Border Awareness Experience, Oct. 30 – Nov. 4, 2017 by Kathy Sevig, a trip of those in the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the ELCA
“When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
Leviticus 19: 33-34
I went to the border with a delegation of Lutherans and Catholics, facilitated by a friend I met at the Lutheran Bible Institute in 1963, Vicki Schmidt, and hosted by Father Robert Mosher. We went to the border between El Paso, TX, and Juarez, Mexico, to see for ourselves the reasons why people cross the border and the consequences of US immigration laws. Enclosed is the blog I wrote of what I saw, what I heard, and what I felt during this experience. The blog is online at openingborders.com.
“I have finally learned to accept people as they are.
Whatever they are in the world,
A prostitute, a prime minister, it’s all the same to me.
But sometimes I see a stranger coming up the road and I say,
‘Oh, Jesus, is it you again?’”
This Is What I Saw, This is What I Heard, This Is What I Felt
Day 1: Border Awareness Experience, October 30, 2017
by Kathy Sevig
“This is what I saw, this is what I heard, this is what I felt,” put into focus for me and for our group the meaning of this week’s Border Awareness Experience in El Paso, TX. Shared by Vicki, these words provide a framework for our first day, October 30, 2017. We begin the day by sharing our expectations and our fears of the coming week.
Our expectations include gaining a deeper understanding of the complexities of immigration through our experiences, correcting false assumptions that we hold, gaining knowledge to speak more credibly about immigration when we return to our own communities, and challenging ourselves to act on what we have learned. Our fears include speaking our truth when we return home without judgment and with the goal of “doing no harm.”
Presentation by US Border Patrol
Our Introduction to the week is a trip to the border where two border patrol agents, Oscar Cervantes and Joe Reyes, meet us, give us an overview of their 19 weeks’ training, their responsibilities as border patrol agents, and their personal experiences. What we see is a large sandy field off the highway which faces a border fence, a canal, the dry bed of the Rio Grande River, and the rugged, brown mountains in the distance—so different from the green we have just left behind in Minnesota and North Dakota.
What we hear is how they were trained to use firearms, taught to drive in all weather on all terrains, and instructed in first responder and search and rescue techniques. Joe tells us that in the 15 years of being a border patrol agent he has pulled his firearm only once: he attempted to stop the driver of a van who turned out to be a smuggler, but the man escaped in his van after dropping off 15 undocumented immigrants. Oscar has never drawn his firearm in the 9 years he has been with the agency.
Joe also relates the story of a BP agent tying a rope around his waist and jumping into the canal to save a man who had refused to grab the rope thrown to him and was being pulled underground by the undertow. The agent pulled him out at the last minute, one of 40 people rescued from the canal in 2017. Nine people have drowned in the canal this year when the current pulled them underground. Joe’s story reinforces the idea that border patrol agents’ jobs are to deter and stop undocumented immigrants from entering the United States illegally, but they also try to be humane and do everything in their power to save lives of immigrants in danger.
ICE handles long term detentions, patrols the skies, and handles field operations including cargo and ports of entry. BP agents, because they wear official uniforms, are the face of immigration and often are held responsible for things that are done by ICE agents.
BP agents are most interested in capturing the smugglers and seeing them prosecuted because they are responsible for bringing undocumented immigrants into the country. If they can stop the smugglers, they can stop the flow of immigrants trying to enter the US. It is difficult, however, because the smugglers have frightened the people they are smuggling by threatening to hurt their families back home if they talk to the BP agents and identify their smugglers. Only two percent of detainees are drug smugglers; the rest are seeking asylum, trying to rejoin family members living in the US, or trying to find better economic opportunities for themselves and their families.
Repeat offenders are either taken to the airport and flown back to their home country or returned to their country by BP agents. First time offenders with no criminal records can request a hearing with a judge; however, since there are only 260 immigration judges in the US, detainees are held two to three years in a detention center waiting for their hearing. Because of a strange quota law, 34,000 undocumented immigrants must be held in detention centers at all times. ICE manages these centers, not the BP.
According to Oscar, being a BP agent is stressful; the border patrol is the largest law enforcement agency in the United States, and it also has the highest percentage of suicides. Now they have a chaplaincy as well as counseling and support to help agents deal with stress. Finally, we hear a plea for us to call and write our senators and representatives in order to give the BP agents a voice. “We are never listened to,” Oscar and Joe lament, “so you must be our voice and demand immigration reform.”
What I feel listening to them is how demanding their jobs are, the weight of responsibility they feel to uphold the law but also to be humane, and their frustration at being misunderstood and blamed for things they feel they are not responsible for. From where I sit, looking at the empty land, dry river bed, and rugged mountains in the distance, I understand the difficulty of the task they have been given—detecting and detaining 60 to 70 people a day in this vast area stretching for 276 miles along the west Texas and New Mexico border.
Presentation at the Women’s Intercultural Center by director, Mary Carter
Our second stop is the Women’s Intercultural Center opened by the Sisters of Mercy in 1992 to help undocumented immigrant women overcome their isolation and lack of alternative educational opportunities. The center is a 7,000 square feet, eco-friendly facility constructed of earth and tires. We tour the building and see the thrift shop, art gallery--with a labyrinth patterned after a 5000-year-old labyrinth--displaying art made from recycled materials, a commercial kitchen for cooking classes and preparing communal dinners, an emergency food pantry, an ESL classroom for teaching the citizenship program, a commercial office lent out to whoever needs one, and the healing arts room where reiki and massage therapy are taught.
We listen as Mary Carter, the center’s vivacious director, explains the myriad programs offered to empower women: (1) Alternative Education and Personal Development, (2) Border Awareness to raise border issues and promote cross-cultural dialogue, (3) Consciousness Raising for women to arrive at their own truth, determine a means of action and organization to create and change their lives and their community, and (4) Economic Self-sufficiency by fostering the entrepreneurial spirit of women through developing diverse and creative opportunities and skills that will enable them to support themselves and their families.
Mary tells the story of a 17-year-old girl with three children who was abandoned by her husband and was homeless. Her mother was an alcoholic and the young mother had nowhere to turn. The center gave her counseling services and sent her to a GED program; she gained self-worth and wanted to break the cycle of poverty and victimhood for her daughters. She started an Herbal Life business, remarried, and now is a successful business woman. The center teaches women the law so they learn not to become victims; the programs are solution based, empowering women to solve their own problems. Success is measured by watching women evolve and move on, as the young mother did.
I feel a current of energy running through the center, radiating optimism, joy, and hope. I marvel how Mary and the volunteers are able to do so much with so little money; their vision and determination empower 3,400 women a year to change their lives and their families’ lives.
