Jesuit Parish in San Antonio Responds to Needs of Detainees Released from Immigration Detention Centers

BY ISN STAFFSeptember 3, 2015

written by: Fr. Brian Christopher, S.J., Associate Pastor, Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, San Antonio, Texas  
& Mary Baudouin, Provincial Assistant for Social Ministry, U.S. Central Southern Jesuit Province

On Monday, August 24 the staff of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Jesuit parish in San Antonio, Texas, received a call from the Guadalupe Community Center, a branch of Catholic Charities located about two blocks from the parish.  They had heard a credible rumor from within the immigration detention centers in Karnes and Dilley, located about 60 miles from San Antonio, that a large number of detainees would be released during the week.  One estimate they heard was that 300 women and children would be dropped by ICE at the Greyhound station in downtown San Antonio over the course of the week.

Our Lady of Guadalupe

The altar at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, a Jesuit parish in San Antonio, Texas.

Since the courts ordered the release of detainees not deemed “credible threats” several months ago, the detention centers have been gradually releasing detainees a few at a time.  Bus tickets in hand, these detainees have been dropped at the Greyhound station with no idea how to read their tickets, how transfers work, or how to communicate their concerns to the employees at the bus station.  Some of them have tickets to leave the very day they are dropped, but others have to wait one day or more: most of them women and children left to fend for themselves on the streets of San Antonio, facing the very real threat of falling prey to robbers or human traffickers.

The Interfaith Welcome Committee, a coalition of organizations was already working to receive the released women and children, help them find shelter if needed, and connect them to any other help they might need.  But an increase in the number of detainees released would stretch their existing resources too far, so the IWC contacted Catholic Charities, and who in turn contacted Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish. Why? The parish has traditionally had a very close relationship with the Guadalupe Community Center, in part because of their close proximity, and because of the long-standing presence of Jesuit Volunteers working at the Center.

Working together with other agencies and existing organizations, Fr. Brian Christopher, S.J., and parish staff and volunteers began trying to find places that could host released detainees for a few nights.  Two parishioners who run non-profit organizations offered an empty house normally used for volunteers. They also introduced Fr. Christopher to San Antonio district council woman, Shirley Gonzalez, who responded immediately by calling the hotel association to see if they would be willing to accommodate any of the families.  Lee Thielen, the parish business manager, also called all the local parishes to find a parish hall and cots that could be used in case the influx of detainees.

“Thankfully, we did not need all those beds that first night!  This bought us time to mobilize other resources,” said Fr. Christopher. The hope of the partners is to create a network of resources that can be utilized as needed to respond to the needs of the men, women, and children being released.  Our Lady of Guadalupe has been actively organizing to provide support to Catholic Charities and the IWC.

On Sunday, September 6, the parish will host a volunteer registration drive to help find people willing to sit in the bus station and welcome the released detainees as they walk in, drivers who can transport them to their accommodations and then back to the bus station to catch their bus, and volunteers who can be present in the various shelters and parish halls to assist the detainees and help them feel comfortable.

The parish is also collecting toiletries and other items to assemble “Courage Kits,” small care packages to provide these women and children, many of whom show up at the bus terminal with nothing, with the bare necessities to hold them over until they reach their destinations.

The parish has also opened up space opened house any released detainees needing temporary housing.  “So far, only two young men have stayed with us in our guest apartment above the garage, but we’re ready for more as the need arises” said Fr. Christopher.

The other critical role that the parish has been able to play in the relief efforts is linking Catholic Charities to the larger efforts of the Central and Southern Province and the Jesuit Committee on Investment Responsibility (JCIR) to hold ICE and the companies that run the detention centers accountable on human rights concerns.  As Fr. Christopher said, “it would be such a blessing to our efforts to accommodate the refugees, if we knew how many were going to be released and when.  None of the players on the ground here had the leverage to obtain that information, but the UCS province and JCIR have been able to use their relationships GEO and CCA officials to put us in contact with a local official of ICE.  While the data he gave us was vague, it was far better than what we had. This has been a great example of the need for agility and the power of networking!”

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