The faces of the border

A Sister of Mercy who writes the name of every person killed in Juarez on a wall to remember that they existed and are still with us. A priest who was run out of Mexico for helping residents stand up for their land rights. A social worker whose airport ministry aids migrant families as they travel to their next destination. A man who has spent more than 40 years providing housing and support to migrants and refugees arriving in El Paso. A Border Patrol agent who agrees that the system needs to change.

In early April, members of Mercy Investment Services’ Social Responsibility Committee, Mercy Partnership Fund Subcommittee and staff immersed themselves in the border reality of El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, which despite being two cities, are one community.

On both sides of the border, “we’re all under the same sky, under the manifestation and presence of God.” – Larretta Rivera-Williams, RSM, Social Responsibility Committee

During the four-day trip led by Jean Stokan of the Institute Justice Team and Cynthia Gonzalez of the Columban Mission Center, participants volunteered at two parish migrant shelters, witnessed the border wall, and heard from those working on the front lines of the border. The following are short summaries of the stories shared during the trip.

Sacred Heart Parish & Holy Family Parish

Participants volunteered at two parishes welcoming migrants, serving lunch, preparing and distributing hygiene kits and snack bags, and setting up cots. These experiences provided opportunities to connect with guests, listen to their stories, play catch with the children, and hold fussy babies while parents enjoyed a meal after weeks and sometimes months of travel. Families shared stories of holding children as they rode on the top of a train and of taking turns sleeping to ensure no one fell off the speeding train.

“For me, it was a great sign of hospitality. Here you come into the United States and within a really relatively short period of time, hospitality comes to you. People create a place where, almost like in the Gospel, you can be yourself and experience your dignity being enhanced. It gave me hope for the way that we can be in relationship with migrants who come into our country.” – Ed Gerardo, Social Responsibility Committee

Border Wall

A visit to the border wall gave participants an up-close perspective on the realities that migrants face in their journey. The participants reflected at the base of the 30-foot steel border wall, which has been the site of hundreds of migrant injuries, including broken bones and brain and spinal injuries, sometimes resulting from being pushed over the wall by the smugglers they’ve paid to help them cross.

Shoes, toys, clothes and bottles blanketed the dirt leading up to the wall, a contrast to the clean ground in New Mexico on the other side. Nearby, a family building a pallet home just under the Juarez side of the wall proudly showed some of the participants their progress.

With all the welcome and warmth we had experienced with the people accompanying and ministering to migrants during our time in El Paso and Juarez, the border wall felt like an opposite force. It is looming and dangerous. – Katie McCloskey, vice president of social responsibility

We went to “the wall” littered with clothing, shoes, plastics, papers. A deflated soccer ball and stuffed teddy bear spoke the loudest in the prayer-filled silence. – Larretta Rivera-Williams, RSM, Social Responsibility Committee

Ruben Garcia, executive director, Annunciation House

During the welcome dinner at Columban Mission Center, Ruben spoke to the challenges Annunciation House has faced from the Texas government and from political forces as it continues its 40-year legacy of offering hospitality to migrants, immigrants and refugees in El Paso. He introduced two migrants served by Annunciation House to share their stories. A 34-year-old single mother and human trafficking survivor from Guatemala told of the difficult decision to leave in search of higher wages and a better life for her son. She was raped and brutally beaten on her journey.

“I had the absolute trust in God that all of this has a purpose,” she says.

A 22-year-old man described his journey from Guatemala “because I had the dream that I would make it to the United States where I would be able to work.” After arriving in Juarez, he worked in a restaurant for 15 days before finding a smuggler to help him cross. Waiting at Juarez’s X landmark for his smuggler, he was picked up by Mexican immigration. After only one day in an immigration facility, he was critically injured in a fire in the facility. Forty migrants died, with 29 others injured. His injuries from the fire left him wheelchair bound and with a speech impairment.