Visit to Holy Cross Retreat Center, meeting with Jorge Taborda
Perhaps the most moving experience is meeting Jorge Taborda, an undocumented immigrant from Columbia given sanctuary by Father Tom Smith in the Holy Cross Retreat Center in Mesilla. We see the spacious grounds, the lovely rose garden, and the beautiful chapel which embodies peacefulness. Jorge has lived here since May 9th, 2017, when his nightmare began. He has never left the grounds because he would be captured by ICE and deported immediately.
He entered the US in 1997, escaping a civil war in his country. He and his wife found work here, paid taxes, and raised their two sons. He has volunteered for the Red Cross in disaster areas all over the US: Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, and Harvey to name just a few. On May 9th ICE agents arrived at his house and took his wife to the El Paso detention center where she was held for a month in humiliating and degrading conditions, and then deported her to Columbia. She was not allowed to call a lawyer or talk to her family. Jorge found out that she was captured and drove to his church where he was given sanctuary by Father Tom. His older son, Jeff, is a Dreamer and his younger son, Steven, was born here so is a US Citizen. The family applied for asylum when they first came, but after 9/11 all asylum applications were denied. Despite letters and phone calls of support, the US government will not listen to Jorge’s pleas to reunite his family. He does not know whether he will ever see his wife again or whether she will ever see her sons again.
We see the tears roll down his cheeks and hear his voice break as he struggles to tell us his story. We feel his pain and agony and we feel our own anger at the heartlessness of our government that will not see his families’ humanity. They have destroyed his family and many families like his—without compassion or mercy—for the sake of politics. We hear his pleas to write and call our senators and representatives and tell his story, which is being repeated hundreds of times all over the United States.
Ecumenical Service, 500th Anniversary of the Reformation
The day, already filled with three eye-opening experiences, ends at Sacred Heart Catholic Church where Catholics and Lutherans come together in unity to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It is a fitting close to a day that reinforces our belief that only coming together as fellow human beings will heal us and heal our divided and broken world.
God’s Work, Our Hands
Day 2: Border Awareness Experience, October 31, 2017
by Kathy Sevig
Meeting with Father Bill Morton at Corpus Christi Parish, Rancho Anapra
“God’s work, our hands,” encapsulates Day 2 of our Border Awareness Experience. Our first stop, Father Bill Morton’s parish, Corpus Christi of Rancho Anapra, is across the border from El Paso in Juarez. I have never been to Mexico and crossing the border is surreal to me. A simple bridge connects yet divides two disparate worlds—one of enormous wealth, the other of abject poverty.
Father Bill tells us the story of meeting Alma who had epilepsy and was raising three children as a single mother. She had no idea where her family’s next meal was coming from, and some days her children did not eat. Father Bill often prayed the Lord’s Prayer with her, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and thought how many times he had repeated those words never giving a thought to the possibility that he might not have food for his next meal. For her, however, the words meant everything. She possessed a primitive, essential faith that we do not have.
He relates another story of a man from his parish telling him one day that Pedro Zaragosa, a wealthy man who lived in Juarez, was kicking all of the people in their colonia off the mesa. These people had lived on the land for 30 years and their colonia had electricity, running water, and a certified high school. Pedro wanted the land so he took it. One day 70 police trucks roared into town. The electric wire was rolled up and the poles pulled out of the ground; Pedro then put vigilantes next to the community and literally wiped it out.
Wealthy men such as Pedro have no reservations about doing illegal things and perpetrating violence. One day a man was beaten to death and two children burned to death. Father Bill placed an ad in the newspaper blaming the Zaragosa family for the deaths, and it received international attention. The family then placed an ad denying they had anything to do with the violence. In 2006, after a year of fighting, Father Bill was given 24 hours to leave Mexico. The stated reason was that he did not have an FM3 visa, but in reality the police and corrupt government officials kicked him out because he was causing trouble for the Zaragosas who-- because they were wealthy--always won, but left no fingerprints behind.
Father Bill explains that the church in Mexico is conservative and is in bed with the wealthy and the corrupt government. The few lawyers, doctors, professors, and other professionals that make up the small middle class serve the wealthy while the poor are left to fend for themselves, working in factories (maquilas) for 6 to 7 dollars a day, with no labor laws to protect them from being taken advantage of. In 2016, 300 factories along the border in Juarez employed 200,000 workers. Amazingly the workers buy the lies that they are poor because they drink too much or don’t work hard enough, so God punishes them with poverty.
Liberation Theology for the poor transformed Father Bill and has made him determined to bring social justice to the forefront of the church. The realities of people’s lives are poverty, addiction, abuse, and violence. He describes the priests as “vanilla” who speak in grand generalizations about love and peace but never touch the difficult subjects that could transform people’s lives on earth.
Father Bill returned to Mexico in 2017 to continue his work among the poor and he asks us to pray not only for the peacemakers but also for the conversion of war profiteers. Sadly, the livelihoods of the poor and the middle class in the US depend on the economic benefits of war. Pope Francis believes that the economic system must serve the people, not exploit them for the benefit of the wealthy. God does not will human suffering; it is a result of human ignorance and human behavior. Father Bill’s ministry among the poor of Juarez has strengthened his belief that God’s will is for all people to be treated justly and with dignity. Poverty is the real sin and the church has much too long ignored it. Father Bill leaves us with the directive that we must denounce injustice for the sake of our moral integrity, and we must be involved in the resistance. Father Bill has lived the words, “God’s work. Our hands,” and asks us to do the same.
Visit to Biblioteca Infantil, with founder Cristina Estrada
One life that Bill’s hands have touched is Cristina’s. We meet her at the Biblioteca Infantil where she is the coordinator. She tells us an amazing story of God’s work in her life. She has only a third grade education, but she worked in a maquila as a highly skilled welder for 22 years. One day she burned her hands badly, her plastic gloves melting into her skin. Her boss told her if she signed a paper, the company would pay for medical help to heal her hands and continue to pay her until she could return to work. She signed the paper, was given first aid, and brought home. A week later she returned to work to pick up her pay check and was told that she no longer worked at the factory because she had signed a paper saying that she quit.
Many hard months lay ahead for her. One day when she came home with her hands wrapped, she saw a man watching her; it was Father Bill, her guardian angel. For seven months she could not cook or care for her family. One day she met Clare and Tim, a couple who volunteered at Annunciation House; Clare had 20 books in a library at the church. When the couple left, they asked Cristina to take over the library and keep the books. “You’re crazy!” was her response. They asked her again, and she agreed to take the books to her house. She started by lending the books to the children, then reading the books to them because many could not read. That was not enough, though; she wanted to help the children go to school. She asked Father Bill to help, and he agreed to support her idea. When the program outgrew her house, she--with Father Bill’s help--purchased the house across the street which is now the Biblioteca Infantil.
