As the House of Representatives passed legislation June 25 to provide $4.5 billion in emergency funding for humanitarian aid at the U.S.-Mexico border, local Catholics are on the scene, just returning from or heading there to support families seeking legal asylum. 

Parishioners of St. Ignatius, St. Agnes, Our Lady of the Pillar, St. John of God and Our Lady of Angels are making the trip to the border at their own expense to volunteer in overwhelmed refugee centers. 

“Something must be done to alleviate the situation there, otherwise we will be seeing more desperate fathers taking a chance in swimming across the Rio Grande after they have been refused entry to claim asylum,” said St. John of God parishioner Roberta McLaughlin, who spent nearly a month this spring at Casa del Refugiados (House of Refugees), the newest and largest refugee center run by Annunciation House, a nonprofit in El Paso, Texas a few miles from the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juarez.  

At least 283 migrants died while attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border last year, according to U.S. border patrol. 

McLaughlin and her husband Jim were among five parishioners from the Sanctuary Committee of St. John of God Parish in San Francisco who traveled to Texas, in May and June, working around-the-clock for the families that passed through Casa del Refugiados. 

“We received 350-420 migrants per day while we were there,” said McLaughlin, who was joined by parishioners Ken Hoegger, Claudia Quijane and Karen Duderstadt.  Two more SJOG Sanctuary Committee member left June 26 to volunteer at Casa Alitas, a Catholic-run safe house in Tucson, Arizona. 

McLaughlin said her group spent hours each day on telephones or computers helping migrants obtain bus or airplane tickets to take them to their U.S. sponsors. The men also took turns driving a 15-seat van they rented themselves to get families to the airport or bus station and helped them navigate the bewildering schedule and security process. 

Earlier this spring, McLaughlin and other St. John of God parishioners had attended a meeting held at St. Ignatius Parish organized by Annette Lomont, a member of the Solidarity Committee for the Jesuit parish. 

Lomont had just returned from a volunteer trek to a border refugee center run by the Sisters of Loretto in El Paso and she went to work to mobilize other local Catholics to volunteer at the border. 

Lomont contacted Annunciation House and discovered the organization’s founder, Ruben Garcia, was overwhelmed, on some days receiving up to a thousand people at one of the organization’s Costco warehouse-sized shelters. 

Lomont’s neighbor and friend Judy Reuter, a parishioner at nearby St. Agnes, helped coordinate the volunteer effort. Appeals in the Sunday bulletins of both Jesuit parishes generated dozens of inquiries and soon an informational meeting was organized at St. Ignatius. 

 “This is not a holiday,” Lomont reminded the group of about 35 that included young adults, retirees and senior citizens. “You are going to work long and hard.” 

Ten-person parish delegations are scheduled into November, said Lomont, the first leaving July 13. Volunteers pay their own travel, housing and food costs, though Annunciation House offers the same housing and food to volunteers as they do migrants. 

St. Ignatius pastor Jesuit Father Greg Bonfiglio, fluent in Spanish, hopes to travel with one of his parish teams this  fall. 

Volunteering at the border offers a “very concrete” opportunity for parishioners, many of whom are angry about the situation at the border, he said. “There is a great deal of gratitude on the part of the people who are planning to go.” 

Full story at Catholic San Francisco.