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Migrant at La Posada

These migrants and asylum seekers learn American basics as they fight for legal status

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A Congolese woman and her young son sit at a kitchen counter learning English, while a Honduran woman holds her newborn baby in the next room.

These families are from two very different parts of the world, but came to the United States seeking refuge and ended up at a shelter in San Benito, Texas.

Young Congolese boy at La Posada
Young Congolese boy at La Posada sitting at the kitchen counter learning English.

La Posada is a shelter for undocumented migrants and asylum seekers who are in the process of obtaining legal status in the U.S. When migrants arrive, their immediate needs of food and clothing are met, but as they settle the Sisters at the shelter will help them through the legal process, teach them life skills and help them integrate into American culture.

The main office and dining room at La Posada.

The shelter was opened by the Sisters of Divine Providence in 1989 and has since served over 9,000 people from over 80 different countries.

Not far from the Congolese woman learning English, other migrants sit in a classroom at the shelter. Three of them are counting change and learning financial basics of the U.S. monetary system, while others quiz themselves with flashcards on the 100 questions they will need to know for the U.S. citizenship test.

Migrants study in a classroom at La Posada.

The classroom has posters hanging up on the wall explaining the days of the week, months in a year and The Pledge of Allegiance, and the flash cards ask questions about the Declaration of Independence and what day taxes are due.

But what seems like basic information for Americans, is just the beginning for people at La Posada. The Sisters will also help guide the migrants as they continue their legal process in the U.S.

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Princvill Yonghabi arrived at La Posada at the beginning of August after fleeing the African country of Cameroon when protests against the government turned violent.

Princvill Yonghabi
Princvill Yonghabi studies flashcards at La Posada.

Cameroon is made up of French and Anglophone regions, and in 2016 the government started imposing French law in the Anglophone regions and sending French speaking teachers to English speaking schools. Lawyers, teachers and students started protesting the government, and many were arrested during the protests and some were even killed, Newsweek reported.

"It was a peaceful movement that turned out to be bloody," Yonghabi said. “So many of us were being arrested or were being taken to be locked up. Some of us tortured."

Yonghabi got to America by going to the neighboring country of Nigeria, taking a flight from there to Mexico then crossing the border from there into the U.S.

"When I got into the borders since I didn’t want to turn back to my country I told the border patrol, ‘I don’t want to go back home. That’s why I’m here. Please do not send me back home I came to seek for asylum.' So they receive me and take me to detention," Yonghabi said.

La Posada is only 40 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border, and Sister Margaret Mertens, volunteer coordinator at La Posada, said Yonghabi is one of many Africans to have ended up at the shelter, but in the last few years the origin of migrants has started to shift as more people have come from Central America.

Between July 2016 and July 2017, the shelter has served almost 500 people, and of those about half have been from Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala.

Mertens said this could be in part because in the past La Posada has started to recieve requests from the immigration detention center in Dilley, Texas, which is the largest in the country and mostly houses women and children from Central America, something that had never happened in the past.

"In the last year we’ve gotten a lot of calls from there. I thought at first somebody said maybe their closing down, but we talked to a couple of the drivers and they said no they’re not closing down, there's s a lot of families up there," Mertens said.

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And though the people who stay at La Posada are diverse, they typically all come the same way. After they are released from detention centers, U.S. immigration officials will drop them off at La Posada's doorstep.

The people who come have papers from the government that allows them to be in the U.S. at the time, Mertens said, whether they are waiting for their court date before an immigration judge or they have already seen a judge and have been granted asylum.

"If they don’t show up for court then they have a problem," Mertens said.

La Posada does not ask for money from the migrants who stay there, but is able to stay open through government and church grants and personal donations.

Currently, with the space and budget, La Posada can only serve 25 people at a time, but hoping to change that they launched the Hope Lives Here Campaign to try and raise $2 million to build a new facility that can house up to 50 people.

And as Yonghabi also looks to the future, he still does not know where he will go or what he will do when he leaves the shelter, but he has time to figure it out while he waits for his official paperwork.

"My hope for the future? Maybe to contribute to the American culture, go back to school, contribute to society," Yonghabi said. “I’m so happy to become an American.”

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