Immigrants And Refugees
Immigrants and Refugees

Mario Russell – Out in the Desert, Part 2

Intake Center in Tijuana, MX

When Mario Russell, Director of Immigration and Refugee Services for Catholic Charities of New York, traveled to the US/Mexico border he got an eye-opening sense of the current status of immigration troubles there. In “Mario Russell – Out in the Desert, Part 1” we talked about Mario’s findings on the US side of the border and in the Casa Alita immigrant shelter where we met Luis, an immigrant who paid his own ransom and that of his daughter to organized criminals, leaving his wife and three other children, just to be able to flee the country on the chance of finding refuge in America.


The trek to the border can last many, many days depending on where their journey began from. Beginning with the situation that caused them to flee their homes, the people making this trip face all manner of hardships – hardships most of us can’t imagine. Kidnapping and ransoms, sexual violence and other crimes, not to mention the harsh environmental challenges.

Mario found that the detention facilities, the miserable long-term housing for immigrants as they await their day in court, had moved from the US side of the border to the Mexican side. This creates a new layer of difficulty, not just for immigrants but for those whose vocation is to support these people. Since the wait for a legal hearing can stretch to as much as two years, many families (more often partial than complete) have to make due as best they can. But help from American volunteers is considerably harder to deliver, if not outright impossible, when the people needing the help are in another country.


At another place of respite, this one in Tijuana Mexico, people draw lots for a chance to be seen by a judge. At Al Otro Lado people make the best of a hard situation. Because the need for legal services are in such high demand, only 1 in 10 are likely to get access to them.

Mario is a lawyer. He’s heard many stories in the Immigration and Refugee services. On his journey to understand the plight of immigrants and refugees he has met many people with legitimate reasons to want asylum. He spoke, for instance, to a woman in Mexico, a mother of 5 children who had cousins who had been murdered and she herself was a victim of sexual violence. It is hard to imagine a society where that is not blood curdling and terrible, but at the border, those seeking new lives are leaving behind such terrible circumstances.

With so many stories of need you would think a system put in place to provide asylum would help more people. Of all the cases of migrants desiring to cross the US/Mexico border into the United States – approximately 1 million between October 2018 through October 2019 according to Customs and Border Protection – only 0.1% are granted lawful entry.


Catholic Charities of New York knows that many of the people who come across the border come to New York City. CCNY can’t stop the private border patrols in the southwest deserts from ‘hunting down’ immigrants with guns and ATVs, or stop them from sabotaging the water supplies left for travels in the desert to help them survive. What CCNY can do is continue to provide legal help, provide caseworkers, ESL classes, school enrollment and the many more services made available to help new Americans find independence and stability in their new homes.

Every act of good will creates ripples in the water. Some of those ripples will reach the most desperate needy people. So we can’t lose hope.