Faith leaders prep for border changes amid tension, hope

Dec 18, 2022, 4:04 PM | Updated: Dec 19, 2022, 6:09 am
The Rev. Brian Strassburger, left, and the Rev. Flavio Bravo, right, bless migrants during Mass at ...

The Rev. Brian Strassburger, left, and the Rev. Flavio Bravo, right, bless migrants during Mass at the Casa del Migrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, on Dec. 15, 2022. Both hope and tension have been rising here and the few other shelters in this border city where thousands of migrants await news of U.S. border policy changes possibly less than a week away. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)

(AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)

              Sister Norma Pimentel, the director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, plays with migrant children on the floor of the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, on Dec. 15, 2022. The Catholic nun has been ministering to migrants in the area for forty years, and worries that a broken asylum system with often shifting policies creates even more tensions among migrants and makes it impossible to help them all. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
            
              The Rev. Brian Strassburger, left, and Flavio Bravo, center, bless migrants during Mass at the Humanitarian Respite Center for migrants across the bus station in McAllen, Texas, on Dec. 15, 2022. Pregnant women are usually admitted far more quickly than others to the United States to pursue their asylum claims, but many more people are expected to cross the border if asylum policies change. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
            
              The Rev. Louie Hotop, a Jesuit priest, center, celebrates Mass for migrants in the large room where they rest and sleep after being admitted to the United States at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, on Dec. 15, 2022. Dozens of migrants are allowed to enter the United States daily here on humanitarian parole or other mechanisms to seek asylum, and thousands are expected to come if asylum policies change next week. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
            
              Gloria, a 22-year-old migrant from Honduras 8 months pregnant with her first child, sits on a cot in the Humanitarian Respite Center run by Catholic Charities across the bus station in McAllen, Texas, on Dec. 15, 2022. She holds a sign on which a visiting Catholic priest handwrote "I'm pregnant. Can you ask for a wheelchair to bring me to my gate?" after she said she was worried she didn't know how to navigate the connecting flights that will take her to an acquaintance in Florida. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
            
              The Rev. Hector Silva points out some of the facilities in Senda de Vida 1, one of the migrant shelters he runs in Reynosa, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande River from the United States. More than 1,200 migrants, including some 200 recently arrived Russians, wait there for a chance to be admitted to the United States to seek asylum. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
            
              Migrants from Colombia cook a dish they call "American chicken" to sell to the other 3,000 migrants crammed in tents inside the Senda de Vida 2 shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, on Dec. 15, 2022. The shelter, the second founded by an evangelical pastor on this border city, houses migrants from Haiti, Central and South America in tents pitched on concrete or rough gravel, providing only the most essential care but security from the cartels that prey on migrants left outside. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
            
              A migrant listens to his phone by his tent in the vast, open-air shelter Senda de Vida 2 in Reynosa, Mexico, on Dec. 15, 2022. The shelter, the second founded by an evangelical pastor in this border city, houses 3,000 migrants from Haiti, Central and South America in tents pitched on concrete or rough gravel, providing only the most essential care but security from the cartels that prey on migrants left outside. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
            
              Edimar Valera, a migrant from Venezuela, stands among drying clothes in the Casa del Migrante shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, on Dec. 15, 2022. Valera fled her country with her mother, daughter and other family members two months ago, crossing the notoriously dangerous Darien Gap. She hopes new U.S. asylum policies will allow the family to find safety with friends in McAllen, Texas, just across the Rio Grande from the shelter. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
            
              Eslande, a migrant mother from Haiti, reads the Gospel in Creole during Mass celebrated in the Casa del Migrante shelter by three Jesuit priests, from left, the Revs. Flavio Bravo, Louie Hotop and Brian Strassburger, in Reynosa, Mexico, on Dec. 15, 2022. Nearly 300 migrants from Haiti, Venezuela, and other Latin American countries are cramming the shelter, run by Catholic nuns in this border city on the Rio Grande. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
            
              The Rev. Brian Strassburger, a Jesuit priest, talks with Rose, a Haitian migrant holding her 1-year-old son, in the Casa del Migrante shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, on Dec. 15, 2022. Strassburger and two fellow Jesuit priests go across the border twice weekly to celebrate Mass and bring some comfort at the shelter, which is at more than double its capacity as migrants cram this border city. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)
            
              The Rev. Brian Strassburger, left, and the Rev. Flavio Bravo, right, bless migrants during Mass at the Casa del Migrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, on Dec. 15, 2022. Both hope and tension have been rising here and the few other shelters in this border city where thousands of migrants await news of U.S. border policy changes possibly less than a week away. (AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto)

REYNOSA, Mexico (AP) — Two long lines of migrants waited for blessings from visiting Catholic priests celebrating Mass at the Casa del Migrante shelter in this border city, just across the bank of the Rio Grande River from Texas.

After services ended last week, several crammed around the three Jesuits again, asking about upcoming U.S. policy changes that would end pandemic-era asylum restrictions. That’s expected to result in even more people trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, adding to the already unusually high apprehension numbers.