Cristina has encountered many problems along the way including getting birth certificates for the children, registering them, and helping parents get money for tuition and uniforms. Her school has grown from 12 students to 450 students, Kindergarten through University. Fifty-two of Cristina’s students have now graduated from University and are doctors, lawyers, professors, psychologists, and engineers. Her classroom wall is covered with their pictures. She has had to work with their parents to convince them of the importance of their children getting an education to improve the quality of their lives. She has promised to walk with their children every step of the way. Because many of the children’s parents are poor, she cooks both breakfast and lunch for them with food donated by the community.
Cristina was once angry with God, “Why did I have this terrible accident?” She now believes God gave her this opportunity to help the children in her community get an education and live a meaningful life. God has always been in charge, and he will continue to help her. “This place is a blessing from God,” she declares. She asks us to help by donating money to the school so she can carry on the work God has given her to do.
Visit to Holy Child of Atocha School
Across the street from the biblioteca is the Holy Child of Atocha School which serves special needs children from babies to age 26. The school, run by the Sisters of Charity and many volunteers, provides physical therapies to help with physical and mental disabilities, play therapy for younger children, and classrooms to serve the older children. Volunteers provide both breakfast and lunch.
Visit to the Border Wall
Our third stop is the border wall, 18 feet high, built of steel poles topped by steel plates. Small children, who live in shacks next to the wall, come running, talk to us, hold our hands, and smile and giggle as we stand in a circle and pray that God will forgive us for building this wall of division and hatred. As we drive away, we see words painted on the wall, “F . . . you, Donald Trump.” We pray our country and leaders will learn that we must build bridges to unite us, not walls to divide us.
We drive by the Foxconn factory built by a foreign company right near the border. It is an enormous white building surrounded by a fence. Apple phones are assembled here by Juarez workers who struggle to survive on their paltry salaries.
Visit to the Refugee Emergency shelter at Blessed Sacrament parish
Finally, we cross over the border and drive to our final stop for the day, a shelter run by the Church of the Blessed Sacrament for temporarily housing refugees. ICE had dropped off 18 families in the last few days at the shelter because the detention centers were full. The refugees had surrendered at the border and asked for asylum. The BP then turned them over to ICE who checked to make sure they did not have criminal records, gave them documentation, and set up a court date for them. Volunteers at the shelter fed them, gave them a change of clothes, checked their medical health and hygiene, and called their contacts in the United States, asking them to buy tickets so the refugees could be put on planes and buses to unite with their sponsors. The shelter, a former convent, had sleeping rooms supplied with cots and clean bedding. Refugees arrived on Mondays and Tuesdays and were usually gone by Thursdays. Volunteers cleaned the shelter and washed the bedding to be ready for more groups to arrive the following week.
Our group spends two hours sorting clothing donations into piles for men, women, girls, and boys. The clothes are then sorted by size, put into boxes, and labeled, ready to be given to the next group of refugees who come. In 2014 at the height of the refugee influx, El Paso had 14 shelters staffed by 5,000 volunteers.
We have been overwhelmed by the dedication of the volunteers in all of the places we have visited and their outpouring of love for the refugees who seek asylum in America. The day has been an affirmation of God’s work done by human hands. The smiles on the faces of a young mother and her four sons, as they are fed and given warm clothing before they continue their journey to a new life in Kansas, fill our hearts with gratitude for all those who give of themselves to help the “least of these, our brothers and sisters.”
All Things Are Bound Together, All Things Connect
Day 3: Border Awareness Experience, Nov. 1, 2017
by Kathy Sevig
Humankind has not woven the web of life,
We are but one thread within it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.
All things are bound together,
All things connect.
Day 3 brings to the forefront the powerlessness of immigrants who have left their countries, their friends, and everything they have ever known to find a better life in a country they do not know. They face harsh realities when they arrive: they have come to a country where many of the powerful do not want them; they are disposable. But as Chief Seattle says, the powerless and the powerful are bound together because both are human and both are woven into the web of life. It is the way in which the powerless and the powerful are connected to each other that must be changed.
We visit two service organizations who work in El Paso to change the way the powerless and the powerful are bound together. They fight the powerful, support the powerless, and help them through the desperate situations they face.
Talk by Anna Hey, Deputy Director, Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services
The first organization we visit is the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services (DMRS). We listen to Anna Hey, an immigration lawyer, explain the complexities of our immigration laws and why immigrants are powerless to navigate the broken system on their own. Anna explains to us why she became an immigration lawyer; her father was a citizen so her mother did not worry about becoming a citizen. When Anna’s father died, her mother found herself in the United States without citizenship papers. She was lucky. Because she worked in the Federal Building as a cook, she knew many of the immigration judges who heard immigration cases. She pulled one aside and told him her dilemma. The judge gave her names of people and organizations that could help her navigate the immigration system and obtain her citizenship papers. Because of the help Anna’s mom received, Anna decided to become an immigration lawyer so she could help others the way her mom had been helped.
The DMRS where Anna works is the only full-service immigration legal aid clinic serving low-income immigrants and refugees residing in the southwestern United States. They offer services to the crime victims’ unit, religious workers’ unit, removal defense unit for both detained and non-detained immigrants, unaccompanied minors’ program, and the legal orientation program.
Anna explains why Attorney General Jeff Session’s answer to immigration, “Stand in line and wait your turn to enter the United States legally,” is not only insensitive but also shows a complete lack of understanding of the way US immigration laws work. The law is as complex as IRS tax law and impossible to navigate without the expertise of immigration lawyers. The complexity begins with understanding the legal ways a person gains citizenship: 1) Be born a citizen, 2) Become a naturalized citizen by being a resident 3/5 years and be able to read, write, and speak English, 3) Inherit citizenship because a relative such as a grandparent or parent has been a citizen.
Privilege has a great deal to do with becoming a resident because the poor do not have the necessary qualifications which include being an investor with a minimum of one-million dollars, having extraordinary ability in science, art, education, or athletics, or having a job offer because you possess advanced degrees or have specialized knowledge and skills. You can gain family-based residency if you have a citizen petition for parents, spouses, or children 21 and over.
Because only a limited number of visas are available each year, countries with higher demands face longer waiting periods. For example, if a US citizen mother petitions for her single 21-year-old child born in Mexico, the wait line is 22 years! The mother petitions in 1995 and her petition will not be heard until May of 2017. Often cases progress even more slowly than this because judges get behind and the wait line could extend decades. The system is in dire need of reform and Congress must move past its partisanship and get immigration reform done.
There is another sinister aspect of immigration wait time—economic corruption. Private prisons are in the business for profit and earn up to 195 dollars per day for each immigrant they detain. A luxury hotel would cost no more! In 1996, IRA law criminalized unlawful entry into the US as a felony and said 34,000 undocumented immigrants must be held in detention at all times. One can see the huge profits available to private prisons. Not only are undocumented immigrants held in prison-like detention centers, but also they are labeled with colored uniforms according to their degree of “threat” to the US. Low-threat level detainees wear blue, mid-threat level detainees wear orange, and high-threat level detainees (immigrants who have been convicted of a crime) wear red. It reminds me of the labeling in a concentration camp—humiliating and degrading. Without immigration lawyers like Anna to help immigrants navigate the system, their situations would be even more hopeless.
