I work at La Puente Shelter three days a week, and I never know what my day is going to be like when I show up for my shift. We prepare and serve three meals a day, check guests in and out, strip beds, clean rooms, and give out hygiene kits and gas vouchers. We also talk with guests to see what kind of progress they are making on resolving their situations, making referrals and offering guidance and support. We open our doors to men and women trying to get back on their feet after a hard time. Many guests are suffering from mental illnesses, are recovering from substance abuse, have served in the military, or have been victims of abuse. But one of the largest populations we serve is the migrant workers who come to the San Luis Valley to earn money working on our farms.
Agriculture is the number one industry in the valley, and it would cease to thrive without these migrant farm workers. The majority of the migrants we serve at the shelter have left their families behind in Mexico to follow the harvest around the country, picking the produce that lines the shelves of our grocery stores. Many are undocumented workers. Some may have walked for days through the harsh desert, jumped the border wall, and hid from border patrol, all in search of nothing more than a means to provide for their families. A few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to spend a week on both sides of the US/Mexico border with the ASC Newman Club for their alternative spring break, learning about immigration and the issues faced by both countries.
We spent the week in the Tucson area with a group called BorderLinks, meeting with Samaritans who, having decided they could no longer sit back and let people die in their backyards, started doing humanitarian work on the border. We talked with migrants looking for day labor, met Mexicans who had just been caught by border patrol and deported, and saw the wall on the border up close. We participated in a powerful vigil honoring those who have died trying to cross, witnessed migrants being criminally prosecuted in court, walked through the desert picking up items left behind by walkers, and listened to countless stories of complete desperation. We met people who one day packed a backpack with their hopes and dreams, said goodbye to their wives and children, and headed north – only to get there and be met with prejudice, homelessness, and innumerable obstacles in every direction. Contrary to very popular belief, the people who are coming across the border do not want to be American, chase the “American Dream”, get government assistance, or take advantage of our country. They want to work. They want to support their families. They want to feed their children. They want the same things that most Americans don’t have to want for. Struggling to put food on their own tables, they come to tirelessly tend to the crops that end up on our plates.
The trip to the border was an incredible learning experience that has left every one of us changed. When I work at the shelter, I always think about our guests and community members, what has happened in their lives that have brought them to our doorstep, and how much strength and courage it takes for most people to ask for our help. But now when a migrant comes in, looking for a place to sleep after long days stooped over in the field, I can’t help but wonder what their journey has been like. How did they cross? Have they met racism or been harassed along the way? Are they making enough money to send home? Will they be reunited with their families soon?
It’s my job as a La Puente volunteer, and of my own sense of personal obligation, to treat every guest and community member with compassion and respect. I urge everyone to do the same, by putting aside the politics and the border wall debates, by stepping back and seeing with new perspective, that we are all human beings with the same rights to a full and dignified life. For more information about BorderLinks and border issues, visit their website at www.borderlinks.org