Amid the heated debates and political wrangling that surround the influx of migrants into the United States, the human element often gets lost. Politicians detach themselves from the harsh realities of the perilous journey, reducing the matter to a mere logistical nightmare or an opportunity for political posturing. However, against this political backdrop, a group of remarkable women refuses to turn a blind eye to the suffering and dedicates themselves to making a tangible difference along the border.
Please read with discretion: This article contains descriptions of violence, including exploitation and discrimination faced by migrants. It discusses mental health challenges, references to death and mortality, human rights violations, challenging living conditions, and policy changes related to migration.
Agents of Compassion: The Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate
In the vibrant border city of Piedras Negras, nestled along the Texas-Mexico border, the Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate embrace the Church's call to serve those in dire need. These religious sisters embody empathy and service. With an impressive 130-year history of advocating for human rights, their congregation has taken on a new and crucial mission: providing vital assistance to migrants and refugees in their time of need.
Piedras Negras has become a focal point of the migrant crisis, witnessing a significant influx of individuals from around the world over the past decade, all driven by the aspiration to enter the United States. Unlike other points of entry into the United States, Piedras Negras provides a safer passage for migrants due to diminished cartel activity. However, the convergence of people presents humanitarian concerns and logistical complexities for both the Mexican and American governments. Recent policy changes, including the expiration of Title 42 and modifications to border crossings, have further compounded the challenges in this region.
At the heart of their unwavering commitment lies the Frontera Digna migrant shelter, where three remarkable sisters – Sisters Isabel Turccios from El Salvador, Carmen López from Panama, and Yudi Calvache from Colombia – fulfill their congregation's mission.
During the pandemic, I had the opportunity to meet these sisters while teleworking for the Centers for Disease Control from my hometown, shortly after completing my graduate studies in global health and complex humanitarian emergencies. In response to a call from the diocese to enhance pastoral outreach to migrant communities, I volunteered at the migrant shelter under their guidance. Through firsthand experience, I have witnessed the positive influence that they have on the lives of migrants seeking refuge in Piedras Negras.
Alongside a formidable network of volunteers and collaborators, this dynamic trio exemplifies the core values of their institute, which was founded by Mother Caridad Brader Zahner in Túquerres, Colombia, in 1893. The congregation’s enduring commitment to serve the marginalized is ingrained in their work.
By exploring the extraordinary apostolate of this congregation, we uncover the impact that they have on the lives of migrants who face immense challenges and perils, providing them with support, shelter, and hope.
A Haven of Hope: Life at the Frontera Digna Migrant Shelter
Stepping inside the Frontera Digna shelter, you experience the transformative power of empathy and hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity.
For 25 years, Frontera Digna has welcomed individuals from countries all over the world who have endured perilous journeys through Central America and Mexico, often facing violence, exploitation, and discrimination.
The shelter serves as the starting point for many in the legal migration process into the United States. However, the uncertain and lengthy waiting period for appointments leads to anxiety and frustration among those seeking legal entry. During this challenging time, Sisters Isabel, Carmen, and Yudi extend their compassionate touch to those in search of refuge, providing much-needed support and encouragement.
Sister Isabel, the shelter's director, ensures smooth operations and advocates for the safety of migrants. Her dedication to their well-being is evident as she states, "We wanted to have open doors and attend to the most urgent needs." Meanwhile, Sister Carmen López takes charge of logistics, providing personalized attention and connecting migrants with essential resources. Sister Yudi, in turn, fosters a sense of family and community, nurturing the well-being of those who have sought refuge within the shelter's walls. The Sisters aim to provide comprehensive care to the migrants, addressing their physical, mental, and psychological well-being.
The large number of migrants seeking refuge at the shelter reflects the urgent demand for the sisters’ support. Sister Isabel highlights that while the shelter accommodates around 150 people, there are approximately 180 staying overnight right now. In warmer weather, some migrants set up tents outside the shelter, but the challenges intensify during winter when energy constraints expose them to sub-freezing temperatures.
The Sisters infuse the shelter with a deep and vibrant liturgical life, supporting the spiritual well-being of both the residents and the community at large. During major Catholic holidays like Holy Week and Christmas, the shelter opens its doors and invites everyone to join in the celebrations, fostering a sense of unity and shared faith among migrants, refugees, and the broader community. Additionally, the sisters commemorate special days dedicated to raising awareness about their cause, including the Day of the Migrant, the Day of the Refugee, and other events focused on combating human trafficking. These occasions serve as powerful reminders of the inherent dignity and worth of every individual, regardless of their circumstances.
The sisters' dedicated work at Frontera Digna creates a refuge, offering solace during the challenging migrant journey. The care and support provided within its walls give hope amid adversity. However, the sisters acknowledge the need for collaboration, relying on a vast network of partners and allies who share their commitment to comprehensive migrant care.
United in Purpose: Allies and Collaborators in Action
The efforts of Frontera Digna are not carried out in isolation, but rather are fortified by strong partnerships. One critical ally is the Hospital General Dr. Salvador Chavarría Sánchez, which plays a pivotal role in ensuring that migrants have access to medical attention, ranging from specialized care for pregnant women and survivors of sexual assault to surgeries and other crucial needs. Sister Isabel emphasized the importance of this collaboration, stating, "Our collaboration with General Hospital Salvador Chavarria [sic] is crucial in providing migrants with the medical care they require. Together, we are able to address their diverse healthcare needs and ensure their overall well-being."
Despite establishing a working relationship with local authorities to handle legal matters, the sisters face the challenge of limited government support. Currently, this support extends to contributing to utility expenses and covering the costs of two staffed roles. To sustain the shelter, they rely heavily on their own resources as well as the generosity of individuals and organizations.
