“No pictures” is a phrase commonly associated with celebrities and actors who are trying to avoid the press and fans while they’re out and about. While we were in San Diego this past week, however, we heard “no pictures” in a different context-we were at a hotel where Catholic Charities is providing temporary shelter for [immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers]. Part of the protocol is that no videos or photos are taken inside the hotel to protect the privacy of the people who have risked their lives and their freedom to get somewhere safe.
This is a very understandable guideline, but because we were unable to take pictures, I’ll have to rely on my words to describe what we experienced there. At the tail end of our orientation as Saint Joseph Workers (SJW’s)-a one-year volunteer program where we’ll live in community with other SJW’s, we spent three days with Sr. Louise Ann Micek in San Diego. [Sr. Louise had worked at shelters in that area before and I had been in McAllen, TX and to the Brownsville/Matamoros to work with asylum seekers there, but for the rest of our group, it was their first time.] Sr. Louise explained that we would do whatever work was needed and the tasks and amount would depend on how many people they were assisting-which depends on how many people ICE drops off after being processed. On Wednesday and Thursday, I spent most of my time at the call center in the office that Catholic Charities has set up in the hotel. The majority of calls that were coming in were from clients who were calling from their rooms with questions about clothes, food, and fights and locating loved ones. We could help coordinate the first few requests, but we unfortunately weren’t well-equipped to help locate people. There were unfortunately a few reasons why wives were trying to locate husbands and vice versa, partners were unable to locate each other and parents had been separated from their children. It was possible that the person’s loved one was still being detained by ICE and it was possible that they had been taken to another shelter (one woman at the San Diego shelter learned that her son, who had been separated from her while they were being processed, was taken to Georgia). The problem was that the staff could check if someone was in or had been in the San Diego shelter (but would then have to let that person know that someone was looking for them and get their permission to report back that they were there) but they had no way of knowing where else they could be.
The first day I was there, I spoke with a young woman (who was probably younger than I am) who hadn’t heard from her husband in four days. I was trying to comfort her because was visibly stressed, understandably so. I took her to a caseworker who explained that unfortunately it was normal, that the best thing to do was to continue to try to contact both him and their sponsor. They were reunited that afternoon after ICE dropped off another group of people at the hotel-she was glowing-but that unfortunately wasn’t the case for everyone we talked to. The next day, another man came in to do a “self-departure” with his friend; they were going to the airport alone instead of taking one of the Catholic Charities’ buses and therefore wouldn’t have a guide to help them get through TSA and find their gate. He had been in earlier to try to locate his girlfriend and the mother of their four children. I had tried to explain that we understood it was really stressful but the best thing to do was for him to keep trying to contact her, and he responded that she didn’t have a phone. He gave us her name and a description, down to the clothes she would be wearing, and left his number-asking us to look for her and pass along a message if we saw her. I did look for her, but didn’t see her and I later broke down crying during our group reflection that night because I felt like I had given him false hope that we would pass the message along, and I didn’t want to do that for anyone.
I’m very grateful to the people at Catholic Charities, because they were very welcoming and made it clear that they appreciated us being there. It can be stressful at any time to start work in a new place with new people and new procedures. In San Diego, this stress was compounded by the multiple languages the clients spoke, the number of clients needing help, the stress the clients were under, and the knowledge that we were operating within the huge, messed-up process that is our immigration system, and we’d only be there for a few days. There were a few employees who emphasized different things we could do (for example. Some of our group went to the airport and were helping people get through TSA) because they would “be a good experience for us.” Each time, I tried to respond that we were there to help and were happy to go wherever they needed. Their “good experience” phrase made it feel more like a field trip experience for us-which felt very off because we all knew we were talking about people’s lives. I was much more concerned about people getting the food they needed (we had a pregnant client call requesting different food) and people getting the flights they needed (the office was always full of people who needed help with travel plans) than I was about working in all of the different parts of the shelter. If there’s a better way to humanize this crisis for everyone, I’m going to find it/we need to find it because the people who are immigrating and have immigrated to this country, and have been some of our essential workers for decades, deserve to be safe, respected, and to be able to meet their financial, mental, emotional, and psychological needs.