Dozens of migrants line up in two long lines to receive blessings from visiting Catholic priests who officiated a mass at the Casa del Migrante shelter in this Mexican city, separated from Texas by the border Rio Grande (which USA called Rio Grande).
After religious services conclude, several crowd around the three Jesuits again, asking them about upcoming changes in US policy that would end pandemic-era asylum restrictions. That is expected to result in even more people trying to cross the US-Mexico border, adding to already unusually high immigration detention numbers.
“All of you are going to be able to cross at some point,” Father Brian Strassburger assured the nearly 100 attendees at the mass. “Our hope is that with this change it will be less time. My advice is, be patient,” adds the priest in Spanish, while a Haitian migrant translates into Creole.
It is increasingly difficult to convey that message of hope and patience, not only for Strassburger, but also for the Catholic nuns who run this shelter and the leaders of numerous religious organizations who have long assumed the lion’s share of care for dozens of thousands of migrants on both sides of the border.
The migrants who are in this shelter, mostly from Haiti, but also from Central America The US and South America—and, more recently, Russia—are deeply wary of the buzz about the new policy. A judge ordered the restriction known as Title 42, which only affects certain nationalities, to end on Wednesday. But the asylum restriction, which was supposed to be lifted in May, is still in dispute.
Religious leaders working on the border are wary of what is to come. They expect tensions to continue to rise if new restrictions are imposed. And if not, they will struggle to house increasing numbers of new arrivals in already overcrowded shelters and relocate them quickly in a volatile political environment.
“People are arriving because the bridge is about to open. But I don’t think the United States is going to say, ‘OK, everyone!’” says evangelical pastor Héctor Silva, who has 4,200 migrants packed into his two shelters in Reynosa, and even more packed outside his doors.
Pregnant women have the best chances of legally entering the United States to claim asylum, and there are a staggering number of them in shelters. It takes them up to three weeks, under humanitarian parole. Families wait up to eight weeks and single adults can take three months, Strassburger explains at the Casa del Migrante, where she travels from her Texas parish to celebrate Mass twice a week.
Last week, the center housed nearly 300 people, mostly women and children, in cramped bunk beds with mats between them. The men wait in the streets, exposed to cartel violence, says Sister Maria Tello, a Sisters of Mercy nun who runs the Casa del Migrante.
“Our challenge is to be able to serve all those who are arriving, that they find a place worthy of them. Just as they go out, they come in: 20 leave, 30 enter. There are many outside that we cannot attend to, ”he emphasizes.
Edimar Valera, 23, fled Venezuela with his family, including his two-year-old daughter. They crossed the notoriously dangerous Darien Gap, where Valera nearly drowned and died of starvation. After arriving in Reynosa and escaping a kidnapping, the woman and her family found refuge at the Casa del Migrante, where they have been since November despite having a sponsor in McAllen, Texas, 10 miles (16 kilometers) away. .
“We have to wait and it can be good for one and bad for the other. You don’t know what to do, ”says the migrant, who receives some consolation at Mass and daily prayers, where she asks God for help and patience.
Also there is Eslande, 31, who left Haiti for Chile. She is on her second attempt to cross into the United States after failing to find adequate help for her youngest son’s learning disability. At the Casa del Migrante, she reads the Gospel aloud in Creole during mass, a reminder of the happier days when her father distributed communion.
“I have faith that I am going to enter” American soil, he says, speaking in the Spanish he learned on the way. Like many migrants, he only gave his first name, fearing for his safety.
Tensions are rising faster than hopes as it remains unclear who will be able to cross first.
Any change could increase the bottleneck, says the Rev. Louie Hotop, who leaves donations of hygiene products at one of Pastor Silva’s shelters, a guarded and fenced-off area lined with closely spaced tents.
Even if Title 42 is withdrawn and thousands more are allowed into the United States, asylum seekers would still face huge processing delays and little chance of approval. Asylum is granted to those who cannot return to their countries for fear of persecution for specific reasons, so hunger, poverty, and violence generally do not count.
It is a long and uncertain road ahead, even for the around 150 migrants at a basic center in McAllen, Texas, where Jesuit priests spend after their visits to Reynosa. Families legally admitted to the United States, or detained and released, rest in the great room run by Catholic Charities before traveling to join their patrons.
Carrying their mass equipment and heavy loudspeakers, the priests offer migrants spiritual and practical help, such as writing on a piece of paper “I am pregnant. Can you request a wheelchair to take me to my door?” for a Honduran woman eight months pregnant with her first child and terrified of traveling to the airport.
The priest Flavio Bravo admits that this support has “a sense of listening, accompanying. It’s not so much solving the immediate problem. They bring stories of trauma, of life, that must be valued”.
Sister Norma Pimentel, a prominent immigrant rights advocate who helped border crossers four decades ago and now runs Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, says religious people should push for reform to help migrants, not turn them into political pawns.
He believes that current policies do not respond to the realities being faced, adds Pimentel, who opened the welcome center in 2014 for the first great wave of asylum of this century.
Currently, the busiest border crossing is about 1,300 kilometers (about 800 miles) away: between Ciudad Juárez, in Mexico, and neighboring El Paso, Texas. Ronny, 26, turned himself in to the US authorities there and was airlifted to McAllen because “by Juárez he had collapsed,” he said last week at the Pimentel shelter.
He and his family left Venezuela on foot in September because they opposed the regime and his salary was too low to buy food. He has an immigration appointment next month in New York, where his sponsor lives, but he doesn’t have the money to get there.
On her first night off in the United States, she sought God’s help, following Mass from a distance so as not to leave the thin rug where her children slept.
“We always ask God for everything. Always ”, he assures.
The Associated Press religious coverage is supported through a partnership with the PA with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.