Sister Susan Gatz spent two weeks this spring welcoming asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border, mindful during her stay of Ezra Lazarus’ invitation inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.
The well-known inscription is an entreaty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
“That’s what was in front of me, day after day. We were trying to wrap our arms around them,” said Sister Gatz, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth, during a phone interview last week.
Her desire to be the hands and feet of Christ led her to El Paso, Texas, assisting people granted asylum in the U.S.
She is one of hundreds who have responded to a call to walk with people at the border. Another is Kathleen Lee, an immigration attorney for Catholic Charities of Louisville.
Lee spent 10 days in June in Tucson, Ariz., which is about an hour and a half north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
She and Sister Gatz helped asylees connect with their families or other sponsors in the U.S.
Sister Gatz worked at Nazareth House, part of the larger Annunciation House shelter program in El Paso. Each afternoon, the shelter received a busload, sometimes two, of individuals who had recently received their asylum papers.
Sister Gatz, who served as SCN president from 2013 to 2018, described the situation at Nazareth House as “hectic.”
“They would come in the afternoons. We would immediately welcome them, give them a snack, register them and begin calling their families,” she said.
The Nazareth House shelter was designed to house about 150 people, but typically many more arrived each day.
“Most were just exhausted. It was crowded but at least they had a bed or cot, and they were not on the floor. And they had a warm meal served by a friendly face,” she said.
Lee described a similar pace at Casa Alitas, a program of Catholic Community Services of the Diocese of Tucson housed in a former Benedictine monastery. Inside the monastery’s sanctuary, army green cots sit where pews used to stand.
“I thought it might be depressing or sad but it gave me faith and hope in the people that were helping those coming,” said Lee during an interview after her return.
The former monastery, which houses about 300 to 500 asylum-seekers, was set to close July 31. The Tucson Diocese has reached an agreement with Pima County to turn an unused juvenile detention facility into a temporary shelter for asylum-seekers, according to a July 10 story from Catholic News Service.
Lee and Sister Gatz both speak some Spanish, which aided in their work, they said. It was particularly helpful connecting the migrants with their families and giving them instructions for the last leg of their journey.
Sister Gatz said she felt a call to assist in whatever way she could.
“The Gospel calls us to welcome the stranger. I knew that wasn’t always happening” at the border, she said. “I asked myself how I could contribute to the efforts of welcoming these people.”
She said she was struck by the intense desire of parents at the shelters to provide a better life.
“The desire for a better life for themselves and their children is so strong, as it would be for all of us,” Sister Gatz said.
Lee said she witnessed the same thing — immigration driven by families seeking safety. It’s a scenario she encounters in her work at Catholic Charities, too.
“Many of these people are facing dire situations, between the poverty and violence, gangs and corruption. Fleeing is their only option,” Lee said.
Lee added that if more people understood the reasons why individuals are fleeing Central America, “maybe they would want to help more or be more understanding.”
People handing themselves over for asylum are truly at the mercy of everyone they encounter on their journey, Sister Gatz and Lee noted.
“I can’t imagine traveling for so long as they did, not speaking the language and to be at someone else’s mercy. They were grateful to be where people want to help them,” Lee said.
Sister Gatz agreed and said most of the individuals and families she encountered came with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
“There they were totally at our mercy. Anything they needed, they had to ask for. We tried our best to anticipate their needs and to be as gracious as we could,” she said.