How the new Houston Family Transfer Center for migrants is an example of the community coming together to ease burdens

HOUSTON, Texas — The Church and multiple partners officially opened a new Family Transfer Center in Houston, Texas, this week to provide humanitarian aid to migrants seeking asylum in the United States.

“There was a crisis along the border where families and children who had already suffered a great deal traveling to the border needed help and assistance,” said Elder Carlos Villarreal, an Area Seventy and the director of the Family Transfer Center. “President (Russell M.) Nelson said, ‘We need to take care of the children.’ “

Elder Arthur Rascon, Area Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left, Jeff Watkins, YMCA, and Elder Carlos Villarreal, Area Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talk prior to a press conference at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021.
Elder Arthur Rascon, Area Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, left, Jeff Watkins, YMCA, and Elder Carlos Villarreal, Area Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, talk prior to a press conference at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Elder Villarreal, the son of Mexican immigrants and the one assigned by the Church to help create and oversee the center, joined leaders from partner organizations in holding a news conference Monday to introduce the center, which can accommodate 500 migrants a day if required.

Each person was processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and given legal status to be in the United States, Elder Villarreal said.

The partners plan to operate the center for at least six months because the number of those seeking asylum has begun to overwhelm government systems and other charitable coalitions in the region.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is providing funding as well as volunteers from among the 23 stakes and 70,000 Church members in Houston, the fourth-largest U.S. city. Three senior missionary couples also have been called to serve at the center, which hosted its first 223 guests last week.

Elder Brent Lee, left, and and Sister Charlene Lee, Latter-day Saint service missionaries, sort donated items for refugees at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021.
Elder Brent Lee, left, and and Sister Charlene Lee, Latter-day Saint service missionaries, sort donated items for refugees at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The center also provides food, hygiene kits, COVID-19 and other medical screenings, a place to sleep and other short-term relief to the asylum seekers, who have been released by the U.S. Border Patrol to await asylum hearings across the United States. They must have a place to stay with a sponsor somewhere in the country, and the means to pay for transportation.

Most stay less than 24 hours before they board a bus or plane to another part of the United States to stay with friends and family as they await their hearing.

Elder Dirk Richards and Sister Claudia Richards of West Jordan, Utah, accepted a six-month calling to help families with their travel. They said the first set of migrants hosted at the center dispersed across the breadth of the country, though mostly to the east and west. They came mainly from Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico and then spread out to Wisconsin, New York, Boston, Florida, Texas and numerous other states.

Haitian refugees Nadege LaFrance, left, talks with his wife, Evenor Elisca, and their children while eating at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021.
Haitian refugees Nadege LaFrance, left, talks with his wife, Evenor Elisca, and their children while eating at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Nadege Lafrance, 43, and his wife, Evenor Elisca, 43, brought two of their five children, Ehna, 10, and Nabendjie, 5, to the center. There, the Richards informed them about a problem with their plane tickets. The family’s friend had purchased tickets for them to fly out of Austin, not Houston. A ticket change would cost $800, so the missionary couple helped them arrange bus tickets to Austin and transportation to get from the Austin train station to the airport.

The Family Transfer Center is in a warehouse operated by the National Association of Christian Churches at 16605 Air Center Boulevard near Bush Intercontinental Airport. Other partners include Catholic Charities, YMCA International Services, Texas Adventist Community Services, Houston Responds and the Houston Food Bank.

The federal government is not providing any funding but is aware of the center’s efforts, Elder Villarreal said.

Geraldo Joseph, 28, and Christine Zamor, 23, are native Haitians, but their daughter, Mikailalay, 2, was born in Chile, where the family has lived for five years. They left Haiti because of violence and sought work in Chile after that nation said it would welcome immigrants. Instead, they experienced racism as Blacks and also struggled to combat anti-immigrant attitudes that contributed to difficulty finding employment.

Refugees eat at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021.
Refugees eat at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“We wanted a better life, and there wasn’t anything for us in Haiti or Chile,” Joseph said. “I have family in Florida and they say work is available. They have a better life, and it’s safer and more peaceful than Haiti.”

Joseph’s family left Chile on Feb. 21 in the heat of summer in South America and traveled mostly by foot across nine countries with a company that constantly shifted in size between 20-30 people. On Thursday, after a three-and-a-half-month journey, Joseph put Mikailalay on his shoulders and the family crossed the Rio Grande River near Del Rio, Texas. They walked for two hours before finding police. They surrendered and requested asylum in the United States.

“Thank you, God, we have arrived,” Joseph said.

