It’s about 7 in the morning when the sun begins to rise, welcoming and warming the men, women and children who are setting up to spend the day on the sidewalks along Father Rahm and Oregon streets.
At the corner, Luis Avila sets up different colored canopy tents, placing cases of bottled water, a stock pot filled with hot coffee and boxes of cold burritos, sandwiches and potato chips on white folding tables. On this day in late January, there’s also yogurt, cookies and ramen soup cups.
A pastor at Palabra Viva New Life Ministries, Avila sets up the food station for the migrants around Sacred Heart Catholic Church in South El Paso who’ll soon line up for a meal and a prayer.
“We’re here to serve our brothers and sisters day-to-day,” said Avila, who’s volunteered to serve the migrants every day since mid-November. He hasn’t missed a day, spending weekends, Thanksgiving and Christmas there. “It’s our calling, first and foremost out of our love of God, and second, out of our love for people.”
Avila and Freddy Flores, a parishioner at the Palabra Viva Christian church, continue to help the migrants congregated around Sacred Heart. They were there when a historic number of migrants arrived in El Paso.
They’ve seen the migrant numbers dwindle from more than 500 to a few dozen as immigration policies changed and law enforcement presence at the border grew. And they’ve seen many detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents who’ve cracked down in the area, they said.
“That’s the most heartbreaking part,” said Flores, 50, putting his hand to his heart. “They made it this far, and just by being on the other side of the street they’re picked up.You see the fear and disappointment in their eyes.”
The two men are often helped by a handful of area pastors, parishioners and community members who regularly bring food, clothes, toiletries and other basic necessities to the migrants stranded there – many of whom entered the country without being processed by Border Patrol and without money to travel outside the area. Others volunteer directly with and through the church, which opens its gymnasium to migrants at night.
But Avila and Flores are two constants, having not missed a day since mid-November – sometimes volunteering there for more than 12 hours straight.
“We wake up, they’re here. It gets dark or cold, and they’re here,” said Jovana, a 27-year-old Venezuelan who has stayed at Sacred Heart since arriving in El Paso three weeks ago. “It’s nice to see them here everyday helping us after all we’ve been through to get here.”
Avila has been in their shoes.
He is an immigrant from Mexico who for years worked in the lettuce and strawberry fields in Salinas, California before coming to El Paso more than two decades ago.
“I understand their needs, their situation. I felt the desperation for a better life. I also suffered,” said the 55-year-old Avila, who’s served as a pastor for 13 years. “When we saw these migrants out here, there was no question we had to come help.”
His wife, Ruth, and their four grown children also often stop by to help and know being apart from them is part of the sacrifice Avila makes to help others.
Avila and his wife also minister and volunteer in Juárez, where it’s estimated some 20,000 migrants from South and Central America are waiting for a chance to request asylum in the United States. They pass out burritos from their car window as they drive around Downtown Juárez on their way to set up tables with food and water for up to 200 people at a shelter near the border. They also help run a shelter at the Ministerios Palabra Viva church that accommodates 25 people.
“It’s much more overwhelming there now,” Avila said. “The need is incredible.”
Flores, an immigrant from Mexico, lived in Miami for 20 years and started his family there before coming to El Paso years ago. Seeing the migrants arrive with nothing but the clothes on their backs drew him to help.
“They have no water, no food, nowhere to go, nowhere to stay, nowhere to sleep,” Flores said. “Our sacrifice being here to serve every day doesn’t compare to their journeys.”
One of the satisfactions Flores gets from his work is hearing from migrants through social media or messaging applications once they’ve reached their next destination.
“To see they’ve made it safely where they were going is rewarding,” he said. “That they express gratitude for the welcome and help they received here is even more so.”
The two men say they are blessed by people from all over El Paso – as well as people from cities across the nation – who continue to drop off donations for the migrants and often offer them words of support for their work.
Their work is rewarding, they said, although often tiring and emotionally draining.
“We’ve gone home crying,” Avila said. “We try to serve but what we do is not enough. What hits hardest is seeing the children living out here on the streets, cold, hungry. Their needs can’t be met out here. We can only provide some food, clothing, prayer. We leave here with tears in our eyes.”
How much longer do the two men plan on volunteering?
“We will be out here as long as it takes,” Avila said. “As long as it takes.”