EL CENTRO – Two vans pulled up to the Travelodge Hotel filled with passengers on a recent Thursday afternoon. The noticeably exhausted families, mostly from Central and South America, piled out of the vehicles, clutching a few belongings.
Individuals greeted them and directed them to large rooms, where the mothers and fathers began the process to reunite with loved ones across the nation.
The families were legally in the country after being admitted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. They were transported to the hotel, where Catholic Charities staff were ready to receive them with “Open Arms.”
That’s the name of the organization’s program that, starting on Easter Sunday, is assisting these families that are seeking asylum. A total of 11 staff members receive them seven days a week at the El Centro hotel. They tend to the migrants’ immediate needs – providing them with food, temporary shelter, and other necessities — and coordinate their travel to other U.S. cities, where they will be reunited with friends and family.
In the first three weeks of operation in El Centro, the organization had received and facilitated the travel of 350 men and women and children, ranging from infants to teenagers.
“That number is expected to keep going up,” said Appaswamy “Vino” Pajanor, chief executive officer for Catholic Charities, part of the Diocese of San Diego.
In March, the organization sprang into action when the California Department of Social Services asked it to help the immigrants being released by authorities as they seek safety and protection in the United States, and prepare to apply for asylum in federal immigration courts.
The organization is taking the lead providing this service in the Imperial Valley. In San Diego County, meanwhile, it’s supporting another social service organization, Jewish Family Service, which is managing that program. Catholic Charities ramped up its staffing to provide that support, beginning on March 22. A total of 16 people have been hired temporarily to help process the migrant families in San Diego.
The national president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, Sister Donna Markham, visited in early April to observe firsthand the situation in this corner of the border. She visited El Centro on April 8. In an interview there, she said this work “comes right out of the Gospel.”
“Jesus tells us that we should care for the least among us – the widows, orphans, and strangers; people who are poor and suffering,” she said. “We should always extend ourselves in hospitality and mercy to those who need us most, and that’s what Catholic Charities does.”
She praised the local effort to help the migrants.
“I’m very impressed with the quality of care that’s being provided to people when they come out of detention,” she said.
The first stop the migrants being released make is at the Imperial Valley College, where they are tested for COVID-19. Only those who test negative are allowed to proceed to the hotel. There, the organization gives them a room, where they can shower and rest; food; clean clothes; and children’s items, including diapers.
The migrants are hungry for information.
“As they are coming in, you see that they have a lot of questions,” Pajanor said.
Catholic Charities staff gives them a crash course on living in the U.S. while they wait to leave for their final destination.
Pajanor said about 99 percent of the immigrants are looking to reunite with their family members or friends elsewhere in the U.S. He said that if the receiving families do not have the means to pay for that travel, Catholic Charities finds a way to cover the cost. And the agency tries to give the migrants pocket money to pay for meals if they travel by bus across the country.
The agency is asking for cash donations or for individuals to donate their air travel miles through a partner, Miles4Migrants.org.
Catholic Charities USA’s Senior Director for Government Affairs, Ronald Jackson Sr., also visited the border region, along with Sister Markham. Jackson is a member of the National Board of the Emergency Food and Shelter Program, which was awarded $110 million by FEMA in March.
The funds are destined for local nonprofit, faith-based and governmental agencies to provide humanitarian relief to individuals and families at the southern border.
“This program will have a direct impact on helping people who are most in need,” he said.
Pajanor said the immigration program is one of the largest such efforts in the organization’s history.
“Catholic Charities is standing up to its mission in Matthew 25 – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked – that is why we are doing this,” he said. “Yes, it is tough right now with COVID-19 but we are the country of hope, freedom, and liberty … If we don’t give hope to others, who else will?”