Five weeks at the shelter
‘. . . one of the volunteers told me if I wanted to see the face of God and the suffering Jesus, this was the place to be.’Claudia Calzetta SL
Immigrants were assigned two families to a room at the La Quinta motel where Alicia Ramirez SL volunteered upon her arrival in El Paso last January. Two fathers and their children, for instance, would share a room. “One man,” she says, “when he walked in with his son, broke down crying when he saw how nice the room was.”
Alicia speaks with emotion of the immigrants and the dedicated work of volunteers. She recalls a grandmother who was diagnosed with frozen shoulder after sleeping on a concrete floor in the detention center; she mentions a volunteer named Mike who drove from Albuquerque because he felt called to help, though he is dying of cancer.
Alicia spent five weeks in El Paso, working from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily—except for three overnight stints—primarily helping with intake and making phone calls because she speaks Spanish.
Volunteers of all ages and backgrounds keep the El Paso shelters running smoothly. The logistical work, carried out by college-age women who come to staff the shelters for a semester, is exceptionally well-organized and efficient, Alicia says. Volunteers come and go in shifts throughout the day and evening. Local community members make many contributions, including giving rides and delivering food; one volunteer brings 200 burritos each week prepared at his church. Others, including Mary Margaret Murphy SL, Loretto’s Vice President, drop in to do laundry. Buffy Boesen SL, President of Loretto Academy, makes Costco runs. Uber drivers have been known to offer services gratis, and retired couples from the Midwest arrive to volunteer for a couple of weeks at a time. “It takes a village,” Alicia says, “We all just get in there and do it.”
‘At night, you see along the hall the lights from batteries being charged.’
Many religious communities are represented, fostering closer relationships between communities. Alicia worked alongside Franciscans, Marists, Maryknoll and Notre Dame members, among others.
After her first week, she transferred to Nazareth Hall, Loretto’s nursing home which was sold last year. One wing was used as a makeshift shelter until the new owners closed it in April for renovations. (Reuben Garcia of Annunciation House has since opened alternate shelters.)
During Alicia’s tenure, 10-15 immigrants typically came at a time, but during her last week, up to 90 arrived daily. Once released from detention, immigrants are dropped off by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and stay at a shelter for two or three days before traveling to a location in the U.S. where they await trial. Alicia and other Spanish-speaking volunteers help make contact with family members with whom the immigrants will stay.
Arriving at the shelter hungry and tired, visitors are offered food, clean clothes and necessities. After grueling travel ordeals, they are thankful when shown to the showers.
Most immigrants wear ankle bracelet monitors, and continue to do so until they reach their destination and attend a hearing; women find it necessary to cut their pants around the calf to remove clothes for showering. At night, Alicia notes, an eerie glow radiates down the hall from the ankle monitors’ battery chargers.
Preparing to leave, immigrants are supplied with bags of sustenance for the journey—burritos or sandwiches, snack bars, fruit, water—and sent off with hugs, tears and well-wishes.
“It was a privilege to be able to go and to help out,” Alicia says. “I loved being in El Paso; I wish I had been missioned there as a teacher or a nurse. The people are so generous and I loved being able to use my Spanish.”
She also volunteered in 2014 for five weeks, though she says there were not nearly as many immigrants arriving at that time.
Alicia and her 15-year-old dog, Rosie, stayed with Mary Margaret Murphy SL, Liz Deines SL and their cat, Tiger. Thankfully, dog and cat were companionable; Alicia and Rosie, an intelligent, bright-eyed poodle, don’t like to be separated for long.
Back in Kentucky, Alicia packs supplies for immigrants alongside other Motherhouse volunteers. On Sundays, she meets the buses in Louisville, handing out the bags and greeting travelers in their native tongue.
‘Early on, the immigrants were mostly from Guatemala and Honduras. Now they are also coming from Nicaragua and Brazil.Elisa Rodriguez SL
The volunteers are getting fatigued.’