A diocesan volunteer describes her experience in the Coachella Valley with a Central American family seeking asylum in the United States
By Cristina Mendez
The first lady I welcomed into the shelter was teary-eyed and scared; clearly affected as she processed all that she had experienced.
I tell her she’s fine, and then she starts crying, telling me this could only be because of God. I look down at her wrist as she caresses the charm of Our Lady of Guadalupe and tells me she has prayed to Our Mother the whole way. She looks up at the image of Our Lady in the center’s sign and cries again.
She, her husband, and their son and daughter left their country and all that they owned. They sold their belongings and borrowed from her husband’s brothers to pay the “guide” the $10,000 it cost them to be dropped off at the border. Two buses departed from her region. One had no trouble reaching the border. Theirs got stuck in the rain, then a flood, it later had mechanical problems, and all through the journey the bus was full of families who feared they would be sent back. While the other bus was immediately sent back with all the families. theirs made it to safety. Once at the border, they decided to separate, something they had never done or experienced as a family before. She turns herself and her daughter in to immigration to seek asylum, since they had experienced constant extortion in their town from the gangs, making it impossible to make a living and feeling that the future of her pre-teen daughter and young son was in danger.
Once in the detention center, they were separated by gender, she tells me. They were placed into small rooms where the temperature was set very low, and the metal benches made it impossible to sleep and rest. Adults and children started getting sick, from the cold and the food. She tells me the food was horrible and the treatment from the officers was dehumanizing. Nothing like our shelter, she tells me.
We are able to get a hold of her family members in Virginia by phone and they offer to pay for their passage. She is full of joy and hope but then she begins to cry again. She tells me that she’s worried for her husband and her son. She’s afraid her son will get sick like the other children she saw there. She’s also afraid for them and their wellbeing. She asks me if she could just wait for them at our shelter because she hasn’t heard from them and is worried sick. I tell her we don’t know who they’ll send or when. So she will have to plan for her journey.
A week passes by and I return to the center. As I’m arriving I get a phone call and it is she. She tells me she has made it safe to her destination in Virginia and that everything went well and she is grateful. She asks me to pray for her son and husband because she hasn’t heard from them. I tell her not to worry and to pray to Our Lady. I ask her to tell me their names so that we can pray for them, too. Then I look down at the table and the list of people who have just arrived and I notice their names. I tell her, “they just arrived!” I ask around for them, but no one can find them. I tell her that we will call her back.
When I find her husband, I tell him I have a surprise; that I met his wife the week before. He gets teary-eyed and I tell him she will be on the phone in a minute. His son comes to the phone and when he hears his mother’s voice, he says “Mamá,” and all of us around them get teary-eyed.
There is so much emotion and love and relief and joy. They speak and afterward the husband tells me that his wife told him he could trust us, and to clothe the boy well because the bus will also be cold. He asks if he can hug me and thanks me for everything we’ve done. This family is now together in Virginia.
Cristina Mendez is Administrative Secretary in the Diocesan Office of Continuing Formation of Priests