In dire circumstances, Frontera Digna has witnessed the incredible support of the people of Piedras Negras, especially during challenging times like the pandemic. The community – including respected members like Monsignor José Guadalupe Valdés, a long-time defender and advocate of migrants’ human rights, and Mr. Daniel Campos, a long-time supporter of the shelter – has rallied around the sisters.
Their collaboration with local parishes, organizations, and individuals in the community is a testament to the strength of collective compassion. Their partners have provided invaluable assistance through acts of solidarity, donations, and unwavering support. Sister Isabel reflects on the heartwarming support they receive, emphasizing, "It is through the support of our community that we are able to forge ahead and continue our mission."
Esteemed international organizations like Doctors Without Borders, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Red Cross also enhance the support network available to those seeking a better life. Sister Carmen explained, "Our collaboration with these international initiatives allows us to create a comprehensive support system. We can fully embrace the migrant community and provide comprehensive services to address their trauma, offer respite, and restore hope."
Through the combined efforts of the sisters and their valued partners, migrants and refugees receive support amid their challenges. As one migrant who has transitioned beyond the shelter shared, "The care we received from the sisters was invaluable. Their compassion and support gave us hope when we needed it the most. We would not have been able to continue without them."
Sister Isabel reflected, "I believe that where we have the biggest impact on the migrants that arrive at our shelter is in the warm reception and hospitality we provide. We give them the attention they deserve and ensure we are available as a listening ear. And that is something that stays with them."
The path forward is not without obstacles. The number of migrants seeking shelter continues to rise, and recent policy changes have stalled the migration process. This has created a daunting challenge for the sisters, who must now accommodate an increasing population while simultaneously navigating a stagnant migration process.
From Desperation to Hope: Migrants' Stories and the Sisters' Call for Change
The sisters, along with their dedicated team, persevere in the face of ongoing challenges as they assist migrants and refugees. They emphasize the urgent need for systemic change and highlight the importance of collective efforts to address the complex issues surrounding migration.
Conversations with migrants provide insight into their experiences, shedding light on the hardships they face. The sisters, deeply unsettled by a migrant's account, learned that the area they traversed through the Darien Gap is known as a place "dedicated to the Devil." Altars adorned with skulls and gold chains are offered to the cult of Santeria, adding to the ominous nature of the journey. Another migrant shared a distressing experience where their son, who already suffered from schizophrenia, was confronted with the shocking sight of dead bodies along the road, left abandoned without care. After this traumatic experience, the young boy's mental state deteriorated significantly, leading to a six-month stint at a mental health facility in Honduras. These chilling revelations emphasize the treacherous conditions, spiritual weight, and profound impact on mental well-being that accompany the passage through the Darien Gap.
A Venezuelan woman and her three children also recounted their 5-day journey through the Gap, marked by hunger, dehydration, and the unforgiving mountainous terrain. They described it as a place filled with horror and death, where everything speaks of mortality. She said, "It's horrifying. Full of death. Everything is death. Everything speaks of death." Their firsthand account serves as a stark reminder of the physical and emotional challenges confronted by migrants.
Upon entering Mexico, migrants continue to face a host of challenges. Corruption, rampant crime, and exploitation permeate their lives. Migrants exist in a constant state of fear and danger, as they must constantly safeguard their lives in an environment that offers little respite or security.
The Frontera Digna shelter itself grapples with security concerns due to its location in a dangerous area along the Rio Grande River. Migrants come into the shelter reeling from the physical and emotional challenges they face along the migrant route. The sisters bear witness to each of their stories, recognizing the violence, abuse, and exploitation that has been carried out against them. The sisters often feel helpless in their inability to provide the justice and protection these individuals deserve.
"They live in a terrifying reality of never being at ease because they have to protect their lives because they are constantly in danger," Sister Isabel states. These experiences underscore the urgent need for comprehensive reforms in migration policies, law enforcement, and support systems.
Forging a Compassionate and Just Future: The Legacy of Frontera Digna
The sisters face new challenges as the Title 42 policy expires, which results in a decrease in the number of people able to leave the shelter. This has placed a strain on their ability to provide care and support. Previously, the shelter operated efficiently, with migrants moving through the system and into the United States at a steady pace. However, with the removal of Title 42, the situation has changed drastically, leaving the shelter overcrowded and overwhelmed.
Despite these obstacles, the sisters remain resolute in their mission. The impact of their work is felt deeply, as expressed through the heartfelt gratitude of the migrants who have experienced the shelter's care. Fondly referred to as "La Casa de Las Monjitas" (The House of the Little Nuns), the shelter has earned a reputation for its warmth and hospitality. Countless messages of appreciation pour in, testifying to the enduring influence of the sisters' dedication and the difference they make in the lives of those they serve.
In addition to their service, the sisters raise awareness through community education and advocacy. Their efforts are bearing fruit, as the local community increasingly recognizes and supports the sisters and their work. This growing recognition is accompanied by a deeper empathy for the harsh realities faced by migrants.
Integral to their advocacy is the facilitation of direct interactions between the local community and the migrants. Visitors from the city and the United States are welcomed warmly and given tours of the shelter, providing them with an opportunity to meet the shelter residents, dispel misconceptions, and witness firsthand the humanity and resilience of those who seek refuge. These interactions foster understanding, dismantle fears, and erase stereotypes.
The Franciscan Sisters of Mary Immaculate strive tirelessly to dismantle networks of corruption that exploit and victimize migrants. They work towards a society that upholds the dignity and rights of every individual, forging ahead with a vision for the future, one where migration is approached with empathy, human rights are protected, and the inherent dignity of every person is recognized. Through their steadfast love and dedication, they are building a lasting legacy of solidarity, inviting us all to reflect on how we can contribute to a more compassionate and just world.