Where immigrants are placed by ICE to wait for their asylum hearings also makes a difference in how their cases turn out. In El Paso, only 5% of immigrants are granted asylum whereas in New York City 85% of immigrants are granted asylum. Some judges are also much less likely to grant asylum than others. Detainees have no choice where they are placed or who their judge will be. One can see how powerless an immigrant is in the present system and how arbitrarily his or her case may be decided.
Meeting with La Frontera Farmworker’s Shelter Founder, Carlos Marentes
Our second visit is to La Frontera Farmworkers’ Shelter (Workforce solutions), a program for migrant seasonal farm worker’s services. Farm laborers, both documented and undocumented are powerless. They have no right to join a union or engage in collective bargaining. The purpose of the center is to support these agricultural workers on the border: 80% of US farm workers are from Mexico and 20% are from Central America and the Caribbean.
We meet founder, Carlos Marentes, and his colleague, Rosemary, a Native American who shared an experience with five members of our group: she had visited the Standing Rock water-rights protests in North Dakota and had personally carried 300 letters written by children from three schools in El Paso. The children wrote that they would share their precious water if they could.
Carlos and Rosemary are giving a bilingual press conference about the fifth annual International Encounter of Migrant and Salaried Workers to be held November 2 – 5 in Juarez, Mexico. One of the main questions to be discussed is “How do we influence society when such a large sector believe in Donald Trump and his anti-immigrant policies and who believe building a border wall is a good thing?” The conference will include analysis of the current immigration system, debate on what can be done, and solutions to solve the crisis.
Carlos explains that immigrants are better off in the US than back home. However, the important questions are “Why do they leave their countries? Who created the conditions that caused them to leave? They once had vibrant local economies, so what happened?” The answer according to Carlos is NAFTA; if we don’t address the cause of immigration, we will never find solutions. We need to look at immigration a different way: it is the result of the destruction of the local economies of Mexico and Latin America. In Mexico there used to be ‘ajilos’ which was land owned by the community, not individuals, who worked together to make decisions about production, but now food is a brand name and finance capital for corporations who try to increase profits by any means possible. Food is now an economic commodity; it is no longer the “bread of life” which is sacred. The production of our food is now an oppressive enterprise that harms the workers. For example, we often wash our food when we get home to remove the chemical sprays, but we forget about the workers who touch the food in the fields, haul it, and arrange it beautifully on the shelves of our grocery stores.
People are now working to solve economic conditions in rural areas. If these problems are solved, people will no longer need to leave their countries to seek economic security or to escape the violence brought on by economic insecurity. Juarez and El Paso are sister cities; sadly, a wall of hatred is dividing them. The wall represents separation and is an act of aggression not only to people but also to the environment. When the wall was built in 2008, for example, concrete pillars poured five-feet deep hurt animals that build tunnels to survive in the desert climate. The wall also stops the migration of larger animals. Migrant workers are an invisible part of our society, and it is the workers who must come together and come up with solutions to the universal issues of their human rights.
Migrant workers have incredibly difficult working conditions. They get on the bus in the middle of the night in order to arrive at daybreak; they often cannot bring their own water but have to buy beverages sold by the owners such as coca cola; they must pick produce, fill huge buckets, run to the truck, and dump the buckets. They earn only 70 cents per bucket. To even come close to a minimum wage of $7.50/hour, a worker would have to fill 100 buckets a day! Often they have no place to stay and sleep on pieces of cardboard on the sidewalk. The center in El Paso evolved because of farm worker strikes in the 1980’s when organizers such as Carlos were trying to unionize the workers. One day a worker told Carlos, “You know what I would rather have? A place to sleep so I don’t freeze at night and food to eat.” Carlos realized that workers had more immediate needs and opened the center in 1996 which relies on community donations to stay open.
Activists such as Anna Hey and Carlos Marentes speak for the powerless by speaking truth to power. They understand how immigrants are made powerless by the immigration system and the migrant farm workers are made powerless by the corporations now controlling our food production whose only concern is for profit and dividends for their investors.
As Chief Seattle said, “All things are bound together, all things connect.” Human rights for immigrants and migrant farm workers, the most powerless people in society, are bound together with the impunity of the powerful, who write the immigration laws and control the economic system. Anna and Carlos shine a light on the evils of the system that binds together these two strata of society for the benefit of the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and powerless. “Whatever we do to the web of life we do to ourselves.” We, like Anna and Carlos, must take action to help make the “web of life” whole again for all humanity.
What Does the Lord Require of Us?
Day 4: Border Awareness Experience, Nov. 2, 2017
by Kathy Sevig
“What does the Lord require of us, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.” Micah 6: 8
Visit with Sister Betty and Father Peter at “Casa Tabor”
Betty and Peter live in a four-room adobe house in Juarez. The tiny kitchen reminds me of my Grandma Laura’s kitchen on the farm in Donnelly, MN, in the 1950’s. Pots and pans hang from pegs above the counters; a small gas stove sits in the corner. The adobe walls and wood plank ceilings are painted white. The furniture is mismatched and outdated. Home-sewn curtains frame the sitting room window.
Betty’s white hair sits atop her head in a bun; she wears a long sleeve shirt and denim trousers. A beautiful smile and sparkling eyes adorn her face; her voice is kind. She is 85. Peter also has white hair; he wears a plaid shirt and denim jeans. His dancing eyes radiate a buoyant spirit; he is curious and eager to meet each one of us. He is 94.
To get here, our van drove over deep potholes (I was sitting in the back seat of the van so I FELT them), then up a gravel road so steep I was afraid our van would slide backwards!
Beautiful simplicity describes their physical surroundings. America’s materialism seems sinful as I sit in this humble place, listening to Betty, a Sister of Mercy, and Peter, a Carmelite, share their stories. They are not a couple but have shared a home and worked together ministering to the poor since they met in Peru on a Carmelite mission in 1962.
They met with people of the village eager to tell them of the wonderful plans they had to make their lives better. The village people began to ask them questions. “Why did you foreigners come here? When we visit others, we are invited into their homes to share food and friendship. But you came into our house without permission and started rearranging the furniture.”
Betty and Peter were startled and gradually realized they had no idea what they were doing. “We went into this foreign place to fix it, not realizing God has already been working in this place.” This encounter changed their ministry; they were to be servants of the people, not tell them how to make their lives better.
After they left Peru, Peter started CRISPAZ, Christians for Peace. They went on many trips to observe for themselves what our foreign policies were doing to the poor and ministered in the US to educate people about foreign policy and how it affects people in Latin America. As I write this, they are on a plane bound for El Salvador.
