After fleeing violence in their Guatemalan town, but with their way to relatives in California blocked by continuing U.S. asylum restrictions, a family of 15 joined an Advent candlelight ceremony organized by their shelter just south of the border.
The evening service in the Buen Samaritano shelter’s small Methodist church, which doubles as cafeteria, didn’t quite compare with the weekslong Christmas celebrations they had loved in Nueva Concepcion. Those included fireworks, tamales made with freshly slaughtered pig and shared door-to-door with family, and villagers carrying aloft a statue of the Virgin Mary from the Catholic church to different homes each day, singing all the way.
“It’s difficult to leave those traditions behind, but they had to be abandoned at any rate,” said Marlon Cruz, 25, who had been a yucca and plantain farmer in Guatemala. “When you go from house to house and hear shots, because of that we would stay locked up at home.”
Tens of thousands of migrants who fled violence and poverty in their home countries are spending Christmas in crowded shelters or on the streets of Mexican border towns, where organized crime routinely targets them. It is especially cold for those living outside since winter temperatures have plunged over much of the U.S. and across the border.
The Biden administration asked the Supreme Court this week not to lift pandemic-era restrictions on asylum-seekers before the holiday weekend. A lower court had already granted the administration’s request to have until December 21 before rolling back the restrictions, known as Title 42. The restrictions have been used more than 2.5 million times to expel asylum-seekers who crossed into the U.S. illegally and to turn away most of those requesting asylum at the border.
It’s not clear when the court will decide. It’s also weighing a group of states’ request to keep the measure in place as migrant arrivals reach unprecedented numbers. In El Paso, Texas, record numbers either crossed undetected or were apprehended and released in recent weeks.
In response, the Texas National Guard was deployed this week at the border in downtown and will stay through Christmas, said First Sergeant Suzanne Ringle, though they’ll have time off to attend services chaplains will provide.
The city’s shelters are already packed beyond capacity, leaving little time for celebrations and many migrants camped out in the streets in below freezing weather.
At one such encampment, El Paso resident Daniel Morgan, 25, showed up this week in a Santa hat and a green sweater featuring bows and little stockings that he hoped “would spread a smile.”
“It’s a really complex issue that I’m no expert at,” Morgan said as he distributed to migrants a batch of about 100 sweets he had baked with Sam’s Club cookie mix. “Christ came to the world to give himself over to us and for me that’s like the whole reason for why I came down, to give out to other people what I have.”
The Rev. Brian Strassburger, a Jesuit priest who ministers to migrants on both sides of the border some 800 miles away in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, also saw parallels between the Holy Family’s journey and the experiences of the migrants who participated with him in a posada celebration at the Casa del Migrante shelter in Reynosa, Mexico.
Much beloved across Latin America, the posada commemorates Mary and Joseph’s search for shelter as they’re forced to travel from their village to Bethlehem before Jesus’s birth.
Four girls carried their statuettes around the shelter and dozens of other migrants – many of them pregnant women whose partners have had to camp in the streets for the lack of space – sang the call and response hymns about being a family with no place to stay and a pregnant woman left out in the cold.
“We kind of enact the posada every day,” said Strassburger, who also plans to celebrate Mass at shelters on Christmas Day.
Even the many families from Haiti, where posadas aren't popular, eagerly participated in the singing and the distribution of the small fried cakes called buñuelos that the Mexican Catholic nuns who run the shelter had prepared.
They also took turns swinging at a piñata, though the roughly 70 children enjoyed that the most.
“To see some bursting out laughing, it speaks to the joy brought to the world by Christ,” Strassburger said. “There was some relief, authentic joy. There’s a lot of anxiety and uncertainty they’re carrying.”
Edimar Valera, a 23-year-old mom from Venezuela who's been at the shelter for more than a month with her 2-year-old daughter as well as her mother and other relatives, said the posada provided a welcome break from a joyless period of waiting.
“It was cool, we all danced, we cracked open the piñata, we ate pizza with Coca Cola,” she said. “But to be here, obviously I'm sad, because it's not where I want to be.”
At a shelter for migrants and other homeless people in El Paso, Loreta Salgado found some reason for rejoicing, too, even though she’s left behind her family, including a son and grandchild, in their native Havana, Cuba, for over a year.
Salgado’s journey took her to eleven countries, from Brazil to Mexico. She went hungry, saw a companion die bitten by a snake, and was robbed and held hostage by masked men. The Cuban friend who had promised to help her on arrival in the United States has gone back on her promise, so Salgado has no money and no idea where to go.
“But I’m happy that I’m here, that I’m free, that I’m with good people,” she said.