In a recent visit to the detainees at a holding facility run by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), here in El Paso, Texas, I received my visitor’s badge from the armed security officers, and we greeted each other in a friendly, familiar way, speaking in Spanish. I walked through a metal-detection booth and waited for an escort into the compound. I’m getting to know a lot of them, after about three months of weekly visits, and we sometimes talk about their lives as I wait.
Sister Bea, who works daily in the chaplain’s office, came out from behind the high, barbed-wired fencing after a few minutes. Together with a guard we passed through the main gate and went first to the medical ward building. “There’s a woman I want you to meet and talk to,” Sister explained. Like all the buildings in the compound, it was a one-story, beige-colored structure of painted cinder blocks.
The compound of this processing center usually holds over a thousand men and women for a couple of months each, while judges hear their varied cases of arrests after crossing the border without documents, asylum petitions or refugee status, and decide their fate. Some cases, however, require a stay of years at this crowded facility, especially if the person detained faces probable death or torture on her return to her country. Not all detainees are Spanish-speaking, either—a dozen or so of the roughly 100-150 detainees who come to Mass each Friday turn out to be from countries in Asia and Africa.
A dozen men sat just inside the door of the medical building as we entered, dressed in dark blue, orange and red jump suits—a color scheme to indicate, respectively, whether the detainee was merely apprehended for lack of documentation, for a misdemeanor or, lastly, was involved in some violent activity. They watched a small television set bolted to the ceiling of the waiting room, and we greeted each other in Spanish, familiarly.
Sister Bea led me to a special isolation ward, past the larger wards of about ten beds each. Reinforced windows in doors and walls lined both sides of the corridor. Like the other areas, the stark interior of the small room at the end could be clearly seen from the hallway, with its shower area and toilet and bed. A small young woman sat sadly on the bed in her hospital gown, legs drawn up, and looked down at the floor, her black hair shielding her face.
“She was picked up with seven or eight other women in Arizona a few days ago,” Sr. Bea told me as we approached. “During a routine examination, her chest x-ray revealed a shadowed area in her lungs.”
“Tuberculosis?”, I asked.
Sister Bea nodded her head. “That’s what they suspect. That’s why she’s being isolated here. We’ll have to use these to see her,” she added, indicating the thickly-layered paper medical masks that would cover both mouth and nose. I found it awkward to speak and difficult to breathe through them, after placing the mask’s two elastic bands over my head and onto the back of my neck.
Sr. Bea spoke to the woman softly as we entered, explaining she had brought a priest to see her. The woman, who looked up at me and smiled weakly, had an equally soft voice. She was from Guatemala, and she explained how she had walked most of the way, over the mountains, through Mexico, hiring a coyote, or middleman, to arrange for her and her companions’ crossing into the U.S., paying him 23,000 quetzales, the Guatemalan currency (nearly $3,000).
Her complexion darkened as she began to become emotional. As tears welled in her eyes and fell, she began to plead, in that soft voice, “I don’t have anything wrong with my lungs. Please let me go back to my companions. I really have to be with them. I can’t be alone. Please let me go back to them. Please. …”
We tried to explain the infectious nature of the disease that she was suspected of having, and of how she needn’t worry about paying for medical care, if was all provided for. Nobody was certain that she even had a serious disease, yet, we told her.
“I spent five nights sleeping outdoors in the desert,” she continued. “It was cold! It was terribly cold! I think that that’s what probably gave this to me. The cold air on my head made me sick, I think. That’s all I have. I feel fine, now. I have to go back to my companions, please send me back to be with them.” Her companions, of course, were arrested as well, and brought to this compound—they were held in one of the women’s barracks.
The woman has three children back home, she continued to tell us, and a husband who works only a few hours a day, due to an chronic illness. They needed enough income to buy sufficient food with, which forced her to take the risk of walking so far through strange and hostile lands, trying to enter and work in the U.S. This was a familiar account to me by now, after about three months of visiting detainees once or twice a week.
Let’s pray together, I offered, and Sr. Bea and I and the woman said some prayers together, and I prayed for her in my own words: “Lord, look down upon our sister, who is distressed and wants to be well, to support her family. Take care of her, Lord, and console her with your peace and joy. …” I tried to compose a prayer that would remind her of God’s presence in our lives, especially in our darkest moments of loneliness, fear and illness. She prayed aloud as well, at the same time, making me think that she was used to a more communal form of prayer, like that heard at Pentecostal gatherings, everyone murmuring aloud at once.
She calmed down for a few moments, and reverently held and kissed the prayer card that Sister gave her, with the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, speaking inaudibly to Our Blessed Mother. Then, as we prepared to end our visit, she got up from the bed and knelt on the floor in front of me while I was still seated. She took my hands and placed them over her head, and then wept into them, holding them to her face. “Please,” she repeated over and over. “Let me go to my companions. Take me out of here. Please, padrecito, I beg you. Please let me go to them.”
She didn’t shout or raise her voice, just begged, and I felt very moved and sad for her. What could I do? What else would I do, even if I could influence decisions made about her? The doctors obviously had to isolate her, until they were sure she had an infectious disease, or not.
But how she suffered her separation from her friends! Isolation is a terrible hardship for people like this woman, I thought—much like many people in poor areas of Chile that I had known previously, before my assignment to El Paso. Without family, without friends or community, there is a terrible sensation of being forgotten about, of ceasing to exist, it seemed. “Ningunear”, the Latin American poets called it—being “nobodied” by the indifference and injustice that divided society, that left people ignored and uncared for, disrespected, forgotten about.
We left her, finally, and she did not cease to silently weep as she watched us depart, even while Sister Bea tried to console her as we left, promising to check in on her in the afternoon. The detention center security guard, standing her post in the hallway, observed the visit and also looked concerned for the woman, her eyes misty.
Sister Bea and I walked, escorted by another guard, to the dining hall of the compound, where I would celebrate Mass twice—first with the hundred or so male residents, and then, after they returned to their barracks, under the watchful gaze of several guards, with an equal number of women detainees.
Here they were together, around the Word of God and sharing the Bread and Wine of Christ’s Body and Blood. They were reverent, attentive, and very appreciative of this opportunity to come together, in the presence of a God whose concern for them, liberating them from fear and despair, was firmly perceived and welcomed. Here they were persons, children of God, with the dignity and treatment of being embraced by their community of faith, and encouraged by Christ’s Spirit.
I look forward to our Guatemalan friend’s return to this community. Like people shoved to the margins of society everywhere, our Eucharistic gathering was a model for of what all countries should be, both within their national lives and beyond their artificial borders: supportive and caring gatherings of human beings whose love and fraternal treatment of its members reflected the values and presence of God’s Reign.
May the awaited day soon be here, the day that the infectious, isolating diseases of hatred, selfishness and fear are entirely eradicated, and all families find welcome and acceptance.
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