Some families in Las Cruces are volunteering to help refugees who are seeking safety by opening up their homes to them while they transition to family living in the United States.
The program is called “Project Oak Tree.” It is only facilitated by The Roman Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces, and works with the Annunciation House of El Paso at the request of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
As part of the program, volunteer host families in Las Cruces briefly house refugees seeking asylum after immigration officials have vetted and released them.
The local host families help provide food, shelter, clothing, and the program also helps refugees with access to free healthcare if required.
Deacon David McNeill, Jr., Chancellor and General Counsel of The Diocese of Las Cruces said during a taping of KRWG-TV’s In Focus that Project Oak Tree first began over two years ago when a large surge of Central American migrants were fleeing violence and seeking refugee into the U.S. He says that the community of Las Cruces stepped up to the cause.
“When we first started, we had more clothing than we could give away,” says McNeill.
McNeill says that the program originally lasted about six weeks until the federal government decided to make a change and keep refugees awaiting a hearing at a facility in Artesia. He says that the conditions at that facility resembled detention facilities with high wire, border patrol guards, and with food that he says many housed there struggled to eat.
“It was a pretty tough place for those folks to be,” says McNeill.
McNeill says that the program has recently started up again and refugees are now staying with about 12 local host families, and not all of them come from the Catholic faith. He says other churches and faiths have also offered volunteers.
The refugees stay with local families very brief before they move on to a residence where they will await their trial. There is training involved for volunteer families and there are strict rules that do not allow photos or any contact between volunteer families and refugees after the stay is over due to safety precautions.
“The turnaround time for these folks once they get into our places, is about 24 hours, some take up to 48 depending on how fast the family that they (refugees) belong to can get us the transportation arrangements,” says McNeill.
McNeill says that since reopening, the program has taken care of 122 families composed of 283 people who have made Las Cruces their brief stay while they seek safety and transition to family life in the United States.