In 1995, Betty and Peter moved to Juarez. One day Betty saw a woman beaten up across the road from her house. She went downtown to ask what services existed for domestic violence. There were none. In 1993 young girls were disappearing and being raped and murdered in Juarez, victims of domestic violence. Families of the disappeared began organizing and a woman asked Betty to open up her home and talk to women about domestic violence. This became her mission in Juarez.
Families in Juarez were poor; the family across the street had three children and to support them, both parents worked in the maquilas and made about 2,000 dollars a year. It took 10,000 dollars a year to raise a family of three children, feed and clothe them, and educate them. The parents had only a 2nd grade education.
One of their sons decided he wanted to go to school, so he worked in a maquila during the day and went to high school at night. He came home with perfect grades and wanted to go on to college. Betty and Peter gave him a scholarship as well as his two sisters. They later received scholarships from their college. All three of the children have now graduated from college; their son is an engineer, one daughter is a social worker, and the other daughter is an engineer. Although the people living in the colonia are tremendously poor, many take the opportunity to go to school, study hard, and transform their lives just as these three neighbor children did.
In 2007 to 2012 Juarez became a terribly violent place because of drugs. Since 2006, 215,000 people have been murdered in Mexico with impunity. The government, politicians, and policemen are corrupt and there are no consequences for the perpetrators. Despite the violence, women in Juarez still had to take the bus to work at 5:00 in the morning and come home at 11:00 at night. They had no choice.
Peter talks about NAFTA and its effect on the economy of Juarez. “In order to join NAFTA, Mexico had to privatize industry. A wealthy man bought the government-run phone company for three billion dollars; in ten years the company was worth thirty billion. Just as in the United States, all the wealth is going to the top. You can see the drastic effects in Latin America. Private industries must grow the economy to make a profit and hand out dividends to their investors.”
However, Peter says that withdrawing from NAFTA would cause immediate disaster to the thousands of poor in Juarez who work in the factories and would lose their only means of support, paltry as their salaries are. He adds, “The world cannot afford another United States (or China) when over half of the world’s population is excluded. Pope Francis came to Mexico with the message of economic justice. We must heed his words.”
Peter and Betty maintain a memorial with the names of the thousands who have been killed in Mexico since 1993. Reading the list of names is overwhelming: 293 journalists for speaking the truth, 52 priests for activism, 1300 women whose bodies were found, thousands of disappeared whose bodies were never found, 43 students killed because they were raising the consciousness of the people, 450 migrants dying every year in the desert.
Each name is printed reverently on the wall so each life taken will be remembered. We leave these two gentle, humble souls with tears and appreciation for their dedication to serving “the least of us” and with joy for the opportunity of visiting their home—truly a sacred place.
Meeting at Human-rights Organization “Derechos Humanos Integrelas en Accion, with Liz Martinez
Our second stop is the DHIA, a center that advocates for the human rights of the most vulnerable—migrants, the LGBT community, and foreign and Mexican nationals deported from the US. Liz, a human rights lawyer, meets with us to discuss issues facing the LGBT community. She is a lesbian, married, with a 2 ½ year old daughter, Abigail, whose name means “the happiness of our Father God.” Since 2009 gay marriage has been legal in Mexico. Right now the struggle is for children of gay couples to have the names of both parents on their birth certificates; presently only the name of the birth mother is allowed.
Liz is fighting against the new government, the conservative National Action Party, which is taking Mexico backward to a world-wide tendency towards racism, misogyny, and homophobia. Conservatives and Catholics see the advance of human rights of women and LGBT people as a threat to the family.
Congress is launching a misogynistic and homophobic book supporting discrimination against women and the LGBT community. In Mexico the law is the Constitution, and Article One establishes protections against discrimination: any authority in Mexico has the obligation to select international law or legal principles that defend human dignity. Churches in Juarez do not welcome the LGBT community; however, since 2013, one priest has taken the revolutionary step of supporting their community and they go to him for advice. “We love him,” Liz says.
What keeps Liz going is her faith in God and in Jesus Christ. We see the weariness on her face and in her voice; she knows her cause is on the right side of history. “We will win the legal battle,” Liz believes, “but changing the mentality of the people will take a very long time.”
Liz thanks us, "My invitation to meet with you came from God. That you care and came from so far away to support our fight for equality gives me great hope.” She hugs each one of us, we thank her for her dedication to the fight for human dignity and equality, and we leave with tears in our eyes once again.
Visit to cemetery on the “Dia de los Muertos”
Our third stop is a cemetery in Juarez where people congregate to celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday celebrating the lives of loved ones who have passed away. Thousands of people gather in cemeteries all over Juarez on this festive holiday to remember the dead and support them on their spiritual journey.
Graves are lovingly decorated with brightly colored paper flowers as well as freshly cut flowers. Items that represent the lives of the dead are placed on the gravestone; mariachi bands play; people eat, laugh, visit, and sing together around the grave. Dan Mahli, a member of our group, commented, “I saw only great joy and happiness as the people of Juarez came together as neighbors in community with one another, so different from the quiet, somber way we remember our loved ones. ”
As I stand in the cemetery, I recall the words of Ultima, a curandera in Rudolfo Anaya’s novel, “Bless me Ultima. As Ultima is dying, she speaks to a young boy who is grieving her death:
“I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful, Antonio. Always have the strength to live, love life, and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evenings when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills. I will be with you.”
Talk by Dr. Mendoza at Columban House
We return to our home for the week, Columban House, and listen to Dr. Mendoza—Vicki’s Mother Theresa—speak about her clinic in Juarez where she ministers to the poor. She is a surgeon, general practitioner, and midwife.
She tells of her work with the indigenous population in the mountains. The people did not trust her at first and would not allow her to be present at births because they said, “You are not married and do not know about women’s problems.” One day she was called to an orphanage because a twelve-year-old girl was in terrible pain. She explained that the child was pregnant and giving birth and so they must allow her to touch the child. She safely delivered the baby, improvised an incubator (oven) for the premature baby, and applied medication and an IV.
Both mother and baby survived, people now trusted her, and she traveled by mule to other villages. Sometimes the baby died, but the father said, “Do not worry; it is only a girl.” She realized the best way to empower women is with education, because the women were fatalistic and superstitious and believed evil spirits were taking their babies.
After 18 months she returned to Juarez and worked in an emergency hospital. She quit when she fell in love with medical missionaries who wanted to help the whole person. She established a small clinic called House of Mercy in Anapra and gives medical services to the poor including dental care. Young girls often have all their teeth pulled because of decay, so the clinic teaches them how to care for their teeth and gives the girls root canals, crowns, and other dental care to save their teeth.
She helps women who are unmarried get birth certificates for their children which are issued by the government not the hospitals. Without birth certificates, people cannot get an education, health care, or health insurance from the government. Even with health insurance, people can only get preventative care. If a person has cancer, diabetes, or any other illness, government health insurance does not cover it.
