Albuquerque, N.M.—Earlier in the year, asylum seekers came to Albuquerque by the hundreds for temporary assistance. Many of those who sought asylum came from Central America and entered the United States in El Paso, Texas, an official port of entry. Upon entry, they were detained by the U.S. Border Patrol and given an alien number.
Then Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) screened them and processed their requests for asylum. If they had a credible fear of persecution as well as a sponsor who would be responsible for them, those with children could be released to go to the sponsor. ICE set court dates for each asylum seeker near the cities of their sponsors to determine whether they could provisionally remain in the U.S. or needed to be deported.
Upon release in El Paso, before traveling to their sponsors, asylum seekers could go to hospitality centers run by non-profit or faith-based organizations for temporary help. However, when the facilities in El Paso became overloaded, some of these asylum seekers were sent to Albuquerque. Once in Albuquerque, they typically stayed about two days and then traveled by bus, train, or plane to areas throughout the United States to their sponsors.
Lutheran Family Services, Catholic Charities, Albuquerque Interfaith, St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, and Congregation Albert received the asylum seekers and provided housing, food, transportation, and travel coordination. In conjunction with these organizations, volunteers throughout Albuquerque willingly gave of their time, expertise (such as Spanish speaking and/or medical skills), and resources.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were encouraged by their local religious leaders to assist as needed. Maria Wittwer was called as the Albuquerque Coordinating Council Compassionate Service Leader to be a liaison between the service and faith-based organizations in the community and the Church. She oversaw the resources of seven stakes and the Church in general to help meet the needs of hundreds of incoming migrants.
Wittwer reported, “I met lots of asylum seekers from Central America, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. When they got to Albuquerque, people were tired. Most had been traveling for a long time. People were grateful for the help that we gave them.”
Wittwer also interacted closely with volunteers and said they were “selfless in their work.” She explained, “Many people made or donated food for meals. We had lots of Spanish speakers who would volunteer to call sponsors, make travel arrangements, and visit with guests. We had Relief Society sisters who did donation drives. We had families who would bring their kids to help serve food or sort and distribute donations. There were people from the Young Single Adult ward who would volunteer. We had volunteers drive in from Santa Fe and from Los Lunas. The missionaries were involved with setting up cots.”
Ann Parsons, Stake Young Women’s President of the Santa Fe Stake, reported that their youth collected over 13,000 items as part of a service project for a youth conference. They spent hours gathering donations prior to the conference, and then at the conference they sorted and boxed the goods. They had received a list of some of the most needed items, including clothing, shoes, over-the-counter medications, non-perishable foods, backpacks, carry-all bags, diapers, small toys, etc. Parsons commented that it was particularly meaningful when “one of the youth participating in the service project said that just a few years earlier he and his family were recipients of similar service, and it meant so much to him to be able to give in return.”
Sister Paityn Steadman, an LDS service missionary, assisted as a food coordinator. She said that religious congregations from a variety of different faiths would prepare lunch and dinner. Each organization was responsible for one meal at a time, and the food could be cooked in advance or on site. Some of the popular menu items included tortillas, rice, beans, soup, and pizza. Steadman reflected, “The people were kept in very humble circumstances. They were mostly young families—couples with young children. There were also some single mothers with newborn infants. They seemed very grateful to come and be welcomed with hot food, beds, and showers.”
The Church also provided food and supplies liberally through the Bishops Storehouse in Albuquerque. Marshall and Sandra Henrie, managers of the Storehouse, said that the Church offered two humanitarian grants, one to the Albuquerque New Mexico North Stake and the other to the Bishops Storehouse. These grants provided funds to meet some of the basic needs of the asylum seekers who were arriving weekly.
Marshall Henrie explained, “Our job was to avert a humanitarian crisis that would take place if these people were just put on the street.” Wittwer, as Coordinating Council Compassionate Service Leader, would approve food/supply orders for representatives from the various participating service and faith-based groups. Then they could go to the Storehouse to acquire the food and supplies needed to provide meals for the asylum seekers.
Aaron Du Bay, Program Director for the Refugee and Asylee Programs at Lutheran Family Services, praised the Church for its contributions to the asylum seekers. He said that the Church sent a small truckload of travel snacks daily for the migrants. Since they would often travel long distances by bus, train, or plane from Albuquerque to meet their sponsors, these snacks provided them with nourishment along the way. Du Bay explained that they included nonperishable foods you could buy at a large box store, such as “beef jerky, crackers, trail mix, nuts, fruit cups, etc.” This was a valuable service, because the asylum seekers had no money of their own to purchase food during the journey.
Jared Esplin, a member of the La Cueva Ward in Albuquerque, created snack bags for his Eagle Scout project. He and his friends made about 1,000 bags, containing items such as nuts, crackers, granola bars, fruit leathers, etc., and then delivered them to Albuquerque Interfaith. Volunteers and workers from individual organizations made a fresh sandwich to include in each snack bag. Jared commented regarding the asylum seekers, “When I saw their needs, that they didn’t even speak English, I felt empathy and wanted to help them.”
Seeking asylum in the United States and in many parts of the world is a legal process, and asylum seekers live in our country with official authorization from the government. In a talk entitled, “Asylum on the Border,” given on July 19, 2019 at the University of New Mexico School of Law, Jessica K. Miles explained that “refugee and asylum laws were established after the Holocaust.” International leaders met together to discuss how to avoid the repetition of such horrific acts against humanity and to create laws and rights for refugees.
As an attorney who specializes in immigration law and practices in El Paso, Miles said that an asylum seeker must prove that there is a “well-founded fear of persecution in the home country on the basis of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.” The asylum seekers who came to Albuquerque were often fleeing from violence and/or persecution in their home country.
Currently in Albuquerque, however, the effort to assist asylum seekers has come to somewhat of a standstill. Due to policy changes at the border, families are not being processed and sent in large groups to the area at this time. As of July 16, migrants need to first apply for asylum in the first safe country they came to, often Mexico, and be denied asylum there, before applying for assistance in the United States.
Also, a “Remain in Mexico” policy now requires those seeking asylum in the southern borders to stay in Mexico while waiting for the immigration courts to process their case, and this could take years. So now many non-profit and faith-based organizations are focusing their attention on helping migrants in cities such as Juarez where thousands of people wait for a court hearing. Miles emphasized that this is a “changing landscape,” and new policies are presented regularly.
Whether or not more large groups of asylum seekers will be sent to Albuquerque in the future is uncertain, but when they were here many members of the general community demonstrated compassion to those who sought a better life in the United States. Regardless of background or religion, numerous volunteers offered their services to help fellow human beings in a time of displacement and need.