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Shelter For Central Americans Concentrating on People, Not Politics

August 26, 1985

SAN BENITO, Texas (AP) _ The nun who replaced two convicted sanctuary workers who directed a shelter for central Americans in this border town is taking a different path than her predecessors.

″I don’t know much about politics, about immigration, and I don’t want to,″ says Sister Ninfa Garza, who took over the Roman Catholic Church- sponsored Casa Oscar Romero three months ago.

She replaced Jack Elder 41, and Lorry Thomas, 41, both convicted of transporting Central Americans.

Elder was convicted this spring of transporting two Salvadorans from the shelter to a bus station in McAllen. He was replaced by Ms. Thomas, who was sentenced this summer to two years in prison for transporting a Nicaraguan in the trunk of her car and trying to get past Border Patrol agents.

Elder was released last week from a halfway house in San Antonio, where he served 133 days of a 150-day sentence. He was to return to the Rio Grande Valley this week, but not to the shelter, which has had a facelift and a change in philosophy since his departure.

Sister Garza said in an interview last week that the shelter’s priorities would be not to transport the Central Americans, but to feed, clothe and inspire them.

″I can’t take anybody to the airport and I can’t buy tickets for anybody,″ Sister Garza told one recent caller. ″I just can’t.″

″I want to get the refugees to feel comfortable in a house.″

A nun for 26 years, Sister Garza was director of Hispanic family ministries for the diocese before taking charge of Casa Romero.

After she took over the six-room shelter, she implemented chores for the Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, Hondurans and Guatemalans who seek refuge, saying the tasks made them feel more at home.

″When they come here, I never ask them where they’re from. I give them something to eat and a place to sleep and tell them we’ll talk in the morning,″ she said.

Thousands of Central Americans have passed through the doors of the shelter, named after the slain Archbishop of San Salvador, since it opened in December 1982. Some are fleeing war, others depressed economies.

More and more people are stopping at the house. Last week, there were 135 temporary residents, double the number six months ago.

There are three bedrooms, but many of the transients have to sleep on the concrete floor outside. Sister Garza said she hoped another room would be added soon.

Restroom facilities have been expanded; an awning has been added and electric fans are new amenities.

Sister Garza’s day begins at 7 a.m. and often does not end until after midnight.

She makes frequent rounds of grocery stores and meat markets seeking food donations and makes a daily seven-mile trip to Harlingen’s Western Union office to collect money for the temporary residents. Relatives of the Central Americans send the money to her, and she relays it. She does not ask what the money is to be used for.

She lends an ear, gives hugs and occasionally scolds adults smoking too close to the house or noisy children.

″I just love it. I really do. I am in my element,″ Sister Garza said.

She said she was not afraid of immigration officials raiding the shelter, and authorities said the house was not high on their list.

″It’s not our priority to check places like Casa Oscar Romero,″ said Jerry Hicks, deputy chief of the Border Patrol in McAllen. ″Our priorities are to apprehend employed aliens. There also is more and more evidence that aliens at Casa Oscar Romero are documented, that they have papers to travel in the Valley.″

When residents get ready to leave, Sister Garza gives them a sack lunch, a hug and a prayer.

″You suffer with them and sometimes you feel you can’t do anything about it and it hurts,″ she said. ″It breaks your heart.″

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