Their courage and resilience was powerful and inspiring. I will carry their stories with me for a very long time. – JoAnn Bertges, chairperson, Mercy Partnership Fund Subcommittee

Betty Campbell, RSM

Welcoming participants to the backyard of Casa Tabor in Juarez, Betty Campbell, RSM, a Sister of Mercy for almost 70 years, shared how she accompanies the people of Juarez. She explained the pay discrepancies between the maquilas – assembly plants – in Mexico compared to the United States, noting that currently the maquilas pay about $19 per day – a fraction of what’s paid in the United States.

Standing under an arbor in her backyard, Sister Betty told of a local pharmacist kidnapped twice by local cartels for $100,000 ransom each time. She also described David, who was killed when his family couldn’t raise the money after paying ransom for another family member.

Sister Betty invited participants to take a slip of paper with the name of a person who was murdered or died crossing the border, along with the date. After writing the names on the walls of the arbor, each participant read the name aloud, with others responding “Presente!” to remember that they were here and are still with us.

The sacredness of honoring each person by placing their name on the wall of her home, I don’t think I’ll ever forget or ever get over. – Anne Curtis, RSM, chairperson, Social Responsibility Committee

She’s helped so many families. She’s doing miracles in real life. – Cynthia Gonzalez, advocacy coordinator, Columban Mission Center

Corpus Christi Parish, Anapra, Ciudad Juarez

Participants enjoyed a homemade lunch at Corpus Christi Parish in Anapra, Ciudad Juarez, prepared by parishioners Pedro and Maria. They participate in the parish’s migrant ministry at the Cathedral of Ciudad Juarez, serving meals to 200 to 300 people at a time and providing food assistance for 32 families.

“It’s a pleasure to offer consolation with food for those who have nothing,” Maria says. “Welcoming them has impacted me.”

“Being able to serve those most in need is always a blessing,” Pedro echoes.

Father Bill Morton, pastor, has ministered in the urban inner city of Anapra and El Paso for 28 years, saying, “I’ve never felt as engaged in life and mission as since I’ve been here.”

More than 20 years ago, Father Bill spoke out on behalf of residents pushed out of their homes by a powerful Juarez family wanting their land. He was forced to leave Mexico for 11 years, but in the 17 years he’s been back, he’s actively ministered to migrants. Led by Cristina Coronado, the parish has a vibrant migrant ministry and youth ministry. Father Bill cites the youth ministry as an important way to offer opportunities to young people susceptible to trafficking and drugs. The parish emphasizes social justice principles, hosting Good Friday Stations of the Cross focused on persecution, corruption, injustice against migrants and more. On Palm Sunday, parishioners walked for more than two hours to the Columban chapel up the hill from the parish.

“The migrant is crucified every day, just like Jesus was crucified,” Father Bill says. “Here, we have a living laboratory of what the church can do. If I err, I want to err on the side of what Jesus wanted me to do.”

Cristina shared beautiful handmade bags and banners made by migrant women learning embroidery through the Embroidery Project. The banner included flora and fauna of their home countries and words including solidarity, peace and faith. Outspoken against the abuse of migrants and becoming a target herself, Cristina welcomes migrants at the cathedral and connects them with resources including food and lodging. She also looks for ways to keep women out of the maquilas and in the home.

“For me, the migrant is Christ coming to me, and we respect that,” she says. “We respond to the need that presents itself. The work is our guide. We don’t have a plan. We never say no. We do everything we can to meet that need.”

There’s a beauty of meeting needs of migrants, with whatever their needs are. It is God’s work to meet the immediate needs of people. I was struck by the complexity of difficult challenges and the risks taken to solve them. – Lisa Laird, chief investment officer

Father Rafael Garcia, Sacred Heart Parish, El Paso

Father Rafael Garcia has ministered since 2016 as pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in the heart of El Paso. He described the large influx of migrants from Venezuela in December 2022, with many showing up on the sidewalk outside the parish.

“It was winter, and it was going below freezing at night,” Father Garcia recalls. “It was Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12. That night after our Mass we had dinner there for a little fiesta, and I did a blessing and said, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to open the doors, and this is going to become Casa del Sagrado Corazón – The House of the Sacred Heart.’ The next day we opened, about 50 people came in. It was chaotic, there were hundreds of people outside. It was just day to day trusting in God, and it worked. Thank God, it worked.”

