Immigration elicits many different perspectives and opinions in our country, and it truly is a hot-button political issue right now: Witness the partial government shutdown going on right now, largely over the fight for border wall funding. Regardless of your particular political view on the matter, I pose this question to our readers: If your family was put in a desperate situation like those currently fleeing their countries because of poverty, safety, oppression or injustice, what would you do?
Gabriela Quintanilla made her way north to the U.S. border as a 13-year-old. She brought with her two siblings, ages 8 and 4, that were in her care. They were fleeing El Salvador, a volatile Central American country.
With neither money nor possessions, the trio reached the Texas border with a group of others after a month-long journey involving buses and walking.
Now 25, Gabriela has come a long way — literally and figuratively. From knowing not a single word of English to now possessing a college degree, she currently works at Rural and Migrant Ministries in Lyons as Associate Coordinator for Western New York. She owns permanent residency status in the United States, and is slated to become a U.S. citizen later this year.
While Gabriela is now living the American Dream, it’s become part of her personal mission to give back to society. She hopes, even in a small way, that she can make a positive difference.
It was that perilous journey early in life that, in part, motivated and inspired her to travel to El Paso, Texas, the last two weeks of December to assist the poorest of the poor.
She has connected in Texas with Annunciation House, an organization that receives about 1,500 new immigrants a week. Annunciation House is a hospitality center that provides refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers a place to stay, to take showers, to obtain a clean set of clothes, to eat meals, and to help in contacting other family members who live in the United States. The refugees at the U.S.-Mexican border are many of the world’s most vulnerable people, unable to receive much if any help from their home countries.
Before arriving at the border, their daily reality often was poverty, injustice and oppression.
For her trip down south Gabriela used vacation time. She was provided housing and meals. She worked 10-hour days helping refugees that have been through the Immigration and Customs Enforcement process and have been released with an assigned court date.
At intake, she reviews immigration papers before helping refugees contact family or friends in the United States, who in turn need to arrange for a bus or plane ticket. Accuracy is of the utmost importance. The smallest of errors can bring the entire process to a halt.
Gabriela is staying at one of the women’s shelters — meaning, in a way, she is assisting 24/7. Being bilingual and in such close contact has created a greater trust with some of the women and children.
One thing Gabriela hears a lot about is the “ice box.” When refugees are detained by ICE, sometimes for a period of up to eight days, nearly all of them complain about the cold temperatures and how little is offered in the way of blankets, coats, etc. to help stay warm.
Many refugees are sick when they arrive at Annunciation House, which in turn resulted in Gabriela being under the weather during much of her time in Texas. She persevered — and did not miss a day of helping out.
Many of the more than 400 people she had assisted at the time we talked have gone from feeling helpless to hopeful after their release from ICE. Some credit their transformation to a strong faith in God.
When I asked Gabriela if the trip to Texas resulted in any negative flashbacks from her childhood trek, she answered that it did. When she visited Tornillo, Texas — where the Trump administration created a tent city to house the overflow of immigrant children, many of whom have been separated from their parents — Gabriela admitted to being overwhelmed emotionally.
Nonetheless, she felt El Paso was a place where she really needed to be. Volunteers there are in short supply, and her own experience crossing the border and integrating into American society made her feel like she might be able to provide some hope to those who need it most.