The Our Lady of Guadalupe Shelter doesn’t seem like much, but for the migrant farmworkers who descend on this impoverished desert town, it’s a welcome retreat from the fields and dirt parking lots they once called home.
The shelter was started a little over a year ago in Mecca, California, thanks in large part to hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from Mary Ingebrand-Pohlad. It was her way of meeting a dire need for the farmworkers, who pick table grapes, lettuce, bell peppers and other crops.
But late last year, she grew concerned about asylum seekers being welcomed there.
Fearing that the focus had shifted away from the farmworkers, and that the new migrants could draw immigration enforcement to the shelter, Ingebrand-Pohlad decided in November not to renew her contribution. The move created an uncertain future for those who have been trickling in over the past few weeks in preparation for the grape harvest.
Her decision raised unusual questions about the mission of helping immigrants — and just which immigrants, exactly, even if they were bound by shared cultures and languages and dreams.
“I felt that we weren’t helping the people we set out to help and the mission had really changed,” Ingebrand-Pohlad said. “I cautioned the board that I was not in alignment with this new mission of taking anybody who knocks on the door. Whether they’re worthy or not — that wasn’t the point.”
Gloria Gomez, founder of the Galilee Center a non-profit that runs the shelter, said there weren’t many farmworkers around the time they began taking asylum seekers, with the peak harvest season being May through July. Although Ingebrand-Pohlad did not want the shelter to take in asylum seekers, “it’s my mission to receive every human being that comes to my door,” Gomez said.
The Diocese of San Bernardino gave the shelter funding for January and February, and the shelter took in 1,098 asylum seekers over those two months. When the diocese was unable to provide funds, the shelter stopped taking in asylum seekers. The Galilee Center relies on donations.
“If we had the money we would continue doing it, but we don’t have the money,” Gomez said. “Now I don’t have asylum seekers and I’m running out of money for our farmworkers.”
Nearly two years ago, a Desert Sun story about the lack of housing for migrant farmworkers caught Ingebrand-Pohlad’s attention. The Galilee Center, which for years provided farmworkers a place to shower, wash their clothes and get a hot meal, wanted to open an overnight shelter but didn’t have the budget for it.
The article haunted Ingebrand-Pohlad, who has volunteered teaching English, reading and art in Thermal and Coachella for more than a decade. She decided to donate to the Galilee Center for the shelter and indicated she was willing to pay for operating expenses for the next couple of years.
The overnight shelter opened its doors in December 2017. Last year, Ingebrand-Pohlad said, an average of 90 people a night slept there.
Then, in November, she learned that the Diocese of San Bernardino had asked the shelter to help take in asylum seekers until they could get bus tickets to go to family members across the country. That month alone, the shelter took in 364 people.
Ingebrand-Pohlad called the situation “heartbreaking,” but expressed concerns that immigration officers dropping off asylum seekers — who have become particular lightning rods under the Trump administration — would deter farmworkers, some of whom are undocumented, from staying there.
Eventually, she made it clear that she would not renew her commitment to the shelter if it continued, she said. Before the month was over, she recused herself from the first and only board meeting she attended.
“The mission was derailed. We were no longer able to serve the people we set out to help, and that to me is tragic,” Ingebrand-Pohlad said.
Full story at the LA Times.