What’s Really Happening at the Border? My Experience in Laredo, TX.

By Sr. Marge Wissman, OSF

Sr. Marge Wissman, OSF (pictured) is a Sister of St. Francis of Oldenburg, Indiana and Secretary of FAN’s Board of Directors. After seeing a call for help from Catholic Charities through the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), the community sent 5 volunteers to the border to assist for two weeks, from May 18-June 1. This is the story of their time there.

Today was our first day at the center. There were about 50 men, women, and children eating pizza for breakfast when we arrived. After helping with breakfast we were given a short orientation about the place and the drastic change that had happened on May 10th.

Until that day, the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) had been just dropping off those people they were letting through the border at the Greyhound bus station, without money or a place to go. Greyhound said they could no longer do this. So Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) talked to Catholic Charities and now CBP drop off 100 to 150 people twice a day at the Catholic Charities center where we are assisting. This just started last week so things are somewhat disorganized. When the people get here, they get processed, get a snack, clothing, then a shower, and finally a meal. Some only spend a short amount of time at the center because their families in the US buy them bus tickets, a few get airline tickets, about 60 spend the night due to their travel plans. At the most they only spend one or two days here.

The Sleeping Space
I want to tell you a little about where we are staying, which is thanks to Sr. Kathleen Branham who emailed several communities in Laredo asking if they would have room for us to stay. The Sisters of Mercy directed us to this hacienda. It is owned by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Poor. I am not sure of all they do but they have a Home for Children who stay here and go out to school everyday. The sisters have been very nice and good to us. There is one sister who checks in with me almost every day.

There are three dogs on the grounds. They are mainly watch dogs but very friendly. Two of them were here when we left for the center the other day. I love their unconditional love!

We hear helicopters every day patrolling the river – the Rio Grande which is right behind us. A sister told us today that it is mostly Venezuelan’s coming across the river.

We return from the center every day to a really great place to stay. It looks like a Mexican hacienda when you pull up. There are decorative iron gates that we enter through to a porch-like area with chairs. Each of us has our own bedroom and bathroom. We have a kitchen where we can fix our own meals. We have a washer and dryer. Many times I feel guilty coming home to such great surroundings. The inner courtyard is open to the outside. There is a green space with plants and a fountain (though, it’s not working) and birds constantly fly through. We are very worn out when we get back so this space is very welcoming.

The Work
Since we have been here in Laredo we have been running the used clothing section of the center.

One of the reasons I like this is, we get to meet all the people who come here. The center is the second stop after the visitors get in to the U.S.. We have met people from Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and even Romania. You can read in their eyes the tiredness, exhaustion, gratefulness and a certain relief that they got this far. They do have court dates when they reach their destination. Some destinations we have heard are Iowa, Tennessee, Florida, Chicago, New Hampshire, Philadelphia, Minnesota and many others. After they get clean clothing someone escorts them to get a shower. And then our whole process starts all over again, when the next group is brought from the border.

We give them one set of clean donated clothing including, socks, underwear, and shoes if we have them. It has been really hard to give pants for men because the people we see are all so skinny and donations we get are mainly from large men. Yesterday, we had no pants and only a few shirts for the men. We have lots of large sizes that hardly anyone can wear. After having to wear the same clothes for a long time, it is really hard to tell them we have nothing that fits them. We had to do that yesterday and even closed the door to the men’s clothing room for a time. Then Tracy called Salvation Army and asked if they could trade some clothing with us, exchanging skinny pants and shirts for our large clothes. They very graciously said yes so we could once more open the men’s clothing room.

No matter what we give them, they are all so grateful and they all say “gracias” when they leave. They remind me to be grateful for any small thing I receive.

As we come to the end of our time here in Laredo, I reflect on what I will remember: (in no particular order)

Watching for a border patrol van to come every morning around 11:00am. Then seeing how many will get out and line up against the wall and be taken in for processing. It is close to a hundred including men, women and children. They are tired, hungry, and in need of clean clothing, followed by a shower.

Meanwhile, we are straightening up the clothes in the area called ‘the closet.’ At this time, waiting for the people to come for clothes before they take a shower. Straightening clothes was a never ending job.

I remember the helicopters flying over where we are staying to catch people crossing at the shallow part of the Rio Grande.

I remember people checking for a confirmation number for the bus or train they need to appear on the wall chart.

I remember the woman who had been left at the airport and her confirmation number was wrong and she did not know anyone, but recognized someone from the center and ran to get her for help, so she could get back to the center. They figured it out and she flew out the next day.

I remember how many people, as they left with a clean set of clothing, gave us what I considered our best reward – a smile, and said “gracias.”

I remember the children who wanted to play with us and the children who clung to their parents.

I remember how few skinny pants we had for the men and how bad I felt for them after they had worn their same clothes for so long.

But most of all I will remember their faces. Faces that showed exhaustion, worn faces, worried faces, grateful faces, beautiful faces, glad they got this far. May God who brought them into my life remain with them as they continue their journey. Amen.

Published in: on June 20, 2019 at 10:00 am  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Marge and OSF O’burg group,

    I just read your blog and looked at the photos. In early June three of my blood sisters and I were at the Franciscan retreat center near Las Cruces with our cousin, Fr. Tom Smith,OFM Conv. from Mt. St. Francis, IN. The day after his 40th jubilee, he took us to the border, where nothing was happening on either side of the wall there. We then went into El Paso to the diocesan center where people of various ages were walking about or sitting on cots. All was quiet as they awaited their time to travel to relatives elsewhere.

    I am glad the four of us had this common experience.


    Sr. Marlene Kochert
    Tohatchi, NM

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