The most prevalent disease in Juarez is diabetes because of poor nutrition and lack of exercise. The poor used to have a healthy diet of beans and corn, but they work long hours in the maquilas—they leave at 4 AM and get home at 7 PM. They are exhausted, so they prepare food such as pasta which is all carbohydrates but easy to prepare. She once had a four-year-old patient with a blood sugar level of 560!
She strongly advocates for universal health care in Mexico. “It is a human right,” she declares, “not a privilege.” She is also trying to do hospice care; in many homes the elderly are neglected because they are going to die anyway, so families think it is not worth the time and effort to give them care.
Dr. Mendoza declares, “I will serve the poor until the last day of my life,” and we fully understand why Vicki calls her “my Mother Theresa.”
Columban Mission Center “Dia de los Muertos” celebration and talk by Omar
In the evening we have an open house celebration of Day of the Dead. Many people have come to celebrate with us and bring food to share. They build an altar outside and celebrate the lives of their loved ones just as we witnessed in the cemetery.
After the celebration, a young man, Omar, who survived the massacre of 43 male students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teacher’s College in Mexico in 2013, speaks to us. “I am a survivor of what happened 4 years ago, and I and relatives of the disappeared are still insisting their bodies be found. The official version given January of 2015 is that the remains of the 43 disappeared were burned. We know that not just 43 have disappeared in Mexico but thousands and thousands, and we insist that the government’s version is false.”
Omar goes on to explain that they asked the OAS to conduct an independent investigation. The investigators refuted the official version and found irregularities in the government’s investigation. So now there are two versions, the government version and the OAS version.
Omar continues, “This atrocity has pointed out the problems of the government not recognizing human rights in Mexico. This problem must be faced. It is the most physical case of the last few years. Imagine what happens if this case has no solution. This is why the impunity is so great: there are no consequences for the perpetrators of this crime. The system does not protect the rights of the most vulnerable. Justice in Mexico is covering up injustice and allows impunity to go on.”
He explains that the families are trying to get cooperation between groups fighting for human rights. “We have meeting after meeting with activists and NGOs, but for three years they have been fighting among themselves and can’t agree on a unified method to fight the problem. They are using methods from 50 years ago. We ask them to get rid of ideologies and simply put themselves in the position of the suffering mothers and fathers.”
Finally his frustration boils over. “We are tired of giving conference after conference to audiences who do nothing! At this point we feel like circus animals that go on exhibit day after day. We want action. We want solidarity of purpose. We want to connect all the activists in Texas instead of going to city after city with no results. In this month alone we have visited 10 cities in Texas. We ask you not just to listen but to do something!”
It has been a long, exhausting, but amazing day for all of us. We reflect on all the people who have spoken to us today--Betty, Peter, Liz, Dr. Mendoza, and Omar—all working to help the poor and disenfranchised of Mexico. I am reminded of the following words of Jesus:
“Truly I say unto you, Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brothers and my sisters, you have done it unto me.” Mathew 25: 40.
Here Am I, Lord, Send Me
Day 5: Border Awareness Experience, Nov. 3, 2017
by Kathy Sevig
“ . . . in the end understanding simply means having empathy for people.”
From Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Border Patrol Guard: “How long is this going on?”
Dan: “If I am steadfast and strong enough, my whole life, I hope.”
Meditation in the Desert near Sunland Park, NM, and Border Wall
This is our last full day. Father Bob drives us to the desert divided by the 18 foot high border fence—El Paso on our side, Juarez on the other side. “We are on a spiritual quest to walk the steps of the displaced,” Father Bob, our host for the week, explains. We all go our separate ways, looking for a solitary spot to sit quietly and reflect on being in this place where so many migrants have walked and died, searching for the promised land. The same children we saw on Tuesday on the other side press their faces against the narrow openings between the steel poles of the wall and shout, “Gringa, Gringa!”
Through the opening I see a church with a cross pointing to the sky. I sit down under a prickly bush and hear the whistle of a freight train hurtling by, piercing the stillness. It is a startling juxtaposition of spirituality and materialism: On the Mexican side the cross, a symbol of Jesus who lived among and ministered to the poor; on the United States side, a train hauling material goods from factories to be sold for profit.
The sun beats down, the dry brush pokes my bare legs, an ant scurries by. Trash litters the ground, perhaps discarded by a migrant. A flock of birds suddenly flies up, startling me. I am faced with the challenge of returning home and doing something about what I have seen, heard, and felt. The words of the song we sang at our morning reflection run through my mind, “Here am I, Lord, Send me.”
A horn honks, a signal to return to the van. We sit in a circle and reflect on our experience. Dan is not back so we wait. Soon he comes walking back across the tracks. He has been stopped by a border patrol guard who asks, “What are you doing here?”
“We are a faith group, walking the steps of the displaced,” Dan answers.
“How long is this going on?”
“If I am steadfast and strong enough, my whole life I hope,” Dan replies.
“OK, let’s get to the point.” The border patrol guard does not know this is the point: to go home and do something to help the people who have walked in this place but find nowhere to go.
Three border patrol cars pull up and stop, watching us. We know the desert has buried sensors and cameras pointing at us from the fence and the surrounding hills and mesa. Father Bob tells us that drones often circle above searching for migrants.
Deb says she immediately lost sight of everyone. Running through her mind were the words migrants must have thought: “What I am looking for must be here, take one step at a time, keep walking.” Father Bob recalls the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years; the clouds on top of the mountains are a reminder that God is near. The bushes remind Joe of the voice of God coming to Moses from the burning bush. He wonders, “If the bushes could talk, what stories would they tell us?”
Stephanie recalls the words of the song, “He was weeping over Jerusalem . . . because they could not see God’s Grace.” If Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell could be brought here, would it change their hearts? Ellen captures the reverence we feel being in this place where so many migrants have died trying to reach the promised land: “We are standing on Holy ground, and I know there are angels all around. We are standing in His presence on holy ground.” We file into the bus quietly and return to El Paso.
Talk by Reuben Garcia, Founder of Annunciation House
Since 1978, Annunciation House has been a house of hospitality to the very poorest of the poor in El Paso. Reuben Garcia, the house director for 40 years, explains that the house gives temporary hospitality to refugees and immigrants who find themselves on the border. Under Trump, US border policy has changed concerning what happens to immigrants when they get here because enforcement of immigration law has become most important.
Reuben receives never-ending calls and texts every day from Immigration. “Yesterday ICE called asking to drop off 60 people; the day before it was forty people.” He never knows from one day to the next how many people will be coming so the logistics of being ready with food and shelter for an unknown number of people every day is difficult. “If I do not take them, they will be sleeping in the streets.”
