My name is Juan Gamboa, and I serve as a Program Manager in the CWS Border and Asylum Team. I’m based in Harlingen, Texas, a small city near the U.S.-Mexico border. I was born and raised in Harlingen, and its proximity to the southern border has made immigration a part of my everyday life.
Many people believe that the border is this rigid line on the ground, but for those who live here it is not that simple. The border is fluid. It’s normal for people to cross to Mexico or to the United States for things like food, shopping or medical treatment. The same with seasonal immigration; there has always been a pattern of people coming to the United States for work and then heading back home to Mexico when the work season is over.
One of the many reasons why people immigrate to the United States is for a better life and more opportunities. I understand this, as it is what my family did 30 years ago.
I came back home after I graduated in 2019. I was a bit lost on how to start my career, and when the pandemic hit, things just shut down. I did know that I was interested in exploring work in the humanitarian field after hearing a presentation in college from a representative of the Borlaug Institute. It was in the middle of the pandemic that I read an article about an organization helping asylum seekers just 20 miles away from where I lived. I looked them up and saw that they were looking for a shelter manager for their respite program. I applied and was fortunate enough to be hired for the position not long after. The position was funded by a CWS grant, so this is how I first learned about CWS.
I wanted to work for CWS after seeing first-hand the type of work CWS does while working as a shelter manager. I saw a small sliver of the work CWS does while in that position, but since joining the team, I realize CWS’s work is much broader than I imagined. Being able to work on this larger scale and from a new perspective is engaging and fulfilling.
Recently, the Border and Asylum team gathered to visit four shelters that CWS supports in southwest Texas. Together, we visited Good Neighbor Settlement House in Brownsville, La Posada Providencia in San Benito, Loaves & Fishes in Harlingen and Holding Institute in Laredo. It was interesting to see the different dynamics and situations of each shelter.
Let me tell you a little bit about these organizations that we are proud to partner with to welcome new neighbors.
Our first visit was to Good Neighbor Settlement House. Originally opening in 1953, Good Neighbor first started as a community center and provided schooling for local kids in the area. Throughout the years, Good Neighbor changed their services as needs in the community changed. In 2018, when the city of Brownsville needed help with the larger numbers of people who were coming out of immigration detention, Good Neighbor stepped up to help. They provided meals, shelter, clothes and other services during that time. After a quieter period during the pandemic, things ramped up again in 2021 when the city of Brownsville asked Good Neighbor to enter into a unique partnership. The city provides a space where Good Neighbor opened and manages a welcome center just across from the bus station. They provide food, information and other basic resources as recently-arrived immigrants connect with their families or sponsors to arrange travel to their next destination. Good Neighbor also continues to support the broader Brownsville community with a soup kitchen and food bank.
The second shelter we visited was La Posada Providencia. La Posada Providencia opened in 1989 under the sponsorship of The Sisters of Divine Providence and has been providing services to asylum seekers since then. La Posada Providencia consists of a few houses on a large plot of land, where an asylum seeker typically stays a night or two, but they also work with asylum seekers who need longer term support. We got a tour of the facilities, and we were able to join staff and guests in the dining room for meal time. As it is a small shelter, they like to get everyone together, staff and guests, to share meals. This keeps the feeling of a family and home setting and allows space to create greater bonds and trust. I especially like the goal of the shelter to do creation care through recycling, composting, and growing their own food. La Posada is currently building a new shelter space that will allow them to double their capacity and serve more asylum seekers. I can’t wait to see how they grow.
The third shelter we visited was Loaves & Fishes right here in Harlingen. Opened in 1991, Loaves & Fishes’ primary mission has been helping neighbors experiencing homelessness or people with limited financial means in the community, but they have opened their doors to those seeking asylum as well. Due to their location, further north from the border, they don’t receive as many people, but they are always willing to help when needed. We got to tour the shelter and see the many services they provide. The majority of the asylum seekers that stay there only do so for one night as they have travel arrangements ready for the next day.
The fourth and last location we visited was The Holding Institute in Laredo. Originally opened in 1880 as a school, The Holding Institute has changed throughout the years. It became a community center, and now the team provides shelter and services to asylum seekers. Holding was quite a different situation compared to the other three3 shelters we visited. The city of Laredo was indifferent to the needs of people who are being released from Customs and Border Patrol custody, so they required Holding to handle everything regarding the asylum seekers, providing little support. All this leads to a large burden on Holding as it’s required to do everything that in the previous shelters is done by the local or federal government. Despite all this, Holding continues on doing their best for the many asylum seekers that arrive there with the support of the local community.
Visiting these shelters and meeting as a team has reaffirmed my decision to join CWS and what I want to do. Getting to be in the field and seeing that the work you are doing is helping in some way is an amazing experience. I can’t wait to continue this work and provide more support in the new year. Even though it’s not always seen, the work we do is important, and we must never forget that.
Juan Gamboa is the Program Manager of the CWS Border and Asylum team.