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

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.

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  • Michael Bird April 10, 2015   Reply →

    Dear Sr. Clare:

    My ancestors came to the United States legally. Why is it so wrong to expect others to come to the United States legally? It’s not hard to see why someone from just about anywhere would want to come here illegally: taxpayer provided food stamps, free housing, free medical care, free education, free cell phone, etc. The only problem is, it’s not free: someone has to pay for this. How moral is it to take money out of someone else’s pocket and put it into one’s own?
    It is unjust and immoral to force working Americans to pay for the healthcare, schooling, food and housing of those who have entered the United States illegally. It is one thing to welcome a needy person into one’s house and provide him food and shelter until he can get back on his feet. It is quite another to sanction this same individual breaking into a neighbor’s house and requiring the neighbor to provide him with food and shelter indefinitely, and then if the neighbor complains, to infer that he is selfish.
    It seems we are setting a bad precedent if we think that people can “follow their own consciences” or practice “situation ethics” when they are in difficult circumstances. Humgry? Order a pizza and don’t pay. Having trouble getting from point A to point B? Hail a taxi and stiff the driver when you get to your destination. In a hurry to get home? Break the traffic laws and don’t worry about a driver’s license. Would having a child make it difficult to earn a “decent living”? Contracept or have an abortion. There’s all sorts of moral borders that one can cross when faced with difficult circumstances.
    We should enforce our immigration laws. If there’s something about them that needs fixing, i.e. that we should permit more legal immigrants, then we should amend the law. Either way, we should enforce the law.
    As for the support of the US Catholic bishops, well, a lot of them support the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, an organization that funds many organizations at odds with Catholic teaching (see the Lepanto Institute and American Life League Reports). This is not to say that there aren’t many fine bishops, there are. But just as they as a group are wrong on CCHD, I believe they are wrong on this.

    • Sister Joan Clare June 26, 2015   Reply →

      Dear Friend,
      Thank you for your comments in response to the article posted on our website about my visit to the Mexico-Arizona border last March. I can understand your passion for this topic as I too am rather passionate about it. I have to disagree with you on quite a few points, however.

      Nothing is wrong about expecting folks to come here legally. That should be the only way to come here or to any other country for that matter. But when the system in place does not allow for that and there are people so desperate as to risk their lives, I guess they will do anything. The situation in many countries south of the border is so desperate that people are risking their lives to escape. This migration of peoples is a world-wide phenomenon. The statistics say that there are some 45.2 million forcibly displaced people in our world today. All for the same reason: people fleeing poverty and violence and risking their lives in the process. There were some 6,000 recorded deaths of migrants at the US/Mexico border between 1998 and 2012. Those are the ones we know about. Lots of others that were never found. How can one turn a blind eye to that? How can one go on with “business as usual’? The crisis of overt violence and economic violence is pushing this migration.

      One of the first public acts of Pope Francis when he took office was to visit the Island of Lampedusa where hundreds of African migrants died when their boat capsized, as they attempted to cross into Italy – illegally – in search of a better life. Whenever and wherever there are desperate people, there will be migration, and if the system is not ready for them, there will be illegal migration. No one supports illegal migration, but we cannot turn a blind eye to those dying in search of a better life. What needs to happen is for our highly flawed immigration system to be fixed so that both our borders are secure and poor people are able to come here legally so as to put food on the table for themselves and their children. That’s what we advocate for. We do not advocate for people coming here illegally.
      You mentioned that the people who are here illegally are benefitting from food stamps, free food, free housing, free medical care, etc. I have been working with this population for years and that is not my experience. Furthermore, no documentation that I am aware of supports this. No undocumented person can benefit from government services and if they are found to be doing so, they will be put in prison. If they have children who were born here then those children are US citizens and therefore are eligible for certain benefits. I know of no one who has free housing or free cell phone service, nor have I heard of such a situation. For the most part, these people are hard-working and they do pay taxes. Every time they buy something in the store they pay taxes to the state like everyone else. As for government taxes, many of them have what is called a Tax ID # with which they pay their taxes. Those of us who work with this population are constantly encouraging them and making sure they pay their taxes because should there be changes in the law in the future to allow them to regularize their status, that will be one of the requirements – paying back taxes – and rightly so.

      You ended your response by saying “if there’s something about our immigration laws that needs fixing, i.e. that we should permit more legal immigrants, then we should amend the law.” I couldn’t agree with you more. That is what our advocacy is all about. I work with people who have been in this country 15, 20, 25 years. Good, upright, law-abiding people who contribute to both their civic and church community. Their children were born here and so they are citizens. Many of these children are minors. Their parents could be deported any day. One 17 year-old told me she lives with the fear of coming home one day from school to find that her parents have been taken into custody and in deportation proceedings. What would become of them? They would be handed over to DCF as all their relatives are in the same situation. This particular 17 year-old is an honor student at the University of Connecticut. She graduated early from High School and won scholarships to the University. She hopes to be a doctor. She is a junior volunteer fire-fighter, she volunteers in the local hospital and in many other organizations. She is giving to the community, a quality she learned from her undocumented parents. These people are givers, not takers. They definitely contribute to our society.
      We need to stop the flow of illegal immigration into this country, yes, but we also need to be a country that helps the down-trodden and the poor. I believe that is what’s on the base of the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island, the port through which migrants came in past centuries. It was easy then. There were no immigration laws and no one was waiting with a gun on the shore to shoot them or to deport them.

      The Bishops are strongly behind a just and comprehensive immigration reform because it is the right thing to do. Support of illegal immigration is not one of the points. It’s sort of what Jesus would do, I think. And that’s why we are behind it too. And Pope Francis is right there with us. To learn more about the Church’s stand on immigration, please refer to their website:

      Once again, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. Please join us as we pray for a speedy, just and comprehensive immigration reform – one that secures the border, protects human life and human rights, regardless of what side of the border they are on, and one that looks at the root causes of illegal immigration so that it’s not just a band-aide fix. We need good, passionate people like you on our side.
      God bless you,
      Sister Mary Jude, SCMC

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