Tired but determined volunteers sustain El Paso’s migrant relief services

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As U.S. border officials detain thousands of migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border every day, another group waits for the men, women and families who have often been walking for days: volunteers.

In El Paso, where Border Patrol agents apprehended 136,922 migrants between October 2018 and May 2019, residents have responded to the influx of migrants with meals and shelter.

But it’s been eight months since the latest surge of Central American migrants started. Volunteer coordinators have had to adapt their efforts to a timeline that has no end in sight.

“The current volunteers are starting to get fatigued,” Christina Lamour, director of community impact for United Way of El Paso County, said. “That’s where United Way comes in to help.”

Lamour said the city and county asked United Way of El Paso to recruit and build a sustainable infrastructure than can relieve volunteers when they need a break without disrupting what migrants need.

Enter Angelica Mata Lindstrom, United Way’s new volunteer coordinator for migrant services. She was born and raised in El Paso and was hired as a direct result of the migrant influx.

“Immigration, migration has always existed here, especially on the border,” she said.

A grant from the El Paso Community Foundation and the Prudential Foundation pay sfor Mata Lindstrom’s position for one year. That means ramping up fast.

“Back in January, we worked with shelter in the northeast, and three or four weeks ago, we were asked to start building the capacity of that shelter, to increase the number of migrants that they can take in per week,” Lamour said.

The Northeast El Paso shelter is open Thursday to Sunday now, and Lamour hopes to have enough volunteers available to keep it open for at least one or two more days by the end of June.

“If we’re going to increase it for one day, you need to sustain it with 12 individuals, at least for an a.m. shift, and then an additional 12 individuals for a p.m. shift,” she said.

To increase its volunteers, United Way of El Paso will rely not only on Mata Lindstrom’s efforts  but also its website, www.volunteerElPaso.org. That’s where volunteers register for a background check, choose volunteer shifts and duties.

Mata Lindstrom said volunteers should be flexible and know their limits.

“People are constantly on their feet, so don’t overexert yourself,” she said. “Balance it out with your everyday life because at the end of the day the individuals you’re interacting with are lovely people that are very appreciative of the work and if they could help us as well, they would.”

Faith informs and sustains local El Paso pastor

Additional community organizations in El Paso have also adapted their volunteer efforts as the ongoing influx of migrants seeking asylum.

Inside a modest store-front church in Central El Paso, refugees from Latin America and beyond regularly take refuge in triple-decker bunk beds. The towering structures that nearly touch the bedroom ceiling are exactly what the weary migrants need after spending days, weeks or longer on their trek to the United States.  

They’ve been making Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey their waystation ever since Pastor Rose Mary Sánchez-Guzmán decided to open the Evangelical Lutheran church’s doors to asylum-seekers who have just been processed by the U.S. government. During the migrants’ short stay before moving on other destinations, warm meals feed their bodies and prayers feed their souls.

The number of refugees who’ve made the church their waystation has increased significantly in the past two years: 200 in 2017, 800 in 2018 and already more than 2,500 this year. Church members, 60% of whom are undocumented themselves, offer hospitality to the refugees.

“My people have been transformed by the interaction with the refugees, hearing their stories and being able to serve them,” said Sánchez-Guzmán. “They feel like they they’re kind of in the same journey. The only difference is that my people are hiding there in the shadows. The refugees have some kind of status while they’re here while they go to court and their cases decided.”

University and high school students, in addition to folks across the country, also interact with the migrants through the church’s immersion program, aimed at increasing knowledge of border communities and their unique issues. When their paths cross at the church, refugees share their stories with immersion program participants.

Helping out poor migrants isn’t a matter of politics, according to Sánchez-Guzmán.

“I wish people would understand that. It’s not about being Republican or being Democrats … This is about being God’s people, loving the world and making the world a better place,” she said.

Borderland Rainbow Center serves both LGBTQ and migrant communities

From a modest one-stove kitchen, Omar Ventura, a refugee relief coordinator at Borderland Rainbow Center (BRC), cooks meals for hundreds of migrants every week. Donated packages of hotdogs, tubs of peanut butter and giant bags of lettuce are the building blocks for feeding hundreds of migrants. Disposable foil roasting pans of pasta, chicken, beans and rice are staple dishes in Ventura’s repertoire.

“We’ll end up making pasta, and then stretch out that pasta and have rice and beans on the side,” Ventura said. “You never see those two together, but our best thing is to get them fed, and also give them something that they recognize.”

Borderland Rainbow Center has been providing about 600 meals a week for migrant shelters in El Paso. The center’s main mission is to serve El Paso’s LGBTQ community, but recently expanded its relief services in response to the influx of migrants since December 23, 2018, when ICE left more than 150 migrants at the Greyhound bus station.

“It is a lot on the community,” said Ashley Heidebrecht, a social work intern at BRC. “But we’d rather have them in our community, released to people who are going to care about them, make sure they have that hot meal, and help them get to their next destination, rather than sitting in a freezing cell in detention.”

BRC is a small organization and has to keep costs down for the food they buy. Heidebrecht said she shops at discount food stores to keep each meal less than a dollar.

Ventura, who is originally from Salt Lake City, said he relates to the migrants’ struggle.

“I’ve been on my own since I was 14 years old, so I know what it’s like to be hungry,” he said.

This multimedia story was produced for 2019 Dow Jones Multimedia Training Academy by Stephanie Bluestein, Jacqueline Fellows and Adam Schrag.

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