This past summer, Holy Cross alumna, Maria Palacios ’15 was invited to join a group of Catholic Charities volunteers to assist families at the U.S./Mexico border to assist in the reunification of parents who had been separated from their children when entering the U.S. to seek asylum . Maria was invited to participate because of her fluency in Spanish, her experience with immigration legal work, and because of her post-graduate service experience in the AMA program in Chaparral, New Mexico. The AMA program is a post-graduate service program that assists in the work of the Assumption Sisters in the U.S. and abroad. The work includes teaching, youth ministry, community development, ministry to migrants and advocacy. Maria first became involved with the Assumption Sisters through a CBL course, “Filmmaking in Spanish.” Maria was a part of a film crew that created a film for the Assumption Sisters about the programs they offer in the Worcester community. Maria then decided to volunteer with the Assumption Sisters’ post-graduate year of service program where she was placed in Chaparral, New Mexico. In the most recent version of the AMA newsletter, Maria wrote about her most recent experience at the border. Read her post below to see how CBL can be the doorway into professional opportunities!
Maria Palacios, AMA Alum Chaparral 2015-16 , “Reflections from the Border”
As the crisis of family separation at the Border worsened every day, I felt helpless as I watched the news and read articles of the horrible conditions the families were going through. I could not believe that this was happening in this country and in this time. Never would I have imagined that I would witness firsthand the pain, the sadness, but above all, the faith of these families seeking refuge.
My journey began when Sister Norma Pimentel from Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley put out a call requesting deployed Catholic Charities professionals to provide support to her team at the Border. As the government scrambled to meet the Family Reunification deadline at the end of July, the Catholic Charities Respite Center in McAllen, Texas saw itself overflowing with families that had just been reunited and needed immediate assistance. And so when my supervisor at Catholic Charities of Fairfield County asked if I wanted to join Sister Norma’s mission at the Border, without hesitation I answered “yes.” I was not thinking of the danger or the obvious trauma that I would endure, but rather my desire to contribute some assistance to the families. I was selected from my agency because I speak fluent Spanish, I have experience in immigration legal work, and most of all, because of my Border experience as an AMA in Chaparral, NM.
To say that my nine day journey was overwhelming is an understatement. From my arrival on July 24th to my departure on August 1st, the work never stopped. Each day we assisted over 200 different families that had just been released from ICE custody. The days were very fast moving from assisting clients with organizing their ICE documents for their upcoming court dates, making travel arrangements to get to their families in other parts of the country, to giving them a clean set of clothes, food and most important, a listening ear. As one of the only fluent Spanish speaker volunteers, I found there was always a line of people waiting to ask me questions. Though this was overwhelming at times, it gave me the opportunity to connect with the families. It showed that they felt comfortable enough to approach me and ask me questions and wanted to tell me their story. Most of the families were from Central America and embarked on the long journey from their home country to McAllen TX escaping the obscene gang violence in their countries, never expecting the harsh conditions that would welcome them in the ”Land of the Free.”
Most parents had spent between two to four months separated from their children. Parents were placed in one detention center near the Border, while their children were dispersed throughout the nation. With tears in her eyes, one mother from Honduras described to me how Border Patrol officers ripped her daughter away from her arms. She was able to describe to me that day in such detail since she had relived that exact moment in her head every day until she was reunited with her daughter. She didn’t want to stay in this country anymore; she just wanted her daughter back. As I worked with the parents in filing change of venue and address forms for their court date, their children waited anxiously next to them. Though the lines were long, the children held their parent’s hands and stood in line with them for hours. They did not want to leave their sight. As they waited in line, some children would recite the Pledge of Allegiance while others would point at different items and say the color in English.
It has been just about four months since my experience at the Respite Center in McAllen Texas and reflecting back on it today is a little bittersweet. I miss reading with the children and playing soccer in the 103 degree weather, and to those that know about my experience in Chaparral, the heat was the only thing I didn’t enjoy (besides toritos.) I tried to bring some joy to the children at the Center because I could only imagine the trauma they encountered at the detention centers when a simple peanut butter cracker would trigger them to retreat. During my year in Chaparral, I missed my mom tremendously but spoke to her over the phone almost every day, which made missing her more bearable. If I in my mid-20s missed my mom so much, knowing I would see her again and could talk to her on the phone, my heart breaks to think that these children went to bed every night not knowing if they would ever see their moms and dads again. I spent my mom’s birthday in McAllen and even though I was sad I couldn’t be there with her to celebrate, I could not think of a better way to honor my mother than to be helping these families.
The families were all extremely grateful for the work we were doing; never in my life have I been blessed so many times by so many people! I don’t remember most of their names, but if I close my eyes, I can picture all their faces. My work there not only helped me grow professionally but I think it showed me that when you let God guide your work, even if your body and mind are tired, God will keep you going. I am so happy that I was able to be part of such a beautiful mission to provide some positivity to all the refugee families that I encountered during my time there but also saddened that this chaos has not ended. My hope is restored by the commitment of so many to lend a hand in this time of need, especially by the Sisters in Chaparral; as well as by all the Catholic Charities volunteers, by the thousands of donations received from every corner of the country and by the community of McAllen that didn’t let hate separate them from strangers. We welcome the stranger because at some point we have all been strangers.
During my time in McAllen, I tried to keep a journal for the Catholic Charities website. If you would like to read some of those entries please visit, https://www.ccfairfield.org/journal-entry-maria-palacios/.