and eventually moved to Costa Rica where it was granted asylum. She said if she is sent back to Nicaragua she would be put in jail, simply because she left.

Then, as she reiterated many of the same conditions she experienced in detention as I’ve previously described, she added a chilling story of violence where there is no question as to its perpetrator: our own government. When the group of migrants she was with first encountered the border patrol they were ordered to kneel with their hands up. When one of the group, a large woman holding a child, was unable to quickly comply, an agent kicked her, causing her to fall to the ground with the child, who fell out of her arms. “They treat us like criminals,” she said.

One of the children seeking a better life in the United States.

If you would like to make donations to the Diocese of Las Cruces Project Oak Tree you can send them to: 1280 Med Park Drive, Las Cruces, New Mexico 88005

Donations to Annunciation House can be sent to: 1003 E. San Antonio Ave., El Paso, Texas, 79901

 

 

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