Immigration: The Boss Nun

Cubans at a Rio Grande Valley shelter say Sister Margaret is taking advantage

La Posada, a refugee shelter near the Texas border, is a pretty cosmopolitan place for the Rio Grande Valley. Along with Cubans, there are Somalis and Eritreans living in several small houses on ten acres of land.

The refugees stay busy. There's grass to be trimmed and trash to be hauled off. Some refugees take turns cooking meals for the group.

"Our rules here are living as a family," says Sister Margaret Mertens, who runs the shelter operations.

But a number of the Cubans living at the shelter, along with several who have left, say they often get the short end of the stick at La Posada. The Cubans blame Sister Margaret, whom they not so affectionately call "la jefa," the boss of running the inn like a dictator.

The Cubans' main accusation is that Sister Margaret keeps them at La Posada — rather than help them find work elsewhere — because she wants their monthly government assistance money.

"If you don't like the way you are being treated here, you are welcome to leave," Sister Margaret says. "If somebody doesn't like it, I can't help that."

During a recent dinner, the Cubans discussed the problem. Martin, who asked that his real name not be used, argued that he should not have to live in fear in the United States. He compared conditions at the shelter to life under the communist regime he risked his life to leave this ­summer.

"I'm a Cuban," he said, "I'm legal here."

"No," Sister Margaret responded. "You're not legal. Not yet."

Sister Margaret grew up attending Catholic schools. For nearly 40 years, she worked as a teacher and principal at a Catholic elementary school in Missouri. Her involvement with the Sisters of Divine Providence eventually led her to La Posada.

The shelter is one of the few places on the Texas border that takes in Cubans. It consists of a few ramshackle houses and sheds, each painted white with blue trim, set back from a rural road that snakes past warehouses and sugarcane fields.

Across town, Maria Sanchez lives in a trailer home with a Cuban man named Ernesto, who spends much of his time watching action movies.

Sanchez and Sister Margaret have developed a feud over the Cubans, each one accusing the other of bad faith.

"She says I'm stealing her Cubans," says Sanchez. "Last time I showed up in my truck to help them find a job, she told me to never come back."

Sanchez says she plans to take a group of Cubans to find work in Ohio as soon as she earns enough for gas money.

When the Cubans receive their monthly check of $445, Sister Margaret drives them to a bank in Harlingen. The rent assistance checks are already made out to La Posada, but Sister Margaret also requires the men to sign their other checks over to her.

Rey Rodriguez, a Cuban who recently arrived in Houston, says that La Posada kept his checks while he was in New Orleans looking for work.

"It's a business for them," Rey says. "They wouldn't have any money without us."

Cubans are also given a Lone Star card, which essentially works like food stamps. The state puts a certain amount on the card each month, which the holder can use to buy groceries. The Cubans say that Sister Margaret confiscates their cards to go shopping. They doubt that all of the Lone Star money goes for food at the ­shelter.

"It's not their money," Sister Margaret says. "We explain that before they get here. They couldn't even cash their checks without me co-signing them. They think they deserve everything. If it doesn't come fast enough, they're complaining. It causes a tension in me."

After dinner one evening, Martin drags a big, blue trash bin down the driveway, toward the main road that leads from La Posada. He walks slowly, and the plastic grinds on the asphalt.

Martin reaches the road and looks down both directions. There aren't any cars. There isn't much of anything. He starts back, fearing that he's being watched by the nuns.

He would like to leave, but, despite his complaints, finds life pretty easy at La Posada.

"If I had the assurance that I would have a job and an apartment, I would go tomorrow," Martin says. "But I don't want to sleep on the floor anymore. I've suffered enough."

 
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