Sister Migdalia, a Daughter of Charity who has been working in El Paso, is a member of the “confraternity of Vincentians on the Border.” Here she shares with us the first of two reflections.
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Frederick Buechner
My name is Sr. Migdalia Flores, I have been on the border between the United States (El Paso, Texas) and Mexico (Ciudad Juarez) for almost five years. About almost two years ago, I started a new ministry with unaccompanied minors in DMRS (Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services) of El Paso. DMRS besides providing other legal services to migrants is also a legal provider for minors that are under the ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) custody. These are minors from 0-17 years of age. Some have come alone, with smugglers and others with family members or even friends.
In 2018 there was a big influx of minors coming in and they were put in these huge tents. We are living this big influx again in this present moment. El Paso had many protesters in front of the “El Tornillo” shelter because children had been separated from family members. The treatment in the facility was not the most adequate. Children were lacking basic needs and because they did not have enough staffing you would see minors taking care of each other. Some crying and screaming for their parents. It was a heartbreaking scenario.
As caseworkers for Unaccompanied Minors at DMRS we go to the shelters and can give the ones that have a better understanding the KYR (Know Your Rights Presentation) and afterwards conduct a Legal Screening in Spanish. The more tender age ones we just make sure they are okay. The Flores Settlement Act of 1997 gives these children certain rights and we teach them their rights in a simple but compassionate way. We watch out that they are treated lawfully and with dignity. This way we can identify what legal relief is appropriate for each situation. Some of these children are fleeing from extreme situations of poverty. Others are fleeing violence, gangs, abuse, human trafficking, etc… I have seen children that have been working since they were six years of age to put a plate on the table. All these situations make them eligible for certain types of visas like: Asylum, Special Juvenile Status, U Visa, T Visa.
These minors sometimes carry a big amount of trauma and some sad to say don’t even know the name of a parent. Some parents or family members came looking for a better life and have not seen their children since they were small. I recall a 13-year-old telling me she was going to meet her mother for the first time. Mother left her in Guatemala with her grandmother when she was a baby.
Once the minor is apprehended at the border they are put in what migrants called the “hielera” the freezer for supposedly 72 hours under CBP (Customs Border Patrol). Then they are transported to private shelters that have been contracted by the ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) and HHS (Health and Human Services). They are put in these shelters until they become reunified with the family they have in the United States. Family members must prove their identity to receive these children. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 protects these children from being exploited.
Some children do not have sponsors and sometimes are placed in foster care or put up for adoption when family has not been found. The ORR transfers them to family base shelters where they have identified a family member. Even when they are reunified they continue under the process of deportation and need legal representation in the state where they go. The process to get a visa can take years if they qualify.
Most of these children just pass through our hands and are reunified, others we get to see in court and even are represented by our lawyers. Sometimes we are the first outsiders that these children of God see. It means a world to them. It makes my day when I can make them smile. Their stories are at times are hard to hold in tears.
Because of the pandemic, we were not able to go to the shelters since March 20, 2020 and it was hard for us and I bet for the minors too. For children, the environment is less restrictive than for adults but they are still detained and very well supervised. Shelters facilities started letting us connect by Zoom or other video conference programs and right now still doing KYRs and Legal Screening through internet. I have a teddy bear I use on the camera for the smaller ones.
They teach me so much and they are so resilient. I remember in Christmas one of the lawyers asking me to talk to a six-year-old that didn’t want to speak. Then I recalled a Santa Claus beard and hat that I had in my dresser drawer. When this minor saw, me he got so happy and said “Papa Noel” and he would not stop talking. I was able to do the interview. Tears came to my eyes when I asked him what he wanted for Christmas. He said I want to see my momma and a cell phone to call her.
In March of this year a border patrol agent shared a heart-stopping video of smugglers abandoning two little girls in the New Mexico desert in the middle of the night, after dropping them over a 14-foot-high fence.
The smugglers can be seen scaling the fence and dropping the 5-year-old and 3-year-old to the hard ground and throwing items that appear to be belongings after them. It makes me wonder how desperate a parent can be to do this.
Through my time here in El Paso I have discovered a passion to work with Migrants and Refugees. The benefit is more on my side. God has blessed me letting me serve them. In the various experiences, I have had here: Migrant homeless elderly women, receiving migrant families at the Pastoral Center, in Juarez with migrants sent back to Mexico, in “Casa del Migrante” (Shelter in Juarez, Mexico for Migrants) and now in DMRS I have seen Jesus face to face in the vulnerable and feel like Joshua when the Lord told him: “Take off your sandals because this place where you are standing is holy.”