Today, Casa del Sagrado Corazón serves more than 100 people a day. The shelter includes a psychologist on staff to help the migrants process the trauma they may have experienced. Father Garcia has also created the Encuentro project, which offers border immersion programs to help participants gain a deeper understanding of the migration reality. Despite what the shelter’s guests have experienced, Father Garcia is buoyed by his interactions with them.

“To see what they’ve gone through and to hear their stories, but to see their resilience, their joy even. They’re smiling, the kids are somewhat happy and jumping around in the shelter. There’s something real about Christianity here. These folks are filled with grace. They’re not bitter, they’re not complaining about their governments. They have a certain inner strength that’s powerful, and it humbles me to say their faith is amazing, to see what they’ve gone through and still they smile when they’re in the shelter.”

Cecilia Herrera, Welcome with Dignity

After crossing the border on foot, migrants are often trying to get to family in other parts of the United States. Shelters help them contact family to arrange bus or plane travel. Passionate about community, Ceci uses her background as a social worker and counselor through Welcome with Dignity, which assists migrants departing the El Paso International Airport. Volunteers welcome immigrants, check their immigration paperwork and their boarding passes and help them navigate the airport.

“When it was Afghan refugees, it was a much different experience. Lots of organizations and resources,” she says. “I saw a difference in how Latin American immigrants were treated. I didn’t like it, and I said, ‘This is my time to really speak up.’”

When she witnessed an airline agent’s disdain and disrespect for immigrants, Ceci offered to help. The agent told Ceci she couldn’t help, claiming she had experience working with immigrants.

“What I saw is inhumane,” Ceci says. “I said, ‘She’s not an immigrant. She’s a customer, and she needs to be treated like everybody.’”

Ceci described her relentless advocacy for immigrants, obtaining an office at the airport with resources such as diapers, personal hygiene products, water, snacks and baby formula. She secured volunteers to work starting at 3 a.m. after realizing that the cheapest flights are in the early morning.

“At the end of the day, we don’t care if they are immigrants, if they are refugees, asylum seekers. They’re human beings pursuing something much bigger,” she says. “The need is there. We just look for the need.”

Ceci relies on collaborations to continue to fill the needs that arise.

“You just do what you can do,” she says. “Every day for me is a blessing. It’s a blessing because God is giving us exactly what we need to have.”

Cynthia Gonzalez, Advocacy Coordinator, Columban Mission Center

Cynthia, who helped lead the border experience, calls herself a “product of the border,” born in El Paso, but living in Juarez for most of her life. She recalls noticing the differences between the two cities at an early age.

“I was always asking questions,” she says. “Why does this street look different than in Juarez? Why here does the park look so nice? Why do the houses look like that? As I grew up, I’ve tried to find the answers to these questions. At the bottom, I knew it just was not right.”

As she determined her path in college, “I knew that I wanted to make change and make my life whatever purpose that it could make things better, not sure where and how.”

Cynthia double majored in psychology and political science because she wanted to understand people and behaviors. She later earned a master’s degree in social work because it “allowed me to act on those values that I learned.”

While working in community development for the city of El Paso, she sought a purpose to her work.

“In my prayer, I thought, ‘God, how can I help you? How can I serve you?’ Very quickly, there comes this opportunity from the Columbans. I felt like God said, ‘Why don’t you come work for me?’” she says.

Cynthia calls her current ministry a journey, learning and accompanying migrants.

“The need is there. We’re just not seeing it. We’re ignoring it,” she says.

I felt several times like I was really in the presence of saints. This is the church. It felt like the Gospel is being done every day, day in and day out, both by the religious and the lay members, and we don’t see that a lot unfortunately. – Mike Rizer, Social Responsibility Committee

Jesús de la Torre, Hope Border Institute

During a presentation on the root causes of migration, Jesús challenged participants to consider the structures and conditions that force people to migrate. He noted poverty, violence and climate change as a few of the factors influencing these difficult decisions. Although legal pathways are available, he notes that current wait time for a visa can be up to 30 years depending on the country. Jesús shared the story of a Venezuelan man whose mother needed surgery that would cost $2,000. He earned only $2 a month and decided to migrate in the hopes of finding higher wages and sending the money home for his mother’s surgery.

