Beginning in late October, the Diocese began receiving mostly Guatemalan migrants at locations in the lower Coachella Valley, transported by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) personnel. It is a collaborative effort with Catholic Charities San Bernardino-Riverside, which takes the lead in recording information and coordinating each immigrant’s bus transportation to their final destination in the U.S. In the meantime, the visitors are given meals, access to showers, clothing and an opportunity to rest after their weeks long journey to reach the United States.
At press time, the Diocese had received and helped transition more than 860 people arriving from Central America with legal authorization to be in the United States pending their petition for political asylum. This kind of transitional ministry has also been undertaken by the Diocese of San Diego, the Diocese of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and the Diocese of El Paso, Texas.
The arrival of Central American migrants to the U.S. border has stoked an already emotional political debate on the issue of immigration. But for those in the Diocese who have taken part in ministering to the Guatemalan migrants in the Coachella Valley, it has been an enriching if emotional experience of faith.
“Being there and actually speaking to them, seeing their eyes and listening to their voices, it makes it pretty real,” says Rosamaria Mora, a parishioner at St. Anthony Parish in Upland who volunteered to help process information from the migrants as they arrived and to secure their bus tickets.
“To me they are honestly good people. They’re dealing with such great suffering and they are just looking for a way to survive.”
Diocesan Vice Chancellor Maria Echeverria, who was part of the initial outreach, said she heard heartbreaking stories from the migrant travelers about loved ones, including children, who did not survive the journey.
“These are the lucky ones; the ones that made it,” Echeverria said. “They feel safe now.”
This ministry is similar to what the Diocese provided at St. Joseph Parish in Fontana in 2014 when a group of 46 migrants from Central America were received and helped on their way to unite with loved ones in the U.S. That effort was more short-lived, ending after only a few days. But it gave the Diocese a blueprint that has been invaluable in the ongoing effort in the Coachella Valley, says Deacon Luis Sanchez, who coordinated both the 2014 effort and the current one.
“Experience helps a lot,” he says. “We’re using the same planning and organization that we had before.”
The ministry effort first came about when the Guatemalan Consulate contacted Diocesan Hispanic Affairs Director Petra Alexander seeking community and faith groups to provide transition assistance to migrants who were being released into the United States after spending several days in a federal holding facility in El Centro, Calif. The Diocese then entered into direct conversation with I.C.E. about the needs of the migrant travelers and the number of people that could be helped by the Church. The Diocese is in contact with I.C.E. daily and receives 25-50 persons at a time. Depending on the availability of bus transportation, their average stay before journeying to their U.S. contact is about 36 hours.
“It makes me proud to be part of the Catholic Church,” Mora said of ministering to those in such great need. “They’re looking for a light at the end of a very long tunnel.”