A migrant’s shoes at a Laredo Catholic Charities respite center have makeshift laces made of strips torn from mylar blankets. Federal officers confiscate shoelaces in detention facilities. (Kat Kelley/Catholic Charities)
A migrant’s shoes at a Laredo Catholic Charities respite center have makeshift laces made of strips torn from mylar blankets. Federal officers confiscate shoelaces in detention facilities. (Kat Kelley/Catholic Charities)
An Oregon delegation led by Catholic Charities served in Laredo, Texas, this summer, assisting migrant families and asylum-seekers at the ever-tightening border.

Kat Kelley, director of strategic initiatives for Catholic Charities of Oregon, led the service trip. Kelley sums up the border crisis like this: “A disaster of our own making and a despicable legacy to leave our children and grandchildren.”

At the border, Catholic Charities USA runs respite centers for migrants who have been released from federal detention to try to prove their refugee status. Asylum seekers stay in the respite centers from a few hours to a few days as they prepare to travel to loved ones in the interior of the United States.

At the peak of migration earlier this year, groups of 50 or more arrived at the centers in a kind of controlled chaos. They received water and electrolytes, some for the first time in 24 hours or more. They registered for help with asylum and then got a chance to call relatives in the United States. There were sobs as they told their stories to families who had been waiting days or weeks for news. The relatives sent money for bus tickets.

Then came a room full of clothing, shoes and backpacks. There, one of the families Kelley worked with had a 5-month-old boy whose onesie had started white but was stained brown from travel. The mother had been forced to drop a suitcase of clothes at the Guatemala border when fleeing violent cartel thugs. Later, the family fell into a sewage ditch in central Mexico. The baby had a rash and more recent scratches on the back of his head, presumably from sleeping on rough concrete in the federal detention center. Kelley had the child sent straight to a medical clinic.

Kelley carries a mylar shoelace from her recent trip. After border officers confiscate belts and shoelaces from detained migrants, people tear strips from mylar blankets to create laces that keep their shoes in place. Kelley saw the act as a symbol of migrants’ adaptability and tenacity despite severe trials.

“Many of the people first coming in to the respite center are in a state of shock,” Kelley said. “So much exposure to saturated brutality causes a cognitive hiccup that can make navigating even the most simple of processes seem insurmountable.”

The respite centers offer showers and hygiene products. In the cafeteria, Knights of Columbus are among the waiters. Laredo Bishop James Tamayo often comes to give a blessing to new arrivals. Migrants look for friends or neighbors who also are seeking asylum.

“At least once a day you hear a gasp, a sob or an incredulous laugh as people are finally able to confirm with their own eyes that their friend or neighbor indeed made it to this side alive,” Kelley said.

Asylum-seekers have come chiefly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, ranked among the 10 most violent nations in the world. Kelley says U.S.-backed interventions in the 1980s and before helped cause the dire corruption, extortion, drug and sex trafficking.

She says the choice for asylum-seekers is stark: “Stay home and be maimed or killed or make the trek to the United States and hope to survive.” Four of five women from those nations who try to make the trip experience sexual violence along the way, Kelley said.

It’s a trek from one hard place to another. Kelley heard difficult stories about life in federal detention centers.

“Going to the bathroom, having access to hygiene products and food are luxuries in detention,” she said. “Having access to your parents or to your children are a luxury in detention.”

One teen told Kelley that officers withheld food from children as young as 3 who did not understand or did not follow directions. A woman who had been accompanying her niece and nephew had the youngsters taken away and had to phone her sister to say the children were gone. One pregnant woman was given pills in the detention center for an urinary tract infection, but she decided not to take them. A respite center doctor inspected the pills and told Kelley they would have caused a miscarriage.

Since the summer, the border now is practically sealed, and few migrants are trying to cross. But in the interior, the need continues for those who crossed previously and are seeking to show that they deserve asylum status.

Until they gain it, they cannot work legally or receive federal or state aid. That is where agencies like Catholic Charities step in to offer housing, food, clothing, health care, transportation and training. There are more than 6,000 people in Oregon seeking refugee status. Catholic Charities also provides aid in preparing a case for asylum.

Without an attorney to represent them, asylum seekers have a 6% chance of winning their case, said Kelley. Without the resources to pay an attorney, people tend to be deported.

“Asylum-seekers in our state live in terror every day,” Kelley said. “Their children, our future doctors, lawyers, teachers, architects, are under a psychological siege that will have fallout in lasting generations. ... When a parent disappears in a raid, children are left at school or return home to empty houses.”

Accompanying Kelley to Laredo were workers from Cambia Health Solutions and the Oregon Community Foundation. Dee Cruz, a vice president at Portland-based Cambia, said her own parents crossed into the United States from Mexico.

“The biggest takeaway for me was what being human-centered calls us to do and how to act,” said Cruz. “In my work, we think a lot about how to create human-centered solutions for our customers, the people we serve as they are moving through their health care journeys. And we hire and develop leaders who exhibit servant-leader qualities. Both of these concepts, putting others at the center and being of service, are core to the work that Catholic Charities is doing at the border.”