Reuben’s phone rings. “Excuse me. I must take this call because it is immigration.” ICE explains that they have a young, pregnant girl and want to know where to take her. “Send her to Casa Vita at four o’clock this afternoon; they will be ready for her.” She and other immigrants will move on to friends and relatives in the US who must send money for tickets to travel. After arrival, they may wait years for their asylum hearing.
The reality of immigrants is very different now because the language coming from Trump and many in the government is relentless and paints one group—immigrants—as criminals. “This characterization and denigration of one group of people is not new,” Reuben explains. “The ‘brush’ gives us a way to justify to ourselves what we do to immigrants—what could be called racism. We all live together on this earth and we all share one pie. The problem is our huge slice of the pie limits ‘the other’ to a tiny sliver. Trump and others want to talk about immigrants as murderers and rapists to distract us from how our economic system and our economic privilege perpetuate the system.”
Reuben goes on to explain the meaning of Prosecutorial discretion in immigration. A couple left Guatemala 12 years ago; they now have 4 children—who because they were born in the US—are US citizens. The couple is undocumented, but they are working to support their family and are law-abiding. One day the husband and wife are detained by ICE, charged with illegal entry, now a felony, and put into deportation. They are two of the 11,000,000 undocumented immigrants Trump is talking about. If you look back at several administrations before Trump, ICE was really looking for rapists and murderers; they were not interested in law-abiding, hard-working people who had been in the US for years. Obama and several presidents before him ordered prosecutorial discretion to be used in a situation like the Guatemalan couple: they were not to be bothered by ICE.
Enter Trump. He rescinded Obama’s order of prosecutorial discretion and issued a new order to open all these cases and deport anyone who is undocumented; thus the Guatemalan couple are deported and their children, who are US citizens, are left behind.
Another heartbreaking story is of a woman in Guatemala with three children. Her husband died, she can’t support her children, and hoping for a better life, she crosses the border and makes her way to Chicago. She gets a job and sends money back to her mother in Guatemala who is caring for her children, ages 2, 4, and 6. Several years pass. One day in Guatemala, the brother sees guys whistling at his sister and fears she will be taken away, raped, and killed—which commonly happens to young girls.
The Mom in Chicago looks for a smuggler and pays him $4,000 per child for them to be smuggled across the border. However, the kids get caught by the border patrol and their case is transferred to Chicago. Trump and Sessions have given the order to ICE to detain the kids, interview them, and bring charges against their mother for trafficking her children. It is a tragedy that could have been averted if prosecutorial discretion had not been rescinded by the Trump administration.
Trump has also ended the Dream Act (DACA) ordered by Obama because Trump and Sessions want to use it as leverage to get severe enforcement at the border. Sessions also wants to tighten the parameters of giving asylum to people who have come across the border to escape violence because their lives are in danger. Session says immigrants are using their asylum requests simply as a way to stay in the US. There are only five immigration judges in El Paso and they deny 95% of all asylum requests; Sessions thinks the 5% needs to be tightened more. It has always been extremely difficult to win asylum; Sessions has made it impossible.
Extortion gangs in Mexico are insidious. Reuben tells of a father who was being extorted by a man who called on the phone and said, “I saw your daughter today. She had a beautiful dress on. I will protect your lovely daughter for a price.” The extortionist kept raising the price and the father could no longer pay. One day while the family was out for a ride, a hit gang pulled up and shot the father and the couple’s ten-month-old baby through the head. The mother quickly buried her husband and her baby in Juarez, crossed the border illegally, and was given temporary shelter at Blessed Sacrament.
She was in shock. Because she was in such a rush, she had no time to put a marker on her baby’s grave. She was in agony because she felt she had abandoned her baby. Reuben tried to dissuade her from going back to place a marker on the grave. “You saw the shooter and could identify him. You will be at great risk and will most likely be killed if you go back.” Reuben did not tell her that if she stayed, she would never have won her asylum case despite the terrible violence she fled in Juarez. Jeff Sessions has made sure of that. She went back anyway and Reuben does not know what happened to her.
Reuben does not mince words. When people flee this violence in fear for their lives and cross the border for asylum, we have acquiesced to the present reality in the United States. We simply say, “They broke the law and laws must be obeyed.” If we are honest we must admit it is not that “laws must be obeyed” but because we want to keep our share of the pie. We are good at being charitable—having clothing drives and collecting money to help immigrants. But we are unwilling to risk; rather we compromise.
Reuben reminds us, “Two women found the courage to stand at the foot of the cross when Jesus was crucified; all of the men ran away. You all must ask yourselves if you are willing to stand at the foot of the cross with all that implies. Donald Trump did not get into office alone. Sixty million Americans said, ‘This is who we want.’ I have told you these stories today because I want you to know why I do what I do. What does it mean to you to stand at the foot of the cross?”
We ask, “When we go back home to our own communities, what can we do?” First, he tells us that we must find out the reality of immigrants in our community: Who are they? What do they need? How are they living? Are they eating? Are their children in school? Have they been vaccinated? We need to give them practical help by opening food and clothing banks at our churches. Then we need to find legal resources to help immigrants in court. We can volunteer to do analysis of what dangers they face and identify documents that need to be translated. Immigration lawyers have enormous loads, and we can volunteer to help them with research and anything else they simply do not have the time to do.
Deb asks, “What do I do when I get back to my bakery coffee group and people think it’s easy to solve these problems?” Reuben tells her she must simply ask them what they want rather than what they think because arguments solve nothing. Then she can tell them what she learned at the border and what she wants. Reuben concludes, “We cannot change them but only speak our truth. It is their right to choose.”
We ask Reuben what we can do to help support Annunciation house. “We are on the front lines; our building is so old that it doesn’t meet code. We are raising $1,000,000 to renovate it. We are not asking the government or NGO’s to help because we want to be our own masters. We have raised $420,000 since May of 2016 and you can help us with your donations. You can also volunteer to work at Annunciation House. Everyone working here is a volunteer. Many volunteer for a year for more, but anyone can volunteer for as long a time as they are able.
As we leave, Reuben’s stories of the real face of immigration stay with us. In our morning reflection we sang this hymn: “Here am I, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” Do we mean what we sing?
Participation in two Eucharists at the El Paso Processing Center
We drive up to the detention center which is a prison. Large white buildings are surrounded by fences with barbed wire on the top. Border patrol and ICE cars and vans fill the parking lot. We file inside the office, turn in our passports, and sign a ledger so the guard can match our signatures to the signature on our passport. She places yellow bands around our wrists, and we are led through a security gate, give our names to a guard behind a screened window, and then are taken into a large auditorium where mass is held.
Flags from other countries are displayed on both sides and across the front of the room. The US flag hangs in back of the room. The room is filled with male prisoners in blue, orange, and red jumpsuits. As the priest leads the service, they sit reverently and listen carefully. A detainee in a red jumpsuit plays the guitar and the men sing enthusiastically songs they know well. After mass, we hand out plastic rosaries to the men who want them; as they leave they shake our hands and thank us for coming.
