Summer job at El Paso migrant shelter proves ‘vastly different’ experience for Notre Dame students

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By Billy Cruz, Youth Radio
EL PASO – When I arrived at Casa Vides, a migrant shelter in El Paso Texas, I found a two-story brick building close enough to the border that I could walk to it. The building was almost a perfect cube shape, and as I knocked on the heavy wooden door, I wondered to myself, “Is this really where undocumented migrants are being housed?”

But I wasn’t there to interview migrants this time — Casa Vides wouldn’t permit me to talk to any of them in order to protect their privacy. I was there to talk to two college students who live and work with the migrants for the summer.

Casa Vides is a place that provides refuge for two types of people: those who evaded border patrol, and those who were caught — handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement — and then released while their cases are still pending. Casa Vides provides food, shelter, and legal support to around 40 residents at a time and is run by the faith-based non-profit organization, Annunciation House.

A woman staying at Casa Vides wears an ankle monitor and in the dining area drinking coffee and eating bread. Residents who have been detained by ICE wear ankle monitors as they await their immigration hearings. Photo by Pablo De La Hoya/Youth Radio

19-year-old Daniel Rottenborn and 20-year-old Francis Brockman are both volunteering at Casa Vides for the summer. Both are students at University of Notre Dame. Daniel’s mother is an immigrant from South America, “So this issue has always been close to my heart,” he said.

Francis says he’s here because he has been taking a lot of Spanish classes and wanted to put that to use — but that’s not the only reason.

“Just the situation with immigration today, like, the political climate, it was something that I wanted to explore and learn more about,” he said. “So I feel like coming to the border was a pretty obvious choice.”

At this shelter, there are families, and a number of teens — and that’s an interesting experience for a young volunteer like Francis.

“Sometimes there will be people that come into the house that are 19 or 20, like around our age, and they already have kids with them,” he said. “So that’s just an entirely different situation that I cannot even imagine at this point in my life.”

“Ida Berresheim” is one of the bigger rooms at Casa Vides, a temporary shelter for migrants in El Paso, Texas. The rooms are named after famous figures and often house multiple families. Photo by Denise Tejada/Youth Radio

Francis and Daniel have heard from teens here — some of whom crossed illegally instead of through a port of entry — about fleeing all kinds of violence on their journeys. What little they say, says a lot.

You see this 16-year-old kid. He’s with his family. You know he has he has a bed he has food for the first time in a while. And you know you’re just sitting there quiet,” Daniel said. “You know it strikes me is vastly different than the experience of a normal, American teenager.”

Francis and Daniel could have gotten more typical summer jobs. Francis says his other option was working at a bagel shop back home in Ohio. Now, for the past month, the two have been living in Casa Vides and sharing a room adjacent to the migrants’ rooms. They spend their time doing chores from cooking to cleaning to organizing games.

They showed me around the shelter. Downstairs in the basement were many of the donations such as clothes, shoes, and baby supplies.

The basement of Casa Vides is filled with supplies, including clothes, diapers, books and toys for the migrant families who pass through. Photo by Billy Cruz, Youth Radio

Daniel says he and Francis aren’t trained on how to work with babies and children. The shelter’s goal is to promote independence and allow parents to do what they do best: parent.

The resiliency that we see from these kids when they come into our house and they start playing with the toys and immediately, it’s like you flip a switch on,” Daniel said.

“They go from scared kids hiding behind their parents to just kids.”

This past weekend, a bus pulled up and 32 undocumented parents got off. With a few small belongings, including papers, they quietly walked into Casa Vides, greeted by staff with hugs. The parents had been separated from their children at the border. Their criminal cases were dropped after Trump reversed his policy on family separation.

Casa Vides tells migrants they can stay at the shelter as long as they want. Many will connect with family members in the U.S. and move out to live with them while they wait for their day in court.

This story was originally published June 27, 2018 on Youth Radio and featured on All Things Considered. Borderzine contributed to this reporting.

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