“Legal migration for some people doesn’t work,” he says. “For many people, there is no such thing as get in line, get a visa.” 

Jesús also noted U.S. policies that have greatly impacted immigrants. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) flooded Mexico with corn and other U.S.-grown products, causing Mexican farmers to lose their land. The possible rejection of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) would end the temporary status granted during the Obama administration to young people brought by their parents into the U.S.

“More enforcement with no legal pathways results in more deaths and criminalization,” Jesús says.

Customs and Border Patrol

To share another view of the immigration crisis, three agents from Customs and Border Patrol offered their perspective on what happens at the border. They noted that they view the wall as a tool to control the flow of migration, guide migrants to cross at a point of entry and prevent them from entering somewhere one might be injured.

Based out of the El Paso sector – the only sector with both a river and a land boundary – agents noted the dangers migrants face when crossing such as triple-digit heat and wildlife, requiring border rescue teams that include ATVs, paramedics and tools for swift water rescues. They referenced an annual public service announcement campaign to raise awareness.

Agents noted that the 30-foot wall changed the dynamic and agreed that changes need to be made to immigration legislation and the visa system, with more judges and asylum officers to process migrants. Until then, they explained that their job is to continue to respond by enforcing the law.

Heidi Cerneka, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center

Heidi shared her experience as an attorney working with Las Americas, which provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees in West Texas, New Mexico and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. She encouraged participants to reframe the perception of immigration.

“What in your life is so horrible that you’d climb that wall? What could be so bad that I would rather put my child in that situation than continue in the life I have?” she asks. “What would it take to make you leave your home, your family, your community, your language, your culture and customs, your favorite foods? And what would you grab if you had five minutes to run out the door? What would it take to make you leave? Hope? A threat? An environmental disaster?”

With 11,000 people a day globally displaced from their homes, Heidi notes “no wall or exclusive border policy is going to respond to that.”

“Some people come for a better life. I mean, who doesn’t want a better life for their family? Who doesn’t want safety? Schools, away from the gangs, maybe health care. Some people come because of climate crisis. Some people are going to come because of floods and droughts and things like that. Some people are going to come because they’re hoping for economic relief. Some people come because of persecution. These are the big reasons we hear people coming and asking for asylum or knocking on our door.”

Heidi shared her experience helping asylum seekers in the United States and explained the requirements for seeking asylum and the asylum process, noting that it’s based on a real fear of persecution. A person can ask for asylum as soon as they step on U.S. soil, but she noted that the United States has begun stationing officers before U.S. soil to prevent people from seeking asylum.

“Anyone who comes to the door of the U.S. and asks for asylum has to be able to show that they have a well-founded fear of persecution. What does that mean? Race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in what’s called a particular social group. Do you notice gender’s not here? Neither is gang violence. You have to show you have fear because of one of these characteristics about yourself.”

Heidi shared stories and photos of people she has met in her work. A family she met in Guatemala as they came north carried a backpack with three stuffed animals hanging off the back. “That’s what it means to be a dad coming through the Darien Gap with your kids.”

What’s next?

The end of the immersion left participants reflecting on what this means for the future and how we, as women and men of Mercy, use our voice and our resources to contribute to the solutions that will preserve the human dignity of the immigrants knocking at our door.

As one of our speakers said, the border is a point of encounter. I would encourage everyone to find a way to encounter it, especially if you have the supportive solidarity of local people and organizations to guide you. If you don’t experience the border, you may assume that all the things you read in the media about it are true. Our group came away with the challenge to work to change the narrative about migration and border communities. – Cathy Rowan, chairperson, Board of Directors

I leave hopeful. I’m touched by a really dire reality, but yet there are so many good people who are working and working together that I didn’t know about, and that gives me great hope. – Anne Curtis, RSM, chairperson, Social Responsibility Committee

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