Desperation, Dreams, and Tears: A Visit To Our Southern Border
Seven Connecticut College undergraduates, Fr. Bob Washabaugh, two Catholic chaplain interns from Yale Divinity School and I spent a week at the Arizona-Mexico border. Some of the students went to get a better idea of the sacrifices their parents made so that they could have a better life here in the United States. Others, coming from places of privilege, wanted to learn directly and personally who crosses the border, their reasons for crossing and how they are treated. I went to see first-hand the experience of so many with whom I am privileged to minister – to “walk a mile in their moccasins”, so to speak, so as to understand with my heart.
We visited several Catholic, ecumenical, and civic groups working with migrants on both sides of the border. We heard the stories of those caught in the cross-fire of the immigration debate on this side of the border, as well as those trapped in desperation on the Mexican side. Rosa Robles Loreto, on this side of the border, is confined to the property of a Presbyterian Church in South Tucson, a sanctuary church since the mid 80’s. Rosa is in deportation proceedings. Her attorney requested sanctuary for her while continuing to plead her case. Thousands of letters have been sent to Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security, to request a stay of deportation for this wife and mother of two young children who has been an active and contributing member of both civic and church communities. Her crime? A minor traffic violation which caused Arizona police to stop her and demand proof of legal status. As Rosa had only her Mexican driver’s license, they immediately called Homeland Security. She was held for a few months in a detention center, i.e., a prison, at times suffering abusive treatment. When released, she was placed in sanctuary. If Rosa so much as steps off the property of this church, she is likely to be arrested, handed over to Homeland Security, and immediately deported. She has been confined to one room on the property of this church since August. You can learn more about Rosa’s story and join the campaign – “We Stand with Rosa” – by visiting www.southsidepresbyterian.org/sanctuary.
In Nogales, on the Mexican side of the border, we visited the Kino Border Initiative, a Jesuit ministry to migrants. In a make-shift dining room, migrants can get a hot meal and much needed moral and physical support. Some of those who come have just been deported while others are preparing to cross. The Jesuits are not in the business of helping migrants cross the border. Their purpose is to provide humanitarian aide for people in distress – whoever they are. They serve two meals each day, both meals to a different group of 30-40 migrants. We were there for one of the meals. Some of us helped serve while others moved among the migrants, listening to their stories. Women who were abused in the crossing; 16 and 17 year-olds from Guatemala preparing to cross; others, desperate for work and so attempting to cross again, a second or third time.
The Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, a Mexico-based Religious Community, work with the Jesuits. We visited their shelter, a refuge for women just returned to Mexico. Here they are given a place to stay and moral support before moving on. For some, it will be another attempt to cross; for others, a return to where they came from – at least for now.
Here we heard Edna’s story. She had recently come to the shelter. She was crossing to be with her 6 year-old US citizen child diagnosed with leukemia when she was picked up by immigration agents and deported. Her desire to be with her child is overwhelming. She will again risk her life to cross. In a few days she would try again. This will be her third attempt to make the 4-5 day trip through the desert, known as “the Devil’s Highway.” Here, temperatures exceed 100 degrees by day and drop below zero at night. Edna said when she did sleep, she slept fitfully, always listening for the rustling of poisonous snakes. Migrants are told to carry garlic so as to keep the snakes away.
As I flew home, I thought of her. Would she make it this time? Would she fall into the hands of the bandits and drug lords who violate and exploit women? Would she be attacked by the snakes or other animals that inhabit the desert? Or would she be captured by the Border Patrol and returned again. I asked her to call me when she reached her destination.
On the last day of the trip we experienced for ourselves the challenges of travel on “The Devil’s Highway.” After only a couple hours walking we had enough. Migrants walk it for days. Our guide was one of the Samaritans, an interfaith volunteer group established in 2002 to be “a healing presence in the desert.” They do not assist people to cross the border; their purpose is to save lives and relieve suffering by providing humanitarian aide to those in distress. He told us that he recently found human remains on this trail, the skeleton almost entirely intact – not the first time. He called 911 and the authorities took it from there. He wanted to return to mark the spot where this child of God had died. With duct tape and two small branches, the students made a cross and planted it in the ground. Our guide draped a rosary over the cross, and placed next to it a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an unlit candle, and a bottle of water. The custom is to leave water for the dead in the desert. Fr. Bob then led us in prayer for the repose of the soul of this child of God who died a horrific death, alone, unknown to all but to God. A little further down the trail we came upon a pair of pants, already beginning to disintegrate. A Mexican ID was still in the pocket. Our guide will turn it over to the Mexican Consulate who will try to locate the family. Another victim of the desert. Along the trail we saw backpacks, sneakers, baseball caps, articles of clothing – some left there long ago, others more recent – belongings of those who had passed that way or who had died there. When someone dies in the desert the extreme heat will cause the body to disintegrate in a matter of days, or the body is torn apart by the animals of the desert. Samaritans go out daily to look for migrants in distress and to leave food, water, and blankets along the trail for those passing by.
We spent an afternoon in court, witnessing “Operation Streamline” in action. This is an initiative of the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice which began in 2005. It’s purpose is to establish “zero-tolerance” along the US-Mexico border. Annually, it’s estimated total cost is more than $170 million. Every Monday, some 80 migrants – “criminals”- are sentenced in this Tucson court. Some for first-time entry, others for re-entry. They are hand-cuffed and shackled. Men, women, and baby-faced boys. Mexicans and Central Americans. Their sentence is anywhere from 30-180 days in a US prison before being deported, and with a criminal record. We witnessed the sentencing of 79 migrants in 40 minutes. Their crime? A desperate need to provide food for themselves and their families. The judge later met with us. After a very heated 90-minute conversation, he ended the discussion by quoting Oliver Wendall Holmes who said that the law does not deliver justice. It is a policy that we agree upon. Justice requires sacrifice and pain. He urged us to take up the hard work of justice that requires changing the law.
Immigration that is termed “illegal” is, without a doubt, a controversial issue. It is historical, political, and economic. As we met migrants, heard their stories, and saw their willingness to risk their lives, we realized that it is also deeply human. It is the story of desperate people seeking a better life for themselves and their children – people so desperate that they are willing to risk their lives in an unforgiving and unrelenting desert. Our Catholic Bishops are strongly united in a campaign for immigration reform. I don’t find it hard to know why. Our Church teaches that people have a right to a decent living in their own country, but when that is not possible, they also have a right to seek that living somewhere else, even when it means crossing borders. Together we make up the Body of Christ therefore we cannot ignore or forget the brother or sister traveling “The Devil’s Highway” today, as well as those living among us who traveled that road to get here. Every death in the desert leaves us all diminished and God calls us to respond. Perhaps a good way to start is to look deep into our own hearts and to tear down those walls that separate us from the brother or sister who is different, in whatever way, or in need. Our faith challenges us to continually cross borders, all sorts of borders, as we prepare to cross that great and final border that will bring us to our eternal home.