I work for an agency called Catholic Charities. Casa San Juan is a program of Catholic Charities that operates a facility that houses undocumented persons going through immigration trials as material witnesses. These persons are in the custody of the US Attorney and are being held to testify against smugglers from Mexico.
Recently, I had the privilege of visiting this facility. I was graciously given a tour of the building which consisted largely of rooms filled with beds for the residents. A common room, kitchen, and dining room were located downstairs, and were where the residents spent most of their time. Each resident usually spends approximately 3 weeks at Casa San Juan as they await their date in court to testify. These individuals are testifying against individuals involved in the smuggling business, often times against the very drivers who crammed them into compartments built into trunks, seats, and engines to elude detection. These precarious transportation arrangements don’t uncommonly result in serious injury.
As I walked through the halls, heard the stories, and saw the faces of those housed there, I was struck by their humanity. I saw past their numbered sweatsuits and noticed their smiles, even if they were smiles and giggles at the white boy touring their temporary apartment. Their stories were real and their reasons for attempting an illegal border crossing seemed compulsory. The dream of being able to provide for their hungry children was too close at hand to forget. $1500 will get you a shot at the United States, and the “American Dream.” However ill-informed their notion of the American Dream may be, their impetus for attempting to cross the border seemed noble in many cases I heard.
What was most beautiful at Casa San Juan, besides the faces of the women and children, was the display of hospitality. Hospitality is complicated and profound, and something that Jacques Derrida has taught me a lot about. It was refreshing to experience an environment where those who have been apprehended by border officials are treated as people who are inherently deserving of dignity and respect and utmost hospitality. So often politicians and media personnel, and the whole of society, lose sight of the fact that undocumented immigrants are as much human as any of us. Unfortunately, they are simply labeled as 'illegal aliens.' There are certainly (created and false) distinctions between the women staying there and those of us who live in San Diego. They must wear sweat suits, they are at the beck and call of attorneys and officers, and they have experienced an often-harrowing journey to the United States. But it seems that many barriers between 'us' and 'them' have been pulled down at Casa San Juan. It's profound that the 'us and them' distinction is blurred at Casa San Juan given that the immigration system is built upon that distinction.
The mission statement of Casa San Juan is profound: Casa San Juan exists to provide housing in a home like setting, treating its residents with dignity and respecting individuals cultures while creating an environment that gives hope.
Hospitality shown to the undocumented persons housed at Casa San Juan is hopeful. Hope amidst a time of crisis. I believe that hospitality and hope is a glimpse of what our world was intended to be.