New border ministry helps migrants and asylum seekers

Border fence by CK Milestone 31177545118_5dbdedb30d_k

Heidi Cerneka begins work as immigration attorney in El Paso

At the beginning of January, Maryknoll Lay Missioners opened a new mission site at the U.S.-Mexico border. Heidi Cerneka has begun to serve as an immigration attorney with community agencies in El Paso, Texas. Heidi became a Maryknoll lay missioner 23 years ago and has previously served in prison ministry and human rights and legal advocacy in Brazil and Kenya.

“I believe it is important for us to be here at the border,” Heidi says, “because it is a flashpoint where national and international politics, ministry, church and economic issues meet.” El Paso is the port of entry into the United States for the second largest number of people (San Diego is first).

In opening this new ministry, Heidi is continuing a previous Maryknoll Lay Missioners presence at the border that lasted until 2007. She has joined Maryknoll sisters, priests and brothers serving in the El Paso-Juárez cross-border community.

Heidi Cerneka in her office at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas

Heidi Cerneka in her office at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas

Heidi has begun working with Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, an El Paso-based nonprofit that is dedicated to serving the legal needs of immigrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, victims of crime and families seeking reunification.

“I am dedicating January to Las Americas, and to learning the ropes from a lawyer who has been working there but is leaving at the end of the month,” says Heidi. After January she plans to divide her time with three days at Las Americas and two days at a different legal or policy advocacy ministry serving migrants and refugees.

In her first couple of weeks she has been working with asylum cases for detained people from many different countries. “People have a right to ask for asylum,” she notes, “both by international law and by U.S. law. So I am preparing people for hearings with immigration courts, representing them and really learning the reality of all of the struggles that immigrants and their families undergo.”

"Border Christ" statue in El Paso

“Border Christ” statue in El Paso

Most of the asylum seekers have fled real danger in their home countries. Her clients have been threatened, family members have been murdered, and they have sold their land to be able to flee their countries in the dark of night. They have endured long journeys in harsh conditions and have been robbed on their way through Central America and detention.

Heidi says, “Because the law recognizes a person’s right to ask for asylum at the door of a country, people do not expect to be held in custody, to truly be put in prison. It looks like a prison, it smells like a prison, it treats people like they are in prison—it is a prison.”

She points out that a U.S. State Department 2017 Human Rights Report on Venezuela began with this sentence: We are a nation founded on the belief that every person is endowed with inalienable rights. Promoting and defending these rights is central to who we are as a country. “I believe we have the capacity to live up to that vision,” she says, “although we are not at this moment. I hope that each of us, in whatever way we believe that needs to happen, can stretch to be our best selves individually and collectively and make that vision real.”

Top photo of border fence in El Paso by CK Milestone

18 Responses to "New border ministry helps migrants and asylum seekers"

  1. West Cosgrove says:


    This is West Cosgrove. I was part of the FIRST MKLM team on the border. We worked with lay missioners, MKL priests and MKL sisters, it was a great, cross border project. I wish that you had mentioned this in this article about Heidi.



    • Meinrad Scherer-Emunds says:

      Hi West,

      Thanks for the comment. I’d love to hear more about the previous border ministries. I’ll send you my email separately.


    • Dennis Fazio says:

      Hi West,
      I remember when you were down in southern New Mexico in the late 80’s early 90’s, and I’d also like to hear more about your ministry down there back then.

      Dennis Fazio

  2. Peter Chaudhry says:

    I am retired Catholic person65 year from India rest of life I want to serve God as a lay would you like help thanks praise the Lord thank you Jesus amen

    • Karen Bortvedt says:

      Hi Peter! If you are interested in learning more about how to serve with Maryknoll Lay Missioners, I would encourage you to look at this page ( on our website which outlines what we look for in missioners and how to apply. Let us know if you have questions ( Be well and many blessings – Karen

    • Mary Ryan-Hotchkiss says:

      Dear Peter,
      If you are not able to join the Maryknoll Lay Missioners I recommend looking into the Maryknoll Affiliates. We have a number of chapters and opportunities for service and community. See

  3. Robert Carlsen says:

    Hey Heidi – great to get your first “newsletter” from the mission. All the best and please lets touch base at the next Board meeting to see if there are ways that we can help. As you know, we have a network of lawyers, I imagine you are working with some groups that use volunteer legal services. In addition, are there other needs where we can drive MKLM supporters to the border for volunteer trips? Great stuff ! Prayers and blessings in this new ministry!

  4. Richard Gatjens says:

    Congrats, Heidi, on re-establishing a lay missioner presence at the border. Thanks, West, for reminding us about earlier efforts, we should always remember our history! I remember when you were on the border, West, and I also remember your riding a bicycle from border to border! I hope you’re doing well.
    You always impress me, Heidi, with your intelligence and your faith and openness to your fellow people whoever they are and wherever they come from. Be well! Oh, and what’s written on that coffee cup?

  5. Allen Scheid says:

    Cheers, Heidi !
    Am so glad you are there at the Border!
    Hope many more Lay Missioners will join you.
    I remember the great work of those Lay Missioners who served at the Border in the past.
    Allen Scheid
    Silver Spring, MD

    • Thomas P Henehan says:

      Hi, Allen
      Good to hear from you. I am also delighted to see that Heidi is serving on the border. It is a great ministry and she is a great missioner.
      Tom Henehan

  6. Mary Ryan-Hotchkiss says:

    We will be coming to El Paso in April and hope to connect with Heidi or other immigrant service group.

  7. Vicki Simon says:

    Heidi – so great to know you are bringing MKLM to the Border! I’m coming to volunteer at a shelter in March and June…look very forward to seeing you!
    West, I remember you and your trips so well…we brought a Parish group from St. Louis and I’ve never forgotten that experience!
    Blessings on your journeys,

  8. Dee Smith says:

    Hi Heidi,
    I have been asked by UNFPA to accompany the caravan here in the border of Tecun Uman and Mexico. My team and myself will begin offering conselling services, health and education services and legal aid references here at the border. The people only stay about 3-4 days but many need counselling re: violence and sexual abuse, possible infection with STI’s and HIV etc. I would love to be in touch to with you to look at ways we could coordinate and I could offer the women and children a reference to your centres when they reach the northen borders. We are expecting the next wave of migrants on or around the 21st february and already the local businessmen (always the case!!) are planning to block the roads and not let the people reach the border. I live 5 minutes from the border and we have informally assisted the migrants but now is a chance to attend them more formaly. Keep up the good work

  9. Jim Hilgeman says:

    Nice going, Heidi

  10. Patrick O'Neill says:

    Heidi – May God bless your work on the border. I’m upstream of you on the Rio Grande in Colorado – a very different place compared to Uberlandia. I’m keen to visit your new mission site once you’re settled in,

    Peace and All Good – Patrick O’Neill

  11. Dear Heidi,
    I’ve follower your history ever since you joined the MKM, as Jim Hilgeman is my brother. I remember you when I taught at SJA and you were a student there. I’ve been very proud of you throughout the years, and continue to be.
    I wish I could join you in your work, but my walker (really a rollator; it has four wheels) would probably get in the way . (And at my advanced age, I would probably get in more of the way.) I’m so happy you’re helping these immigrants; I pray for them and for your work.
    Jim Hilgeman’s sister, Mary Ann Hilgeman, CSJ

  12. Angel Mortel says:

    Parabens Comadre! Looking forward to hearing more about your new ministry and hopefully visiting you soon. Who knows….maybe some day we’ll join you?


  13. Janet Tullo says:

    I am a retired attorney volunteering with Catholic Charities in NY in the immigration area. Do you need short term legal help?