Sister Kathy Benham, of the IHM Literacy Center, was among the first to volunteer for the IHM Border Mission last year – a combined operation of the three separate Monroe, Scranton, and Philadelphia branches of IHM sisters, offering humanitarian assistance during the refugee surge at the U.S. southern border after President Biden’s inauguration. That she was among those first IHMs to go for three weeks starting in April 2021, was due to chance or the Holy Spirit: when Catholic Relief Services asked for women religious volunteers, many of her Literacy Center pupils were observing the month-long Muslim season of Ramadan — a time when class attendance tends to be erratic — so it seemed a reasonable time to be away!
Sister Kathy was actually on the committee that chose the relatively remote site of El Centro CA, diocese of San Diego, for the mission. She went down with Sister Mary Elaine Anderson of the Scranton IHM Sisters – a nice reunion, since they had met years before – to set up. There, the two sisters employed their special skills as religious – with a heritage of hospitality and a talent for organization — to build an efficient operation. Sister Mary Elaine, who was able to stay for the full three months of the mission, even found use for her art therapy training to help anxious children!
Sister Kathy reports that immigrants to El Centro did not stream in, steadily, in long processions, as in some other areas. Instead, they crept across the border quietly, one family at a time. Many were desperately poor. Most, at the time, were Brasilians, fleeing the repressive Bolsonaro regime, hoping to find humble jobs to feed their families. They went west to California because they hoped it would be easier to get in. Picked up there by the U.S. Border Patrol, they had no idea what to expect, and, since the Brasilians often spoke only Portuguese – no Spanish or English – language was an extra challenge.
Immigrant families were split up just inside the U.S. border, with men sent to one facility, and women and children to another, for covid testing and paperwork. Those with covid were then moved into quarantine in a large motel at Holtzville. Those who tested negative were taken to El Centro. Boys over 18 years old were considered independent adults and generally sent back across the border to Mexico, which was an incomprehensible and unexpected tragedy to those accustomed to living together in big multigenerational families; most had no phones and no way to keep in touch. The rest had no idea what would happen next, so they were surprised, and sometimes moved to tears, when they were reunited on a bus, enroute to a motel room in El Centro, to be met with the relief of a welcoming smile, clean beds and a bathroom, and meals. Once there, they had 48 hours to contact relatives in the United States who could pay for their plane tickets, and to get to the airport. Sister Kathy and her fellow volunteers organized a clothing room to provide clothing (since shoelaces had been confiscated at the border, these were especially prized!); distributed meals; and, muddling along in a mixture of Spanish and google translate, helped their charges to work through the English-language airport bureaucracy. The airport was an hour away from El Centro, so the nuns and volunteers drove families there in vans supplied by Catholic Charities. A knowledgeable former border patrol officer wisely advised them to explain to the families that the long bumpy ride would take them to the faraway airport, since they were in unfamiliar remote territory, with people they didn’t know, who spoke a different language, and the families were stressed, terrified, and confused about everything happening outside their control.
Sister Kathy highlights the amazing efforts of Catholic Relief Services to make a real difference, and feels humbled by her experience. Now, the IHMs hope to return to the border! They are in the planning stages for a combined mission of all three IHM groups and the related Sisters of Providence. The hope is to set up a permanent “unretreat” center – a place where volunteers can come, not for solitary soulful meditation, but to offer their time and energy to help others. They have also received funding from SOAR – the funding for retired IHM religious – which hopes to involve retired sisters who still want to contribute.