Teens assist asylum seekers
Church youth group takes service trip
By Angie Landsverk
A group of teenagers from St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church saw firsthand what is happening on the country’s southern border during their Young Neighbors in Action service trip.
Alex Dremel, Isabella Elandt, Daniel Esch, Matthew Kapral, Thomas Katuin, Jack Snider and Caleb Studzinski volunteered at Casa Alitas in Tucson, Arizona, from June 23-30.
“It really changed how I see everything,” Studzinski said.
Casa Alitas is a home where immigrants who enter the United States through legal ports of entry stay before connecting with family or friends in the country.
The migrants who stay there a few days are seeking asylum in the United States due to their lives being in danger in their home countries.
Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona donated the three-bedroom house in 2014.
It staffs the shelter, housing various families every week with the help of volunteers such as this Young Neighbors in Action group.
Young Neighbors in Action is a week-long summer learning experience for high school students that provides a Catholic approach to service and justice.
The students were accompanied by chaperones Carrie Esch and Mary Ann Snider.
Betty Manion, who just retired as St. Mary Magdalene’s religious education director, was the Young Neighbors in Action program director for this site.
“Our faith is bigger than just our community,” Manion said in explaining why the parish believes it is important for its students to go on service trips.
Students from the parish serve the local community by doing such things as volunteering at Project Backpack and the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King, she said.
“But they need to see that as Catholic Christians, they need to serve all their brothers and sisters, not just those in their community,” Manion said. “Young Neighbors gives them a taste of serving all. They become better servants here in this community.”
St. Mary Magdalene has been doing service trips for 27 years, she said.
For the last 24 years, those trips have been through Young Neighbors in Action.
Students have gone to communities throughout the country, including to Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit, Washington, D.C. and to a Winnebago reservation in Nebraska.
“The kids choose the city in the fall,” Manion said.
When they chose Tucson last fall, they did not know where they would go, or what they would do.
About a week before they left, they learned they would be volunteering at Casa Alitas.
There some of the teens worked on one of the sheds on the property, bracing one of its walls, raising its ceiling and building shelves and support beams.
Studzinski said they set it up so it is easy for the immigrants to access everything.
The rest of the group sorted and organized the donated clothing by types and ages.
“In between, they played with the children,” Manion said. “Their first job was they were the face of Christ.”
Six of the seven students on the trip have studied Spanish during high school.
Carrie Esch said a 17-year-old boy wanted to be with them and helped them paint one of the sheds.
“We pieced together stories,” Jack Snider said. “He was from Honduras. He spent 15 days on a bus and waited in line at a port of entry for two days.”
Manion said, “When they present themselves at the border, they are given a number. If they stop before their number, they come back tomorrow and start all over again.”
Mary Ann Snider said Casa Alitas is one of eight such shelters in the country.
During the week they volunteered there, they saw six families.
“They typically were one parent and a child,” she said.
Most of the families staying there are from Guetemala, Honduras and Brazil.
Elandt said they are fleeing violence.
“They don’t want to join the cartel,” Studzinski said.
Manion said when they cross at a legal port of entry to seek asylum, they have a 10-minute conversation with border patrol.
“They tell their story to border patrol,” she said. “They need someone here to sponsor them. It’s typically a family member. The adult gets an ankle bracelet.”
They then have 14 days to get to their sponsor, Manion said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement drops the immigrants off at the shelter, she said.
There they receive clothes, a meal, a bed to sleep in, assistance communicating with their sponsors and a ride to the bus station.
Those working at Casa Alitas also help translate the information on their bus tickets.
The students and chaperones learned a lot about the immigration process.
“It takes forever,” Studzinski said.
Prior to the trip, he questioned why people try to enter the United States illegally.
“I didn’t recognize how long it took,” he said. “If I were in their spot, I would run across, too.”
Manion said, “All of our ancestors immigrated here.”
Some did so because of hardships.
“Many weren’t fleeing such danger. These people are trying to flee for their lives,” she said. “Different cultures have been oppressed, but this is imminent danger. They’re coming here literally to protect their families.”
“Sometimes the child will be able to stay with a family member. The parent knows they will get deported, and then they start the process again with another child,” she said.
When men are put in detention, they are glad because they are safe and have a bed and food, she said.
Manion said they learned no case is the same.
“It’s long and broken,” Studzinski said.
Mary Ann Snider said, “The process is so long. It was set up for one person on occasion to seek asylum. There’s different layers. It’s not set up for thousands of people. We need to help fix their countries, and our drug issues here.”
Trip impacts students
The trip impacted the students in various ways.
Studzinski said it will affect how he votes in the future.
Kapral enjoyed being with the children and teenagers and letting them have someone to be around.
He did not know the immigration process was as complicated as it is.
Kapral plans to share his experience with his community and is working on a presentation for his Key Club at Wild Rose High School.
The students will also talk about their experience with their parish and plan to hold a sock and underwear drive for Casa Alitas, and seek donations for the house, which operates on a $50,000 annual budget.
“It comes down to Catholic Social Teaching, the respect and dignity of every person,” Manion said.
Each summer, students from the parish help others in different ways.
They see poverty, and this summer saw how the immigration issue is playing out in the country.
“It’s so broad. It literally changes lives,” Manion said of Young Neighbors in Action. “They’ll never watch TV the same. They’ll never vote the same way. They’ll look at things differently in their own high school.”