Our Lady of Refuge
Trip Start Nov 25, 2006
103Trip End Ongoing
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Paul & I were interested to meet Fr. Jim, who gained some fame for his defiant, pro-immigrant stance. He shared frankly and freely with us about life in Eagle Pass. "The stream of illegal immigrants has dried up here, " he told us. "It's not even a trickle...more like a drop." When they came, he housed and fed them...did whatever needed to be done.
Why the change? See the following ABC World News story. And underneath it is a cut from the Dallas Morning News explaining the crucifix displayed in Our Lady of Refuge Church. Read on!
from ABC World News: May 2, 2006 - Border patrol agents in Eagle Pass, Texas, had been frustrated for years, because hundreds of illegal immigrants a day would pour across the border, taking advantage of a loophole to get into the United States.
Border patrol agent Martin Clark said it astounded him.
"There were no unhappy faces ... everyone was trying to get caught," Clark said. "People were running toward us, not away from us."
The problem was simple: The border patrol station in Eagle Pass has no jail space to hold illegal immigrants. That didn't matter when illegal immigrants from Mexico were caught, because they could be processed and then just bused back across the border.
But the procedure to return people from El Salvador or Nicaragua or Brazil is more complicated, so all that a border patrol agent could do was elicit a promise from them to return for a court date for a formal deportation hearing, which meant they were free to go, and rarely did they show up for ourt dates. The loophole was dubbed "catch and release," and it frustrated many border patrol agents.
"There was a five-mile area specifically where these OTM's, 'other than Mexicans,' were flooding in," Commissioner for Customs and Border Patrol David Aguilar said. "Their perception was that they could be apprehended by the U.S. border patrol, and if there was a lack of detention space, we were obligated to release them on what is known as their own recognizance."
Their perception was reality until four months ago, when a dramatic "zero tolerance" crackdown called Operation Streamline began.
The border patrol has instituted a blanket policy of prosecuting in federal court anyone caught coming across the border. Detaining people for up to six months was initially expensive and overwhelmed the prisons and the courts. But now it is working.
"If the system can sustain the initial shock, the deterrent effect will come in and we will have less numbers and that is what we experience now," Clark said.
Since Operation Streamline went into effect, nearly 1,000 immigrants crossing illegally have been jailed. Once they appear before a federal magistrate they either are sentenced to jail or deported to their home country.
In the past four months, the number of illegal immigrants trying to cross in Eagle Pass has dropped by nearly 70 percent.
To Help or Not to Help?
There are dozens of monitors in the sophisticated control room of the border patrol office in Eagle Pass. Agents scan the monitors constantly looking for anyone trying to sneak across. There is almost nothing happening.
One agent pulls up to the processing center. He has found a group of 10 Mexicans trying to cross. Their clothes are tattered, some of them are carrying jugs of water, and they clearly don't have much. In Houston immigrants working as day laborers can earn $10 an hour, cash, no questions asked. But these immigrants will have to try again, because they will be shipped right back to Mexico.
Father James Loiacono does what he can to help. He is the pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church, which is just four blocks away from the Rio Grande. He says people often knocked at his door lost, desperately hungry and thirsty. He said he has no choice but to help. Do the math, he said.
"I could go to jail for six years for giving a cup of water to a thirsty illegal immigrant, or I could rot in hell for eternity," he said.
But he has noticed a difference in the number of people showing up looking for help since the border patrol changed its policy.
"What is happening is the flow has really cut down tremendously. They really tightened the tap here," he said.
'Fence Ain't Going to Hold 'Em Back'
Albert Ellis is a rancher who lives on the border. He said he approved of zero tolerance, and believed it made more sense than building a wall along the border.
"Actually, some of the ranchers don't care much for the fence 'cause their cattle drink out of the Rio Grande," he said. "The fence ain't going to hold 'em [illegal immigrants] back, but that detention center will hold back some."
But others on the front lines said this zero tolerance policy and detention centers are too harsh.
"If we turn them away, it is not only what we do to these poor people, but it is what we do to ourselves intrinsically as human beings, we have harmed ourselves," Loiacono said.
Back at Our Lady of Refuge, Father Loiacono walks to a small chapel at the rear of the sanctuary where a life-sized statue of the crucified Jesus rests - his affirmation that he and the church have taken the right path.
Two years ago, Border Patrol agents found the statue snagged in the reeds along the bank of the Rio Grande. After no one claimed it, the image came to Our Lady of Refuge to stay.
"This is our Cristo indocumentado," Father Loiacono said. "People come for hundreds of miles to see it, the pray before it. No one knows where it came from...But it reminds us that Christ, too, is a refugee and that every stranger who comes to our door is a child of God."