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San Antonio Mennonites join interfaith immigrant hospitality networks

2.14. 2016 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr 2,166 Times read

Photo: Most days a bus carrying women and children from Texas detention centers arrives at San Antonio Mennonite Church, where volunteers from Casa RAICES greet them. Photo provided. 

Almost every day, a bus pulls into the parking lot at San Antonio Mennonite Church (SAMC), bearing women and children recently released from two family detention centers in Dilly and Karnes City, Texas. Some have been held for days and others for weeks. Some are wearing ankle monitors to track their movements, devices that need to be charged every eight hours. Many are from Central and South America. Some have small suitcases filled with belongings, while others have only the clothes they arrive in.

Some women are required to wear ankle monitors, which must be plugged in and charged every eight hours. RAICES photo.

Some women are required to wear ankle monitors, which must be plugged in and charged every eight hours. RAICES photo.

Every day, someone from the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) is there to greet them and take them to La Casa, a guest house owned by SAMC, where they can find food, a place to rest, clean clothes, a place to shower and time and space to figure out what comes next. RAICES staff people are on hand at the house to help the women and children access a wide variety of services, whether they are looking for legal advice, medical or counseling services, transportation or a way to communicate with family and friends.

Since spring 2015, Benito Miller, a graduate of Goshen (Ind.) College, has been serving as one of two house coordinators at La Casa, and is often onsite to greet the women and children when they step off the bus.

“We’ll often get folks who are disoriented and who aren’t sure where they’ve been dropped off. We’ve even had cases where women thought when they got on the bus that they were going to be deported,” said Miller in a Jan. 8 phone interview. “Soon after we pick them up, we have to establish that we’re not immigration, they’ve in fact been released from detention. Most of them have survived a really intense journey through Mexico, and they are not clear why anybody would lend them a hand.”

Interfaith hospitality efforts began in August 2014, when news spread that hundreds of unaccompanied Central American youth were being detained by the government at Lackland Airforce Base in San Antonio until a verified friend or family member or alternative shelter was located. RAICES and several congregations, including SAMC, began to meet to discern ways to respond to the crisis. Eventually this group came to be known as the Interfaith Welcome Coalition (IWC).

“This was a network of people who came together to see how we could respond,” said Stacey Merkt, a member of SAMC. “This was not just a 9-to-5 job for people, and the IWC was not just church people. It’s an incredible array of people who have extremely compassionate hearts.”

Thousands of Central American women and children are being held at family detention centers in Texas. RAICES photo.

Thousands of Central American women and children are being held at family detention centers in Texas. RAICES photo.

Over time, the nature of the crisis shifted from youth detained at the air force base to large numers of Central American women and children being held at a nearby detention center. Through their work, members of IWC learned that recently released individuals were being dropped off at a local San Antonio bus station, often without warning and a place to go, and the need for hospitality grew. The church parking lot was offered as a drop-off location and members of the IWC offered their homes as a temporary place for women and children to stay. But the needs continued to grow. Initially, the IWC needed to find space for two families, but by early 2015, those numbers has grown to 12 or more families needing shelter. In February 2015, as the numbers of people being dropped off grew, the idea of using La Casa took root, and volunteers from across the IWC worked to staff the house.

And still the needs continued to grow. A July 24, 2015 ruling by Judge Dolly Gee in California found that Texas’ two detention centers were not meeting legal requirements for facilities housing children (Gee’s brief referred to the detention center conditions as “deplorable”) and shortening the allowed length of detention for women and children. After the ruling, the numbers of women and children arriving in San Antonio skyrocketed, and the volunteer network struggled to keep up. On Sept. 1, 2015, RAICES decided to take over and staff the program at La Casa as part of its official work.

Luz Varela, a participant with Mennonite Mission Network’s Mennonite Voluntary Service program and a recent Bluffton (Ohio) University graduate, volunteers with RAICES and helps coordinate volunteer schedules at La Casa.

“I make sure that whatever needs there are in the house it’s taken care of,” said Varela in a Jan. 14 phone interview. “We try very hard to just mimic Christ and be Christ to them, because they’ve been through a lot.”

When Varela arrived in August 2015, the house was serving around 20 people per day. As Judge Gee’s ruling took effect, the numbers rose to over 100 people being dropped off during peak days in October. The needs were so great that RAICES called in emergency assistance from the city, and SAMC’s building was filled with makeshift cots for people to sleep on.

Since then, RAICES has worked to build clear communication channels with ICE officials, and ICE has agreed to bring no more than 20 families per day.

“It’s been one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my life,” said Varela. “I know I should care about this work because I’m an immigrant, but it wasn’t until I really got into this work that I realized why it’s so important for the rest of the world to care about this issue. There’s a lot of mistreatment of people and a lot of suffering. Christians or people that do Christ’s work should really care about this because there are people that really need help and need healing.”

Varela has also learned about the nature of faith from the women who pass through La Casa. Many of them can tell stories of harrowing journeys to the United States, often risking their lives for the hope of a safer, better life for their children. “I’m always impressed to see how the women that come through the house often have so much faith regardless of anything that happens to them. It has helped me realize what faith really is about. Having that hope in the midst of so much terror and horror. I came to do service, thinking I could help so many people, but I realize coming to this place that I came to serve people who are also serving me,” she says.

For RAICES, running the La Casa shelter is a return to the organization’s origins.

Hundreds of children have spent time at Casa RAICES. RAICES photo.

Hundreds of children have spent time at Casa RAICES. RAICES photo.

“RAICES began in the early ’80s in response to Central American refugees fleeing civil wars, and eventually immigration law took RAICES toward a legal services organization,” said Jonathan Ryan, executive director at RAICES, in a Jan. 26 phone interview. “I used to hear stories from the RAICES elders about the old days supporting Central Americans, and here we are living those times anew.”

Although the shelter continues to operate, its status may be in jeopardy under Texas law HB 11, which instituted new border security measures and makes it a state felony to harbor undocumented immigrants, potentially criminalizing the activities at the La Casa shelter. On Jan. 25, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a lawsuit challenging the law on behalf of RAICES and two San Antonio landlords.

“We are not changing operations one bit,” said Ryan. “We continue to have an open-door policy that includes the families ICE brings to us from detention centers, as well as any other undocumented refugees who need us.”

RAICES is expanding its advocacy message and inviting financial donations and donations of material goods to help undergird their work. In addition, they’ve launched the Welcome Home Backpack Project, which invites people to sponsor a refugee backpack that includes toiletries, snacks, baby formula, diapers, a blanket, and other basic supplies. So far over 2,400 backpacks have been donated.

For SAMC, continuing to support the La Casa shelter is one piece of a broader commitment to working toward immigration justice. Stacey Merkt calls this work “a church heart issue.”

The church has established an Immigration Task Force that works on initiatives, and as part of their educational work, they are offering an immigration-focused experience open to people across the country during the week of June 19-25. Inquiries or questions about the experience can be emailed to office@sanantoniomennonite.org, with “Immigration Experience” in the subject line. Individuals will need to reserve their space no later than April 18.

Watch a video interview with Luz Varela:

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