The women’s mass is next. Women in the detention center are at least 18 years old; many of them look no more than 12. They also listen intently to the priests words and sing enthusiastically. The priest invites us to pass the peace, and I turn around to greet the woman behind me. She is sobbing, I reach out to hug her; she puts her arms around me tightly and sobs, whispering to me in Spanish. I don’t understand what she is saying but tears run down my face as I whisper back, “te amo,” which is “I love you,” in Spanish. I think about the stories I have heard about women who have crossed the border. “What is her story?”
When the mass is over, I turn around to say goodbye to the women. The woman behind me is still sobbing; I hug her tightly and tell her once more, “te amo.” One by one the women pass our group and give us hugs, many with tears in their eyes. I whisper “te amo” to each one of them. The truth of “immigration enforcement” is in the faces of these women who have fled violence and asked for asylum, crossed the border so they can provide for their children, or have come to join family members already in the US. We know all will most likely be deported to the country they have left.
As we drive away from the detention center with tears in our eyes, I think of the prayer Dan read to us:
“We ask for courage to protect the powerless, but we prefer to remain safe, preserving ourselves for future challenges. You ask us to speak out for justice, but we whisper, in case we are heard. You ask us to stand up for what is right, but we would rather blend into the crowd. You ask us to have faith, when doubting seems so much easier. Lord forgive us for our calculated efforts to do your work on earth only when it is convenient to do so, only in those places where it is safe, only with those who make it easy to do so. Let us go the other way—to make an effort to put on decency, graciousness, patience, humility, and courage to seek a purity of heart that is stable and everlasting.”
Border patrol guard: “How long is this going on?” May each of our answers be Dan’s answer: “If I am steadfast and strong, my whole life, I hope.”
The Truth Shall Set You Free
Day 6: Border Awareness Experience, Nov. 4, 2017
by Kathy Sevig
“The United States is experiencing a deep, epistemic breach, a split not only in what we value or want, but in who we trust, how we come to know things, and what we believe we know—what we believe exists, is true, has happened, and is happening.” Bill Moyers
“Is not the truth the truth?” William Shakespeare
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is True, Whatever is Noble, whatever is Right, whatever is Pure . . . think about these things.” Philippians 4: 8
It is our final day in El Paso. We came to the border to seek the truth about immigration. We leave with the truth of our experience: what we have seen, what we have heard, what we have felt. We go home to speak our truth to our families, our friends, and our communities.
Misa Fronteriza, Border Mass
The final stop of our border experience is the Misa Fronteriza, the Border Mass; the people of Juarez gather on the Mexican side and look across to the people of El Paso gathered on the American side. We stand, sit on chairs, or sit on the cement slabs that slope down to the dry river bed and canal, so close together yet so far apart.
The mass is held in commemoration of deceased migrants and for justice in immigration policy. Border patrol cars block both ends of the seating areas. A drone circles overhead. Border patrol guards are everywhere. I have never before been to a prayer service so heavily watched by law enforcement.
A priest gives the introduction to the service. As he speaks, memories of all that I have heard, seen, and felt flood my mind, and I know he speaks the Truth.
“Dear brothers and sisters, once again we gather together in faith here at our international border to ask God to continue to strengthen, guide, and shepherd us in our resolve to love our neighbor. We mourn the suffering of brother and sister migrants and refugees from Latin America and everywhere else around the world:
“Those with hope to seek a better life for themselves and their families; those with hope to be reunited with their families in the U.S.; those who have never returned home; and those who have died before arriving at their destination.
“ . . . these are times to continue our work for justice, so that every person, younger and older, may have the opportunity to move freely as needed to improve their lives and contribute to society, where their labor is respected instead of exploited, and where deportation and family separation is no longer a threat and a constant source of fear and uncertainty.”
Symbols are brought to the altars on both sides of the border that represent the migrants’ journey to life: “The cross, which guides all migrants in their journey of suffering and even death; Our Lady of Guadalupe, who enlightens the migrant’s way; national flags, symbols of identity as citizens and human beings; backpack, sandals, and water which represent the migrants' basic needs along their difficult journey; the DREAMER youth, seeking respect, understanding, justice, and opportunity through the DREAM ACT legislation; a remembrance of the migrants who have died on the journey, those drowned in the canal, or most recently, asphyxiated inside a tractor trailer as victims of human trafficking, all seeking a life of dignity for themselves and their families.”
Because we have experienced the truth of the border, the symbols elicit powerful emotions. The priests read scripture and offer prayers for us and for the immigrants and refugees who have left their homelands to find a more dignified life for themselves and their families:
“For the elected officials of our countries that they may seek to enact more just and humane immigration laws that uphold the dignity of our migrant and refugee brothers and sisters so that there may be an end to all discrimination, deportations, and family separations.
“For all DREAMER youth, who indeed contribute greatly to our communities and society, but whose very lives are subjected to policies that threaten their opportunity for a better and secure future.
“For all migrants—children, youth, men, and women—who have died in their attempt to cross this border, especially those who have perished due to drowning or as victims of trafficking, and especially those who have never been identified.
“May our eyes be open to the reality of persecution, division, fear, and death present in the lives of our migrant and refugee brothers and sisters. May the spirit of God compel each of us to work unceasingly for their rights as humans and their dignity as the children of God.”
I wonder how many people here are looking across the border, searching for family members separated from them by the wall. I recall stories of the Berlin wall and wonder if the separated families we pray for will ever be together again. A drone continues to circle over head—always watching, watching.
We cannot stay for the rest of the service; it eases our leaving to hear the prayers offered for everyone involved in the immigration crisis: those who make the unjust laws that their hearts will be changed, those who are hurt by them that their suffering will be eased, and those who have died trying to find a better life.
It is time to go. We climb into the van one more time and Father Bob drives us to the airport. We hug each other and promise to keep in touch. We thank Father Bob, our amazing host, for his organizing, grocery shopping, cooking, chauffeuring, excellent choice of restaurants, and spiritual guidance. We thank Vicki, our wonderful group facilitator, for her work organizing our trip, for her wonderful music, and for the inspiration of morning and evening Reflections.
We are filled with love and gratitude to both of them for helping open our minds and hearts to the truth of immigration. I am hopeful as I leave because I believe—as Gandhi did—that throughout history “the way of truth and love has always won.”
“Truth alone will endure, all the rest will be swept away before the tide of Time.”
“It is in our hands, to make a better [more truthful] world for all who live in it.”
Vicki Schmidt, Deborah Elhard, Father Tom Smith, Kathy Sevig, Catherine Scholer, Stephanie White, Jorge Taborda , Joe Larson, Ellen Mahli, Dan Mahli, Christoph Schmidt. (Father Bob is taking the photo.)