During their journey, they had been robbed at gunpoint multiple times. They slept in jungles, listening in terror to the roars and other sounds of wild animals.

“Several times, I didn’t think we would live through the journey,” Zamor said.

After they were processed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials, they were released to a humanitarian group that was over capacity. The group requested help from the Family Transfer Center, and Joseph, Zamora and their daughter were bused to Houston.

“We’re really happy here in the family center,” Joseph said. “We have food. Everyone is very happy to receive us. This is the happiest place we’ve been in three centers here. Everyone asks us, ‘Are you OK? What do you need?’ Here, nobody cares that we are Black.”

Donated items for refugees are pictured at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021.
Donated items for refugees are pictured at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The family spent Friday night at the Family Transfer Center on cots provided by the National Association of Christian Churches. Saturday afternoon, they flew to Florida with plane tickets purchased by their friends.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a key partner in the project for several reasons, leaders of other partner organizations said.

“If it wasn’t for the Latter-day Saints being able to step in with their centralized organization to help provide structure, we wouldn’t know what was needed,” said Tommy Rosson, executive director of Houston Responds, an organization that has helped decentralized Christian congregations leverage each others’ strengths to respond to disasters.

“Everybody has their lane,” Rosson said. “If you need something that’s not in your lane, you call someone else. It’s about having trusted relationships with non-profit partners.”

The historic Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston is recruiting volunteers to help at the center, said Betsy Ballard, director of communications for Catholic Charities.

Elder Jim Anderson, left, and Sister Karyn Anderson, Latter-day Saint service missionaries, look over donated items for refugees at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021.
Elder Jim Anderson, left, and Sister Karyn Anderson, Latter-day Saint service missionaries, look over donated items for refugees at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

“This is a great place to put your faith into action. We have a lot of experience working with migrants, so we have a heart for this,” she said.

“There’s tremendous harmony between Catholics and Latter-day Saint Church members because we are all people of faith helping people in need achieve self-sufficiency and dignity,” Ballard added. “We are in such harmony based on those values. Here we have the opportunity to join hands and move forward as God’s soldiers and God’s servants in providing welcome and love to those people who come here.”

Catholics and Latter-day Saints work together on virtually every project they do in the Greater Houston area, said Andi Cook, a communications specialist for JustServe, the Latter-day Saint service and website that brings volunteers together with organizations that need volunteer help.

Said Ballard: “The Latter-day Saints have just got stuff locked down. They know how to operate. I worked with the Houston Food Bank for years, and the Church helped provide peanut butter and other food. They are a machine.”

Latter-day Saints won’t be the only ones serving missions at the Family Transfer Center.

Texas Congregational Disaster Readiness is organizing United Methodist Church mission trips to serve at the Family Transfer Center. Parents can bring a child over 16 to Houston, where they will be housed by fellow Methodists.

Donated items for refugees are pictured at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021.
Donated items for refugees are pictured at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Red Cross also has responded to requests for help, and EMS services are available on site, Cook said.

Those interested in volunteering at the Family Transfer Center can visit the Volunteer Houston website or find a link on Just Serve. Background checks will be conducted on all volunteers.

The partners plan to operate the Family Transfer Center for at least six months as a swell of immigrants are crossing the border daily.

“We are proud to partner with these other outstanding organizations in a community response to address the urgent transitional needs of these vulnerable individuals and families through these family transfer centers,” said Jeff Watkins, chief international initiatives officer for the YMCA of Greater Houston.

All those who reach the center have legal status as asylum seekers, said César Espinosa, executive director of the Immigration Advocacy Group, which provides legal and social counseling at the center. They must have family or friends to stay with somewhere in the United States as well as money to reach their destination.

Refugees rest at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021.
Refugees rest at the Family Transfer Center in Houston on Monday, June 7, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

CBP gives each a date for an asylum hearing near where they will be staying. Espinosa said full hearings on an asylum case often don’t happen for a year or two. A ruling from an immigration judge can take another year or more.

“We don’t know what their future will be, who will be granted asylum or who might be deported,” Watkins said. “But for now, immigration officials have decided they have a credible fear of returning home, so they’ve been granted initial entrance into the United States. That will be decided by the immigration courts. This center is really above politics. These are our brothers and sisters and they deserve humanity and dignity.”

The center, Elder Villarreal said, “is an example of the tremendous good that can result when the community comes together as one to offer resources to ease the burden of others. We want these migrant families to feel safe, welcome and comfortable as they continue their journey.”

Added JustServe’s Cook: “The Lord is going to help them find peace.”