West Texas’ ‘Fill the Stocking’ drive hopes to bring holiday cheer to migrant children

By Shireen Korkzan
Posted Dec 14, 2020

[Episcopal News Service] Amid an unusual Advent season due to COVID-19, more than 600 migrants and asylum-seekers — 300 of which are children as identified by an internal census — sit in rat-infested tent encampments and shelters along the U.S.-Mexico border awaiting approval to enter the United States through one of Texas’ 28 international bridges and border crossings.

In an attempt to bring some Christmas cheer to the children detained in Matamoros and Reynosa, Mexico, Texas-based organizations the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas’ Immigration & Refugee Ministries and Team Brownsville, along with Mexico-based Senda de Vida Ministry, are hosting a Llena la Media “Fill the Stocking” donation drive to provide some basic necessities and fun goodies.

The goal is to collect and fill at least 400 stockings with small toys, musical instruments, coloring pencils and crayons, socks, headbands, jewelry and toiletries before distributing them on Christmas.

Andrea Rudnik, co-founder of Team Brownsville, an interfaith charitable nonprofit based in Brownsville, Texas, located directly across the border from Matamoros, said the Christmas stocking initiative helps to give migrant children a sense of normalcy during the holiday season.

“These kids will not go without presents, and we want them to know that Santa hasn’t forgotten about them,” said Rudnik, a lifelong Episcopalian. “There’s always so much excitement among the families even though they live on the margins.”

Flor Saldivar, West Texas’ coordinator for Immigration & Refugee Ministries, told ENS that the stocking initiative is one way to help Episcopalians connect to the immigrants and migrants in their communities.

“Something as seemingly small as filling stockings for children is a way to love and serve our neighbors, and that’s our calling as Episcopalians,” Saldivar said.

Supporting asylum-seekers has become a priority of all the Episcopal dioceses along the border.

The West Texas diocese covers 69,000 square miles of central and south Texas, including 500 miles of the 1,254-mile southern border separating Texas and Mexico. It serves migrants detained in Matamoros and Reynosa, across from Brownsville and McAllen, respectively. The diocese, Team Brownsville and Senda de Vida donate basic necessities, including food, clothing, blankets and personal hygiene products, year-round to assist refugees and asylum-seekers detained in those areas while they wait to apply for entry into the United States.

Team Brownsville, formed in 2018 in response to the humanitarian crisis affecting migrants and asylum-seekers on both sides of the border, started “Fill the Stocking” in 2019 as a way to help migrant children living in the encampments in Matamoros. This is the first year that Immigration & Refugee Ministries and Senda de Vida Ministry are participating, as well as the first year that stockings will be donated to children also staying in shelters in Reynosa.

Unlike last year, when several volunteers could easily cross the border to donate stockings, Rudnik said that only a select few can go this year because of strict COVID-19 protocols. Upwards of 3,000 migrants occupied weather-battered tents in Matamoros earlier this year before the U.S. government responded to the pandemic with travel restrictions and immigration court proceeding suspensions. Less than 700 migrants are currently residing in the encampments, according to a census conducted every two weeks by managers of small stores on-site that distribute goods supplied by nonprofit organizations to migrants.

About 56 miles northwest of Matamoros and Brownsville, McAllen, Texas-based nonprofit Acción de Gracia Immigration Assistance provides free and low-cost immigration services to residents in the Rio Grande Valley. Operating in partnership with Grace Episcopal Church in Weslaco, Texas, Acción de Gracia will donate at least 50 filled stockings to children currently residing at Senda de Vida Ministry, a nondenominational Christian organization in Reynosa that provides food and temporary shelter to migrants in need. Families never know how long they can stay at Senda de Vida before having to leave, but according to immigration attorney Kenna Giffin, they typically stay for a couple of weeks.

Giffin founded Acción de Gracia in 2017 to raise awareness of the migrants in Reynosa, a border area she says is often ignored or forgotten about.

“[The children are] very much in a state of flux right now. … That’s where Acción de Gracia tries to help out,” Giffin said. “It helps the kids if we can get their families processed and settled somewhere so they can get their lives together again and set on a more stable pathway.”

Rudnik and Saldivar say that most Americans are unaware of the ongoing humanitarian crisis at the southern border and that not all asylum-seekers are coming from Latin America; they include people from all over the world, including but not limited to Haiti, Bangladesh and Angola. Some migrants are seeking economic opportunities while others are fleeing persecution based on religious and political beliefs and sexual identity, violence and organized crime, climate change and other extreme weather events like hurricanes.

Rudnik, a retired Brownsville public school teacher, said that children particularly suffer living in uncertain conditions, and her work with Team Brownsville mirrors the work she did as an educator for 30 years.

“Children are children, and we need to do whatever we can to give migrant children what they need, whether that’s providing education or food or anything,” she said. “It’s my calling as an educator, as a Christian and as a human being to make sure children get taken care of.”

– Shireen Korkzan is a Midwest-based freelance reporter who primarily writes about religion, race, ethnicity and social justice issues. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @smkrm5.