Sister Ida Berresheim prefers to call it a hospitality house.
News reports refer to Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, as a Catholic shelter making sure migrants have food in their bellies. The mission statement of Annunciation House — where Sister Ida, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet from St. Louis, serves as a board member — states that in a Gospel spirit of service and solidarity, it accompanies the migrants, refugees and economically vulnerable people of the border region through hospitality, advocacy and education.
It’s not simply a shelter, Sister Ida said at a program at St. Margaret of Scotland Parish in St. Louis Sept. 30. The program, “Keys to Asylum,” was held in honor of World Day of Migrants and Refugees celebrated by the Catholic Church the previous day.
Sister Ida served 17 years in El Paso, 10 of them at Annunciation House, retiring in 2011 at age 82, and continues to make short-term trips there as a volunteer. Several other Sisters of St. Joseph also travel there as volunteers, often bringing suitcases full of socks and underwear for children and adults, along with coloring books, crayons and other items. Also traveling to the border region from St. Louis are volunteers from other women religious congregations.
The work along the border relates to the Gospel, Sister Ida said after her presentation. “Every person alive is our brother or sister, whether we agree with them or not,” she said. “Jesus tells us to love one another as I have loved you.”
The people along the border, including the migrants, “teach you that your schedule doesn’t have to come first, people come first,” Sister Ida said. “Their love of family, their love of community stand out. And they teach you so much about patience.”
In her presentation in St. Louis, Sister Ida said that at Annunciation and similar hospitality centers operated by churches, migrants are assured that “they are safe, and there are people who care for them and will take care of them for the time that they are there.”
Mostly, the migrants at Annunciation House have been kept in detention by the U.S. Immigration and Custody Enforcement (ICE) after crossing the border and before receiving a hearing and being released, usually with an ankle monitor, to find their way to a relative or friends elsewhere in the United States. The guests typically stay just one to three days, long enough to address basic needs. Since late June, the number of refugees Annunciation is receiving has dropped dramatically, to a fairly steady 200 per day.
Annunciation, established 43 years ago, also sponsors other facilities for people who have short-term or ongoing needs.
Sister Ida talked about a family with five children from Honduras who came to the border. Another child in the family had been murdered, and they were seeking asylum from the violence, she was told. “Annunciation House gave them food, a place to sleep and time to call a relative in another part of their country to get transportation by bus or a plane.” Sister Ida said.
Pat Dougherty, a St. Margaret parishioner, said the “Keys” program, co-sponsored by St. Francis Community Services and the Inter-Faith Committee on Latin America, was intended to show solidarity with people at the border and pray for them. “We respect the dignity of each other and seek the common good” so “we never see another as a stranger again,” he said.
In April, Dougherty volunteered at a hospitality center for migrants in Laredo, Texas, run by Catholic Charities. His task was to sit with children, who arrived without belts and shoelaces since the items were removed from them in detention. One girl, Yesinia, was with about 60 people dropped off by ICE staff. Yesinia clutched a stuffed animal — Donald Duck — that had been donated to the center. “That was her only possession,” Dougherty said.
He pretended to talk like the Disney character, and at the end of the evening the children had given the stuffed animal a nickname in Dougherty’s honor — Pat, a shortened version of the word “duck” in Spanish, pato.
Also at the “Keys” program, two staff members of St. Francis Community Services who have provided legal and other services to migrants described the complexities and arbitrary outcomes of the asylum system and the struggles of people in detention.
>> Church teaching on migrants
• People have the right to find opportunities in their homeland
• People have the right to migrate to support themselves and their families
Nations have the right to control their borders but more powerful
economic nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their
residents, have a strong obligation to accommodate migration flows
• Refugees and asylum seekers should be afforded protection
• The human dignity and human rights of undocumented migrants should be respected
Justice for Immigrants, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops