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“Be diligent in serving the poor. Love the poor, honor them, my children, as you would honor Christ Himself.”

St. Louise de Marillac

 

Welcoming the Stranger

By S. Patricia Wittberg


S. Nancy Crafton has loving served migrant workers and their families at Los Pobres Center in Avondale, Colorado, for more than two decades.

Between now and November we are likely to hear much rhetoric about “the crisis at our southern border” and “the need to fix our broken immigration system.” S. Nancy Crafton has a unique and close-up perspective on these issues, since she helped found Los Pobres Center in 2000 and has administered its services ever since. Located in Avondale, Colorado, on the outskirts of Pueblo, Los Pobres Center helps some 900 families from five surrounding counties with food, clothing, medical care, education, and immigration issues.

Recent developments have added to the center’s ministries. Migrants, fleeing gangs or looking for work to feed their families, walk for months through Central and South America and arrive at the U.S./Mexico border sick and desperate. S. Nancy tells the story of one mother who came here with her three children to rejoin her husband and his parents. She had advanced cancer and could not find medical care in her home country. By the time they arrived at Los Pobres, she had to be admitted to hospice and died in six weeks. Two other mothers from Venezuela, both pregnant, journeyed on foot for three months. They had their babies three weeks after arriving at Los Pobres. Since Venezuela is one of the countries our government classifies as a special case, they were able to get Social Security Numbers and work permits. Migrants from Nicaragua, Guatemala, Ecuador, or El Salvador – to say nothing of those from Haiti, Mali, the Congo, or China who also make the trek – are not so lucky.

How do the migrants waiting across the border get to Pueblo? That is where the cartels come in. Yes, the same cartels who smuggle drugs into this country. But the migrants aren’t smuggling drugs. They are being smuggled themselves. They are simply another “product” the cartels exploit to make money. It is a very lucrative racket: desperate families whose crops failed in Central America’s drought, or who were threatened by local gangs, are lured by the cartels who say the United States will welcome them and give them jobs. The cartel promises to transport them across the border “for a small fee.” S. Nancy says the cartels first find out where they want to go in the United States; then they extort fees from the migrants and keep them in “holding pens” for three or four weeks. There may be up to 400 people waiting at any one time. The cartels feed them one meal a day – a tablespoon of rice and some salsa – and they have to pay for any water they drink. Periodically, they have to call their families and request more money to give their captors. Their cell phones are confiscated and replaced with different phones, modified so that the cartels can track where they are going and where their relatives are. When there are enough persons going to the same general area, the cartels pack them into a car and drive across the border by back roads or tracks. They usually squeeze nine persons into a single sedan-sized car, two of whom are crammed into the trunk.

Pueblo is located along I-25, the main highway from the southern border to points north. Of course, the New Mexico and Colorado police are trying to stop the trafficking on this route. When they intercept one of these suspicious cars, the driver usually abandons it and flees. The police are left with the nine or more very frightened migrants – usually single adults, but some as young as 7 or 8 years old. What to do with them? Los Pobres Center is the only place in Southern Colorado that will help, so the police bring them there. S. Nancy says the migrants are terrified at first, thinking they are going to be jailed and deported. The first thing they see is the center’s huge tapestry of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which helps them relax a little. But they are still frightened. The center will discard the phones given to them, and let them use the center’s phones to call their families.


A registered nurse, S. Nancy Crafton runs Los Pobres Clinic in Avondale, Colorado, a center that provides services and items, including but not limited to food, donated clothing, toiletries, financial help and medical care to more than 200 migrant families per week.

S. Nancy and the Los Pobres volunteers give the migrants food and clothing. They help with medical care – one young girl’s legs were so swollen after being packed tightly in the car for days that they had to cut her jeans off. Immigration Services then comes to interview them to make sure they are not cartel members themselves, and to see if they have been forced, raped, or held at gunpoint during their ordeal. If they have, they can apply for protection and receive work papers. Los Pobres Center’s volunteers put the migrants up in hotels and send them on the bus to join their relatives or friends. Not that their troubles will be ended after that; S. Nancy wonders about the 8-year-old boy in a recent car who was going to an uncle in New Jersey. Will he go to school or be put to work in his uncle’s construction business?

The news media in this country, S. Nancy says, feed us so many myths about the migrants. They are not “mules” bringing in drugs. When you cram nine persons in a small car, there is hardly room for contraband. The migrants are not coming here to live off our welfare programs. They want to work. Those who are undocumented must pay U.S. taxes, but will never be able to collect Social Security, Food Stamps, or other government assistance. They are not taking work from Americans: they are doing jobs – in the fields, on roofs, in meatpacking plants, in landscaping – which Americans do not want to do. They are not coming here to engage in criminal activities. S. Nancy related how she told one carload of migrants that they could take a shower at the center. All nine did so, but she didn’t mention they could open the linen closet and use the towels there. They all used the same towel rather than open a closet door without permission. Even when migrants receive protection in the United States, it is temporary. They must wait many years for a hearing and may be deported afterwards. S. Nancy has seen people deported who have lived here many years.

There is a crisis at our borders. What can we do to help resolve it? S. Nancy says the Sisters and Associates are already doing a lot with our Newcomers Program, the Immigration and Human Trafficking Justice Circle, and individual efforts. But all of us can do our part. We can vote and let our representatives know that we want a truly humane immigration policy. We can speak out and tell the truth when our relatives and friends mention some of the myths about immigrants.

In the meantime, S. Nancy finds joy in the wonderful volunteers who help at Los Pobres Center. Some volunteers come from as far as 20 miles away. Some are from the 900 local families that the center regularly helps: they know the sufferings the migrants are experiencing because they, too, have suffered. Some volunteers are the migrants themselves, who help others even while they are being helped. They remember Christ said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”



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