Dinner guests learn about immigrants

PHOTO BY MARYANN KROMER Sister Linda Schekelhoff points out the area covered by the Diocese of San Cristobal de Las Cases in Chiapas, Mexico, during the annual Beans and Rice Dinner Monday night at St. Francis.

The Canticle Café at St. Francis was serving typical Hispanic dishes Monday evening for the 29th annual Beans and Rice Dinner. Following the meal was a program about “Immigration on Mexico’s Southern Border and in the United States.”

The speakers were two Franciscan sisters who work with immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Sister Linda Schekelhoff is a pastoral minister for the Diocese of San Cristobal de las Cases, La Trinitania, located in Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico.

Now employed at St. Anthony/All Saints Church in Canton, Sister Karen Lindenberger also has worked at the border crossing in El Paso, Texas. Now a pastoral minister to the Hispanic contingent of the Ohio parish, she said many of the adults she serves have been in the United States illegally for decades. She said recent enforcement efforts have generated fear among these families.

Speaking first, Schekelhoff used a map showing the state of Chiapas, which shares a border with Guatemala. She said the majority of immigrants in Chiapas are from Guatamala, with a few others from Nicaragua, Honduras and South America. She noted the caravan that passed though Mexico last fall did not come through San Cristobal.

The diocese operates five shelters for these travelers. Some are passing through to reach destinations farther north in Mexico or in the U.S. Others are requesting asylum in Mexico. A third group are seasonal workers who work in Mexico and then return to Guatemala. Schekelhoff said these workers do not qualify for any state benefits during their stays.

The migrants’ reasons for leaving their home countries include unemployment, low wages, economic inequality, natural disasters, gang violence, domestic violence and other criminal activity. Widespread corruption among law officers, courts and government officials allows offenders to break laws with impunity. Victims have told her they get no justice.

Schekelhoff said sometimes, children whose parents have left them behind come into Chiapas unaccompanied in hopes of being reunited with loved ones. Whatever their reasons, those who cross the borders face many perils.

“There’s a lot of corruption, all the way along,” Schekelhoff said.

She described how some cling to the top of rail cars of “the beast” or “death trains,” while others are packed into vans, semi-trailers and other vehicles. She said many land in detention centers, where they may experience assaults, rape, murder and extortion.

In any case, most of the travelers have been traumatized by the time they reach Chiapas. Schekelhoff said Mexican citizens generally are sympathetic and compassionate to immigrants. At the shelters, people receive clean clothing, basic supplies, health care, counseling, legal aid and employment services.

Coming to the podium, Lindenberger spoke first about her time in Texas, where the people also show concern for new arrivals. She said the motto of El Paso is “Not one migrant in our streets.” Church groups, individuals and employees from restaurants and businesses donated and prepared food for those coming into the community.

Most of the people crossing through were sick from traveling in harsh conditions or from lack of care in detention centers, which they called “refrigerators.” Lindenberger said they wore ankle monitors and carried their belongings in plastic trash bags. Although discouraged and depressed, she said the migrants displayed a “heavy thread of gratitude,” rather than anger.

Working at a shelter, Lindenberger and another Franciscan sister served as much food as they could gather and prepare. They also recorded identification for their guests and helped them contact relatives who could house them or send money for bus tickets.

Many of the travelers told harrowing stories, especially their fear of being denied entry. Lindenberger said some had sold everything in their homeland and would have nothing to go back to. She expressed hope that our immigration system could be improved to lessen the shame and suffering among those going through it.

“They are peace-loving people who only want a better life for their children,” Lindenberger said.

The same goes for Hispanic parishioners in Canton. Lindenberger said Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have been actively seeking illegal workers in the city. Construction sites are a favorite target, she said, and some homes have been entered in early morning hours.

At the end of the program, those attending discussed what Americans can do to express their objections to harsh immigration policies. Contacting our senators and representatives was encouraged, along with supporting agencies and individuals who assist immigrants.