The situation in Central America has forced tens of thousands of women and children to flee, in fear for their lives. Gangs and drug cartels have begun to force children and teens to transport and begin using drugs under the threat of rape and death. The families of these young people have very few resources, so they cannot fight. Their only other option is to escape, so they come north to the U.S. via Mexico.
Several states have been struggling with the influx of these immigrants. Some have welcomed them. Others have processed them, in accordance with the 2008 law signed by George W. Bush. In some states and communities, the refugees have been welcomed with open arms as they travel to reach relatives while waiting for their immigration or deportation hearings.
Las Cruces, New Mexico is one such welcoming community. Project Oak Tree was set up to help our Central American guests. More specifically, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Heart of Mary has set aside Finley Hall, its parish center, as a processing and rest station. Here, the refugees sent here from Texas receive clothing, food, medical care and a chance to rest while they try to reach relatives.
One of the volunteers for Project Oak Tree, Orlando Antonio Carrillo-Jimenez, has spoken honestly about why he decided to volunteer to help our guests.
"My love for children and the disenfranchised has fueled my desire to be part of Project Oak Tree," he said. Project Oak Tree is sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces. "As a Christian, I have learned the importance of showing God's love in a practical way." Carrillo-Jimenez has long served as a lay volunteer for the Catholic church.
As the immigrants come into Las Cruces, they share stories of why they fled their home countries and of their experiences coming to the U.S. Carrillo-Jimenez feels that helping our guests has been one of the most life-changing and rewarding experiences he has ever had. He alluded to some of the stories he has personally heard from some of the women and children as they waited to continue their travels. "I have heard some of the most harrowing stories that no adult should go through, let alone a child of eight," he said.
"There are so many stories that have been ingrained into my being. An example is that of a 20-year-old girl who traveled with her six-month-old due to the fact that her mother, who resides in the U.S., testified at her assailant's deportation trial." (The young woman's mother had been forced by her assailant to pay him protection money. He attacked and stabbed her repeatedly when she failed to do so.) After he was deported back to his country of origin, which is also the country of origin for the young woman and her mother, he targeted the daughter. "He began to harass and intimidate the daughter. [She] found it necessary to leave the country and head to the U.S. where she could find refuge."
If it is unclear that these families are fleeing, not only the threat of death, but certain death, it should be growing more and more clear as more and more of these stories come out. Up to 90,000 immigrants are projected to flee to the U.S. by the end of 2014.
In the parish hall, "receiving families" greet the immigrants. This first contact with caring people has been, more often than not, their first encounter with compassion and mercy since leaving their home countries. According to Carrillo-Jimenez, the first contact our guests have with their receiving families has made the strongest impression on him. "They speak to their families at length and share how grateful they are to be at our facility."
Just to provide a little perspective, Finley Hall has a large reception area with several smaller rooms behind double doors. While the accommodations are no more than basic, with cots, blankets, donated clothing and food, the volunteers have done their utmost to make our guests feel welcomed and loved. Carrillo-Jimenez related something in an earlier Facebook conversation, saying that a young child and mother were waiting to resume their journey. Carrillo-Jimenez spoke of seeing the child laughing and running around for the first time since arriving in Las Cruces. It was at this time that he realized the impact of the compassionate treatment our guests had received.
At the end of our interview, Carrillo-Jimenez had one last thing to say:
I will continue my work as long as I am able. My passion for the people from Central America is deep. The stress is more of an emotional toll. I am a person who takes these people's trials and tribulations deep into my very being. It's the best and only way to truly be a follower and servant of Christ and humanity.