For migrants who have been tortured, kidnapped or shot on the journey to asylum in the United States, Catholic nuns Zita Telkamp and Therese Cunningham are a miracle. The two women run a migrant shelter called La Posada Providencia near Brownsville. As the drug war has become increasingly brutal in Mexico and Central America, the sisters are frequently called upon by agents at the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to shelter migrants who are applying for asylum or residency.
“If you have a heart at all, it breaks your heart,” says Cunningham, 66. Violence against migrants traveling to the United States used to be the exception, but no longer, she said. Recently U.S. border agents asked the nuns to take in a mother and her two teenage children from Mexico. Members of a drug cartel had tried to recruit her teenage son and threatened to kill the mother if the boy didn’t comply. So the terrified family left that night with nothing but their clothes, swimming the Rio Grande to Texas.
On another day, Telkamp shuttled a Guatemalan woman from doctors’ appointments to an immigration lawyer’s office. The young woman had been held by smugglers in a nearby Texas town, then shot in the stomach. She was undergoing reconstructive surgery and applying for asylum.
The shelter has 12 beds, but often has more clients than room. Some might stay for a night; others stay up to a year. “We are more comprehensive than just three hots and a cot,” says Telkamp, a retired St. Louis high school principal. “We take people to legal meetings, offer basic education and language classes, and help them get work permits and get accustomed to the new culture.”
While demand for the shelter has increased, the sisters’ budget, mostly funded by private foundations and donations, has gone down 50 percent because of the recession—making their job even more challenging.
“Immigrants have been demonized and criminalized with the Arizona immigration law,” says Cunningham. “They’re being preyed upon by criminal elements and being harassed on both sides of the border. I admire their courage and their great faith that somehow God will guide them through all of this.”