Sister Sharon Altendorf hugs 8-year-old Joanna as the girl and her mother, Karen, await their bus in San Antonio. They are bound for Amarillo, Texas, where they will stay with a host family. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)
95-bed center in Pennsylvania to three and by year’s end will have 3,700 beds. But even as the Obama administration has expanded family detention, Sister Sharon and other opponents have scored victories. Last month, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced plans to speed the release of immigrant families who pass initial asylum screenings. Last week, a federal judge in Los Angeles sided with immigrant children’s attorneys and ordered the administration to show by Monday why she should not end family detention. On the day Sister Sharon visits the center to pick up Karen, 2,172 mothers and children remained locked up, 122 of them at the Karnes detention center. Some have been held for nearly a year, and it is left to volunteers like Sister Sharon to be a constant in their lives, to help them survive the uncertainty. As Karen once told her: “Your presence is important to me, just that you come … that we’re not forgotten.”
Sister Sharon, 70, first met immigrant families when she was growing up near the Canadian border in a North Dakota farming town. They were Spanish-speaking migrant workers from Mexico as well as California, Michigan, Oklahoma and Texas. She had not learned their language yet, so she accompanied a pastor to visit the workers and their families at their homes, at fiestas and Spanish-language Masses.
After she became a Presentation Sister, an order dedicated to serving the poor, she worked for 14 years in Peru, becoming fluent in Spanish, and then eight years at the United Nations. Three years ago, she moved to San Antonio to work with immigrants. As soon as she heard children and families were being detained last summer, she started visiting them: first unaccompanied children, then women — so far more than 15.
“I believe in having two feet in anything,” Sister Sharon said. “I wanted to really feel the heart of people I was working with.” Dozens of volunteers regularly make the hour’s drive south here from San Antonio. Some are affiliated with the San Antonio-based Interfaith Welcome Coalition, a group of churches that united to help the immigrant families. They visit them in detention, ferry them to the bus station, find them lawyers and hand out donated supplies, packed in orange Whataburger bags.
The nun has been waiting at the detention center for more than two hours when a group of pro bono lawyers arrives. They deposit their cellphones in lockers and pass through the metal detector. Sister Sharon stirs a bit as a voice on the public address system announces Mass in Spanish, then summons several women for visits. Karen is not among them. The nun first went to see Karen in October, after another detained mother told her Karen wasn’t getting any visitors. Karen doesn’t speak English and was grateful for a Spanish-speaking friend. “It was just the fact that she knew somebody was going to come, once a week, and whatever she wanted to talk about, I was there,” the nun said. “You feel so isolated from the world.” As they became acquainted over the months, Karen opened up to the nun, putting her in touch with her lawyer, her mother and the father of her daughter.
In the spring, Karen joined other detained mothers in a hunger strike demanding improved conditions. Now it was June, and some hunger strikers were being released or deported before a visit by Homeland Security chief Johnson and a congressional delegation opposed to family detention. Karen was told two days earlier she would be freed. Volunteers arranged for her and her daughter to stay with a host family in the Panhandle town of Amarillo and bought them Greyhound bus tickets. But their release was delayed. Sister Sharon last spoke to Karen by phone that morning. “I hope she knows, because when she called me she was desperate. She said, ‘Get here as early as you can,'” the nun says.
She checks in again with the guard, who encourages her to go get lunch. But there isn’t anywhere to go nearby. Sister Sharon ducks out into the afternoon heat and grabs a cereal bar from her white Toyota Camry. In her trunk, she has gifts: backpacks of supplies and snacks. At 2 p.m., the nun lingers near the metal detector, scanning the hall. “I’m anxious,” she says. Just then, Karen appears in a turquoise T-shirt, jeans and cheap blue rubber slip-ons that have split across her toes. She carts her belongings and paperwork in a red plastic vegetable sack. Her daughter clings to her side. The trio embrace, and head for the double glass doors.
A guard stops them. Karen still needs to complete an exit interview, he says, and the mother and daughter wait in their short-sleeved tops in the chilly, air-conditioned lobby. “I can’t believe I’m out,” Karen says. Sister Sharon smiles. “You’re not dreaming,” she says. “Now that you’re out, what do you want to do?” Karen thinks before answering. “When I was there, I imagined so many things.” She is thankful. She ticks off the holidays they have spent in detention: birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s Day. No more.
Joanna yawns, snuggling her French braid into her mother’s side and linking arms. She left her favorite doll behind in her room: Elsa, the Disney princess from “Frozen.” It was a gift from another volunteer, a friend of Sister Sharon. The guard says they can’t go back for it. “We can leave it for the others,” her mother says. Finally, the guard escorts them to the exit interview. At 3:30 p.m., five hours after Sister Sharon first arrived at the center, the mother and daughter are free to leave. They speed outside with the nun, and the hot air hits them like a sauna. Karen closes her eyes and soaks it in. “La libertad,” the nun says, and Karen repeats after her, like a prayer. The Salvadoran mother opens her eyes and takes in the cow pastures, oil derricks and dusty roads. Karnes City lies at the heart of the state’s Eagle Ford shale fracking boom, its roads frayed by industrial traffic and flanked by hastily built trailer camps and businesses. Karen says it doesn’t look that different from her hometown in El Salvador. She stops behind the nun’s car to change into a pair of new pink slip-ons. A guard patrolling the lot pulls up. “Take care,” he says, smiling as Karen thanks him and climbs into the car. They head to a Dairy Queen for chocolate sundaes, which Karen pronounces “delicious.” She hated the food at the detention center — flies on the spaghetti, stale ham sandwiches. Joanna always had a stomachache. They check the bus schedule and find one leaving San Antonio at 10:30 p.m., arriving in Amarillo at 11:30 a.m. the next day. They swing by