The U.S.-Mexico border has always been a hub for immigration and a point of political contention. Most recently, an explosion in the number of children fleeing violence in Central America and crossing into the United States has sparked more debate. While politicians, advocates and policy analysts continue to address the root causes of migration, there are humanitarian and relief organizations — many of them with religious roots — that are focused on meeting the needs of migrants at the border. This is just a short list of the many groups that work tirelessly to show compassion, listen to migrants’ stories, and help meet their immediate needs. All of these organizations encourage volunteers, so consider a volunteer service trip to the border, or to an agency in your own community that reaches out to immigrants.
Kino Border Initiative (KBI)
The Kino Border Initiative is a partnership between many Catholic groups, but the cooperation between organizations on both sides of the border makes it unique. KBI has three houses where migrants can receive food, medical care, shelter and support in the undeniably arduous journey through the desert. There are many opportunities for college students interested in medicine and public health to spend time volunteering in the health clinics. The Migrant First Aid Center offers services specific to the needs of those crossing, such as caring for the injured feet of people who have walked so far, reminiscent of the foot washing of both Pope Francis and (most importantly) Jesus. Catholic bishops have shown their support for the migrants and this organization by celebrating Mass with them.
KBI also has a research branch, which collects information on the experiences of migrants, and works to expose abuses of the immigration system. They recently wrote an extensive report on the exploitation that many migrants face under current conditions. For example, about 25% of migrants said they had been mistreated by Border Patrol agents. Additionally, KBI found that many deportations have occurred without migrants being able to exercise their legal right to speak with their consulate first. This report additionally proposes solutions to improve the system, such as altering the deportation process to minimize separation of families. They want to avoid heartbreaking cases like that of Luisa, who was separated from her son, Pedro, after being taken into custody by the border patrol, and who has not yet been able to find him again.
Many individual dioceses, in conjunction with their local branches of Catholic Charities, offer programs to assist migrants in their journey. For example, the Diocese of Laredo helps migrants meet basic needs by providing food, water, clothing and mental health support. You can email their social services director to volunteer.
The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston supports migrants by creating “welcome kits,” which contain basic toiletries along with other supplies. Small gestures like this can help a person regain a sense of control in a situation where they may feel they lack it, as well as maintain personal hygiene in conditions that may not be optimal. Additionally, the archdiocese seeks volunteers to help with legal advocacy to ensure that migrants’ rights are respected. What may be most unique about the program is its emphasis on foster care. In a situation where so many children are torn away from their families, the archdiocese attempts to offer shelter and welcome for kids who feel alone. They are seeking volunteers to help in all of these capacities.
NNIRR approaches migrant justice from a research, policy and advocacy perspective. They work to prevent violence in immigration enforcement policies and advocate for women to have an equal voice in the immigration debate. Women have a unique story to tell in the migration journey, and they deserve to have their voices heard. NNIRR doesn’t focus exclusively on the issues at the U.S.-Mexico border, but works for justice for migrants everywhere. NNIRR offers student internships in the United States in many areas of interest. For example, they have a position focused on detainee correspondence, in which interns read and respond to letters NNIRR receives from migrants, honoring the dignity of people who may be told that they do not deserve it.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS)
The focus of CRS’s work is on sustainable changes and programs that can make a practical difference in the lives of migrants. CRS tries to protect migrants from the dangers they may face while crossing the border, such as dying from the heat and human trafficking. CRS also works to improve conditions for migrants living in the United States and in their home countries. In the border town of San Luis, the CRS project Manos Unidas (United Hands) worked with local dioceses to create CITA (Centro Independiente de Trabajadores Agrícolas or Independent Agricultural Workers’ Center), which helps migrants obtain visas so that they can work on U.S. farms along the border. They help to defray the prohibitively high cost ($400) of a visa for families through microfinance loans, which can support small farming initiatives and improve people’s lives.