“All of you will be able to cross at some point,” the Rev. Brian Strassburger told the nearly 100 Mass goers in Spanish while a Haitian migrant translated in Creole. “Our hope is that with this change, it will mean less time. My advice is, be patient.”

It is getting harder to deliver that message of hope and patience not only for Strassburger, but also for the Catholic nuns running this shelter and leaders from numerous faith organizations who have long shouldered most of the care for tens of thousands of migrants on both sides of the border.

Migrants here — mostly from Haiti, but also Central and South America and more recently from Russia — are deeply mistrustful of swirling policy rumors. A judge has ordered the restriction known as Title 42, which only affect certain nationalities, to end Wednesday. But the asylum restriction, which was supposed to lift in May, is still being litigated.

Faith leaders working on the border are wary of what’s to come. They expect tensions will keep rising if new restrictions are imposed. And if not, they will struggle to host ever larger numbers of arrivals at already over-capacity shelters and quickly resettle them in a volatile political environment.

“People are coming because it’s not long before the bridge will be opened. But I don’t think that the United States is going to say, ‘OK, all!'” said the Rev. Hector Silva. The evangelical pastor has 4,200 migrants packed in his two Reynosa shelters, and more thronging their gates.

Pregnant women, a staggering number in shelters, have the best chance of legally entering the U.S. to apply for asylum. It takes up to three weeks, under humanitarian parole. Families wait up to eight weeks and it can take single adults three months, Strassburger explained at Casa del Migrante, where he travels from his Texas parish to celebrate Mass twice a week.

Last week, the shelter housed nearly 300 people, mostly women and children, in tightly packed bunk beds with sleeping pads between them. Men wait in the streets, exposed to cartel violence, said Sister Maria Tello, who runs Casa del Migrante.

“Our challenge is to be able to serve all those who keep coming, that they may find a place worthy of them. …Twenty leave and 30 enter. And there are many outside we can’t assist,” said Tello, a Sisters of Mercy nun.

Edimar Valera, 23, fled Venezuela with family, including her two-year-old daughter. They crossed the notoriously dangerous Darien Gap, where Valera nearly drowned and went without food. After arriving in Reynosa and escaping a kidnapping, she found refuge at Casa del Migrante, where she’s been since November despite having a sponsor ten miles away in McAllen, Texas.

“We need to wait, and it could be good for some and bad for others. One doesn’t know what to do,” she said, finding some comfort in Mass and daily prayers, where she begs God for help and patience.

So does Eslande, 31, who left Haiti for Chile. She is on her second attempt to cross into the U.S. after not finding there the right help for her young son’s learning disability. At Casa del Migrante just a day, she read the Gospel aloud in Creole during Mass, a reminder of happier times when her father distributed Communion.

“I have faith that I will be going in,” she said in the Spanish she’s learned en route. Like many migrants, she only gave a first name fearing for her safety.

Tensions are rising faster than hope as it’s unclear who will be able to cross first.

“Any change could grow the bottleneck,” said the Rev. Louie Hotop, dropping off hygiene donations at one of Silva’s shelters — a guarded, walled camp with rows of tents pitched tightly together.

Even if Title 42 is lifted and thousands more are allowed to enter the U.S., asylum seekers would still face enormous backlogs and slim approval chances. Asylum is granted to those who cannot return to their countries for fear of persecution on specific grounds — starvation, poverty and violence don’t usually count.

It’s a long, uncertain road ahead even for the roughly 150 migrants at a barebones welcome center in McAllen, Texas, where the Jesuit priests stop after their Reynosa visits. Families legally admitted to the United States, or apprehended and released, rested in the large Catholic Charities-run hall before traveling to join sponsors.

Lugging their Mass kit and heavy speakers, the priests offered migrants spiritual and practical help- like writing “I’m pregnant. Can you ask for a wheelchair to bring me to my gate?” on a paper for a Honduran woman eight months pregnant with her first child and terrified about airport travel.

“It’s a way of listening, of supporting, it’s not so much resolving the immediate problem,” the Rev. Flavio Bravo said. “They bring stories of trauma, of life, that we must give value to.”

Sister Norma Pimentel, a prominent migrant rights advocate who first helped border crossers four decades ago and now runs Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said religious people should push for centrist reform to help migrants — not make them political pawns.

“Policies don’t respond to the realities we’re facing,” said Pimentel, who opened the welcome center in 2014 for the first big asylum surge of this century. “It’s impossible to help everyone … but who are we to limit the grace of God?”

Now, the busiest crossing is some 800 miles away in El Paso, Texas, and neighboring Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Ronny, 26, turned himself into U.S. authorities there and was flown to McAllen because “around Juarez it was collapsing,” he said last week at Pimentel’s shelter.

He and his family left Venezuela on foot in September because he opposed his country’s regime and his wages were too low to afford food. He has a U.S. immigration appointment next month in New York where his sponsor lives, but no money to get there.

On his first free night in the U.S., he turned to God, following Mass from a distance so he wouldn’t leave the thin mat where his children slept.

“We ask God for everything. Always,” he said.

___

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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Faith leaders prep for border changes amid tension, hope