Two weeks ago, with little warning, ICE released hundreds of families seeking asylum. El Paso was one of the cities suddenly filled with people who had nowhere to go. The Roman Catholic Diocese of El Paso reached out to Catholic Charities in San Antonio for help running their suddenly overwhelmed shelters, and president J. Antonio Fernandez loaded up their truck with supplies and volunteers and hit the road.
He said what he found when he got there were shelters that were used to accommodating 50 families a week were suddenly serving nearly two thousand people, and help was definitely needed.
“So we did everything, from doing intake to cleaning to cooking to whatever it took to provide some love and respect and dignity to these people while they were there,” Fernandez said.
Fernandez said the families — who have experienced the trauma of fleeing their home countries, taking a long and dangerous journey and being detained for weeks or months — could have been distressed or angry, but overall they were not.
“The people were grateful to see a smiley face,” Fernandez said. “They were happy to be free, and they really appreciated the fact they were together with their families and the children.”
Fernandez has helped thousands of immigrants during his career with Catholic Charities, and he finds it impossible to square the image of threatening invaders with the people he has known.
“I have lived with them. I have spent nights taking care of them, days feeding them,” Fernandez said. “I have taken people to my house to take showers; to eat. My daughter, who is 7 (years old) volunteers with me, (and) I have not met a single person I think is a risk to society in the U.S.”
But Fernandez became pensive when asked about the work he did in El Paso.
“I don’t know. I’m hopeful we can do more,” he said.
Then, he paused, overcome with emotion.
“It’s just hard,” he said. “I’m happy for everything we did but there’s still a lot more need and a lot more people coming.”
Fernandez plans to go back to the border, and he hopes to bring more donations and volunteers. He’s also reached out to representatives of other faiths and hopes to put together an interfaith task force to do more for these families.
Bonnie Petrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @kbonniepetrie