A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of traveling once again to McAllen, Texas, to work at the Humanitarian Respite Center led by Sister Norma Pimentel, MJ, who received Notre Dame’s Laetare Medal in 2018.
This was my sixth visit and I was surprised to see that 90 percent of the refugees at the center were from Haiti. Before most were from Central America — Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Not this time.
Earthquakes and other crises over the past decade have displaced many Haitians and large numbers took refuge in Chile and Brazil. They found work, had children and contributed to life there, but visa rules have changed, forcing thousands to flee once again.
Many found their way to the center on the U.S.-Mexico border. Can you begin to imagine what it would be like to travel on foot from Chile to Texas, catching rides on buses here and there? Hopping on trains wherever possible? Staying in one place for a few weeks to earn some money to continue the journey? As I write these words in my room in Dillon Hall, I am embarrassed to admit that I am checking my upcoming flight to see if I got an upgrade from Panama City to Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia.
There were many, many children at the Humanitarian Respite Center, more than I can ever remember in the past. I looked out at a sea of people and wondered if people around the world will ever become more welcoming to immigrants and refugees. Why is there so much antagonism, suspicion, even hatred toward them? I want to scream, “Can’t you see that these people are only trying to find a better for their children and families?” How can we turn our backs on them?
This time I worked mostly in the “getting people clothing” department. I filled out forms for families lined up by the dozens. One member of each family would sit down with me and I would ask the same questions: How many people are in your family? What size pants? What size shirts? What size jackets? Does your child wear diapers or underwear? I put a number on the form to designate the family. A “runner” would take the orders across the street to a big Catholic Charities storage facility where volunteers would prepare a bag of clothing and send it back.
Believe it or not this was very tiring work — the center is loud, loud, loud. People can hardly hear one another talk. Lots of background noise. Asking dozens and dozens of people the same questions, I would often begin to lose patience, and then I would remind myself of this important truth: Though this family is the 50th family I have met today, this is the first time they have met me.
I have written previously how smart phones have connected the world. I first realized this at a Mass with Pope Francis with priests from all over the world. When the readings were proclaimed, many got out their cell phones to read the daily readings in their language.
One day, a man from Ecuador asked in Quechua if we had a certain item. He didn’t know the word in Spanish; I certainly did not know the word in Quechua. So, what did he do? He looked it up on Amazon and showed me a picture. It was a backpack to carry a newborn.
Smartphones have connected the world, immeasurably improving communication. But communication does not always lead to the right kind of understanding, the awareness of other people’s circumstances that lead them to a place like the Humanitarian Respite Center. For all the tools that draw us together, why can’t we be more human to one another?
One day Sister Norma and I went to a refugee center in Reynosa, Tamaulipas, just across the Mexican border. There were 2,500 Haitian refugees there, some with protection from the desert sun in weather well over 100 degrees, others with nothing. All I could think of was getting back to Texas for a shower and a change of clothes. I would have to remind myself that these people were not getting a shower or fresh clothing.
Sister Norma and others were trying to negotiate a deal with the Reynosa authorities to allow refugees to work for a few hours each day. There was plenty they could do. The city needed help cleaning streets and the refugees would be delighted to work and earn a little cash.
But there were all sorts of rules about work permits and God knows what else. Could they be given stipends to avoid those regulations? No. Could they be paid in food vouchers for local use? No. Were there any options? No agreement could be reached as bureaucrats clung to rules that seemed designed not to help people. It made me crazy to listen to the refusals when everyone would win. I’m all for rules (well, really, I’m not!), but I support those designed to serve and help people.
We all know the saying “where there’s a will there’s a way.” We know how true it is. In our country, there really is no will to fix the broken immigration system. In Reynosa, there is no will to find a way for Haitian refugees to work. And people suffer and suffer and suffer.
The late Brazilian archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara, who received an honorary doctorate from Notre Dame in 1976, once wrote, “Obviously, while I love all, I must, like Christ, have a special love for the poor. At the last judgment, we shall all be judged by the treatment we have given to Christ, to Christ in the person of those who are hungry or thirsty, who are dirty, wounded and oppressed.”
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner.
Father Joe Corpora works in Campus Ministry and the Alliance for Catholic Education. He is priest-in-residence at Dillon Hall and is one of 700 priests whom Pope Francis appointed in 2016 to serve as Missionaries of Mercy. His most recent book about this latter experience is Doing Mercy: A Path to Contemplation.