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Indiana Volunteers See Border Crisis Firsthand

Poor Handmaids

Several sisters from the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ spent time volunteering at the border earlier this year. (Seth Tackett, WFIU/WTIU News)

Some of the people on the front lines of the border crisis are volunteers who are donating their time to help migrants as they attempt to find a future in America.

Data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection says the agency apprehended nearly 72,000 people along the southwest border just last month.

Several sisters from the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ based out of Donaldson, Ind. volunteered earlier this summer with an El Paso non-profit called Annunciation House. It runs several shelters for migrants who’ve been released by ICE and are awaiting court dates where they will eventually learn whether they can stay in the country.

We spoke to the sisters about what they saw, and what they think people should know about the ongoing immigration crisis.

Migrant family
This photo from Sister Connie Bach shows how little many families arrived in America with. Many carried all of their belongings in a plastic bag.  

Sisters Served Varying Roles While Volunteering At Border

The Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ dedicate their lives to serving God, and see helping the poor and powerless in their searches for justice as part of their mission.

Several sisters traveled to El Paso earlier this year to volunteer with Annunication House. They served varying roles: helping migrants get new clothes and shoes at a warehouse, greeting buses of migrants arriving at shelters and making lunches for families to take on the remainder of their journeys. 

Sister Loretta Schleper says it was important for her to see firsthand what was happening there. 

"I wanted to see how we could make a difference for the people there, to see what the issues really were," she says. 

Schleper served as a driver and also manned a lookout point while she volunteered. It was her job to keep an eye out for new buses of migrants coming in.

While Annunciation House says it was receiving as many as 1,000 refugees a day in the spring, those numbers have dropped to between 100 and 300 a day. The organization's website says that’s likely because of a boost in enforcement efforts at the border. It says the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols, which sends asylum seekers back to Mexico, is also having an impact. 

Sister Jolise May was stationed at a hotel in El Paso where Annunciation House provided shelter for migrant families. She says many arrived in a daze, unsure of what their future held.

But they all had a similar motivation for making the dangerous trek from their home countries to America. 

"That was the story one after the other -- 'This is for my child, there is no future, there is no education, there is no money, I'm doing this for my child,'" May says.

One of Sister Edith Schneider's responsibilities was accompanying families to bus stations, which was the beginning of another long journey for many of them. Sponsors buy families tickets to different destinations in America, where they will wait until their court dates that determine whether they can stay in the country. Schneider says many of the families traveled with no phones or money, and just a small bag of belongings. 

"They are gentle, poor people escaping violence," Schneider says. "And what they have to endure, who of us would endure? Whether it's trekking through Mexico, or that three or four day bus trip with a plastic bag to hold my belongings. Who of us would endure that?"

Sisters: This Is A Humanitarian Issue, Not A Political One

Federal data shows U.S. border patrols have apprehended nearly 125,000 families in the El Paso sector so far this fiscal year – a more than 1,500 percent increase from the same period in 2018.

The sisters say they try to tune out the negativity and debates that surround the border, but they can’t ignore what they saw and heard.

"A lady and her 19-year-old daughter were coming through and she said they were like two gates away from freedom and their chance to come in when they said to her, or actually said to her daughter, 'What age are you?' And, she honestly said, 'I'm 19,' where they snatched her away,'" Schleper says. "And, she was screaming. The lady said she was screaming and they said [they took her] because 'You are to be independent.'"

Sister Connie Bach says it was difficult to hear stories about what people endured even after they arrived on the U.S. side of the border. She says volunteers did what they could to try and make them feel safe and comfortable. But they knew many of the families they were helping wouldn't be allowed to stay in the country longterm. 

"It really is a crisis situation," Bach says. "And, our country should be looking at it just as much as hurricanes and tornadoes, and all the things that affect our people. It's a life and death situation for a lot of people." 

While they were only in El Paso for a few weeks, the sisters say their experience there forever changed them. Schneider is even considering going back to volunteer for several months, if she can still be helpful. 

"No matter what we do it always seems so small compared to the need," she says.

What's Happening On The Border Now?

The Migrant Protection Protocols means many families are being sent back to Mexico as they wait to appear in U.S. immigration court. NPR reports more than 30,000 asylum seekers are waiting in border towns, once again making them targets of violence that they're trying to escape.

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump announced a new policy that will replace a longstanding federal court agreement limiting how long migrant families with children can be detained. Several states are suing the Trump administration over the change. 

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