The following story by Peter Feuerherd appears in the July 24, 2014 edition of the Catholic Star-Herald, and it is reprinted with permission.
It’s one of the big stories of the summer: As tens of thousands of migrants from Central America made their way to the U.S. border, the American public watched with a mix of compassion and sometimes scorn at their desperate plight. Meanwhile, most political leaders focused on sending them back as quickly as possible.
Brian Wagner, 48, a Catholic Charities worker in Vineland, reacted differently: he offered to help. A military veteran schooled in logistics he used to assist New Jerseyans affected by Super Storm Sandy, Wagner spent much of July in a resettlement center in McAllen, Texas.
It’s about “sharing God’s love,” he said about his experience in a phone interview during a short break. He was accompanied by Nancy, his wife, who also volunteered. They responded to a call for help sent out by Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Brownsville, located on the Mexico/U.S. border.
The work was all-purpose: Brian alternated as counselor, security guard, tent cleaner, driver, media chaperone, coffee brewer – whatever was needed to assist. Nancy compiled data, provided orientations, and served breakfast, among other duties.
While attention has focused on unaccompanied children who made the long journey through Mexico to the border, the McAllen facility processed children accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Sometimes the center, located next to a Catholic church, served as many as 200 people a day. Other days the numbers went down as low as 40.
The families were issued new clothes, offered food by the Salvation Army, shelter tents, and then a shuttle bus to the local Greyhound station. There they would be sent as far away as Washington State to Rhode Island, where a family member or friend lived who had purchased tickets for them. Each migrant was given a court date that would determine their legal status.
Almost all the families came from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, but others came from disparate places such as Brazil, Albania and Cuba.
The center was filled with children, said Wagner, mostly with their mothers, sometimes with their fathers.
Why did they undertake what has been documented to be a perilous journey, where so many have been victims of accidents, extortion and the unscrupulous who take advantage of their vulnerability?
“Most are saying it’s because of the violence, poverty and fear for their children’s lives,” said Wagner. Why the migrants made it to Texas was peripheral to his task. Wagner focused on what had to be done to smooth their transition to wherever they eventually end up.
Wagner’s experience – eight years in the military combined with leadership in Sandy storm relief and knowledge of Spanish – has trained him to “seeing the task at hand and getting it done.”
By July 25, he was prepared to leave Texas and return to his duties with Catholic Charities in Vineland. Still, the influx of migrants remained unabated. “I don’t see any end in sight,” he said.
Asked how he would advise President Obama or the leaders of Congress about handling the crisis, Wagner said his time in Texas provided no easy solutions. “I have no idea. I don’t know what the answer is.”
He does know, however, that Americans sharing God’s love through the work of agencies such as Catholic Charities will be essential in resolving the crisis.
What’s happening in McAllen is a small witness to that effect.
Because of Catholic Charities, Wagner noted in an email, the migrants “start to see the true compassion from everyone here and that we really are here to help them and not take advantage of them, as so many people were in their journey.”