Darrin Mortenson, who serves as the migration fellow for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, reports on his visit to El Paso, Texas, in July, where he met with some of the Maryknoll missioners who welcome and accompany newly-arrived migrants despite the rising risks and complicated political reality of the U.S.-Mexico “borderlands.” The following article was published in the September-October 2017 issue of NewsNotes.
Even as the U.S. government increases immigration enforcement and accelerates the militarization of the southwest border with Mexico, Maryknoll sisters and other Catholic missioners continue to work to build bridges for migrants while others raise walls. Some missioners are helping migrants through their first few hours and days after being detained by border enforcement authorities. Others are doing pastoral work in communities dominated by undocumented residents. The city of El Paso gives a good example of both.
One hot July afternoon, on a quiet downtown street where businesses hang signs in Spanish and colorful graffiti depicts familiar icons of Tex-Mex culture on chipped plaster walls, a bus driven by ICE agents pulled up to brick building known as Annunciation House to drop off about 20 refugees from Central America. The exhausted migrants had just been caught by border patrol agents, held overnight in detention centers, and then released with instructions to appear in court at a later date. They were mostly families with children, which the local immigration system increasingly can’t handle. Instead, ICE turns them over to Annunciation House through an arrangement that has played out for more than two decades.
Since Ruben Garcia founded Annunciation House in 1978, he and volunteers have offered hospitality to more than 250,000 migrants over the last 40 years, tending to people traumatized and exhausted from their long hard journeys and often recovering from harsh treatment by U.S. border guards. Garcia says he and a small band of Catholics opened the shelter “because we wanted to find more depth and purpose in our lives. And one way of doing that was to place ourselves among the poor.” Working with the “poorest of the poor,” the “unwanted, the enslaved, [and] the marginalized” soon meant welcoming and accompanying undocumented migrants – a purpose that still drives him through the current crucible of immigration enforcement.
In quieter times Annunciation House has hosted individuals and families for months or years, depending on their situation. But now, as waves of refugees from Central America flee violence and hunger and arrive in numbers greater even than during the region’s civil wars some three decades ago, volunteers struggle just to provide a clean bed, a few hot meals, and outfit them with a fresh set of clothes before passing them on to other local shelters like Casa Teresa, just a few blocks away. Late one searing summer afternoon, Franciscan Sister Terri Rodela arrived at Casa Teresa to work the overnight shift. The shelter is an aging two-story house retrofitted with a few extra bathrooms, a small kitchen, and mattresses that crowd the bedroom floors. On that day Sr. Rodela had only one inexperienced volunteer on hand when Annunciation House staff called to say ICE has just dropped off more refugees who were bound for Casa Teresa within the hour. She scrambled to shuffle other guests to make room for 22 new migrants. It’s a daily routine.
As soon as they arrived, Sr. Rodela explained house rules and assigned rooms: men in one room and women in another; beds for the adults; space on the floor for the children. The volunteer began interviewing adults from the six migrant families to find out where they were from and where they were going. Four of the families and most of the children were from Guatemala; the others were from Honduras and El Salvador. They wore desperation on their faces like theatre masks, slowly removed by the humble hospitality of Casa Teresa.
Their stories started to emerge during basic interviews to locate sponsors and arrange transportation. Each had fled some life-threatening situation and was headed for a different part of the U.S. with orders to appear in immigration court at a later date. Rogelio, an indigenous Quiche man from Guatemala, said he and his fifteenyear-old son were grateful for the chance. He said they had fled violence – yes – but starvation is what really drove them north. “We’re all human,” he said. “We have to eat. We’re just fighting for our lives.”
Their stories all had a familiar ring: drought and hunger, extortion, forced gang recruitment, family members murdered. One woman named Karla, who travelled from Honduras with four children, had subsequent husbands and a brother slain by gangs. Under threat of death she fled to Mexico where she worked and begged her way north to Ciudad Juarez, pregnant by another migrant who was later captured, until she and her children were caught by Border Patrol trying to cross into El Paso. Now she had no sponsor and no place to go – and was branded a criminal by the government. “Illegal entry is becoming a felony crime,” said Ruben Garcia.“They are charging parents with human smuggling” for bringing their children into the U.S.
Back at Casa Teresa the next night, Sr. Rodela was again preparing to receive another group of 25 refugees when Maryknoll Sister Leila Mattingly swung her car into the driveway. She had just taken a Guatemalan family to the Greyhound station to board a bus bound for Georgia where they had family. Once back at Casa Teresa, Sr. Mattingly beckoned the next family to come with her so they, too, could continue their own journey of hope and fear to its next destination. These are the lucky ones, the sisters said: the migrants going somewhere with government permission.
This so-called ‘catch and release’ system, common during the previous administration, is now officially barred by President Trump. Nevertheless, it remains a daily ritual across the borderlands, not by government grace or compassion, but because the U.S. government lacks the infrastructure to detain more families. Unaccompanied men and anyone with even any legal infraction on his or her record now faces “expedited removal.” The policy fails to account for consequences such as family separation or worse, says El Paso’s Catholic Bishop, Mark Seitz, who gave a scathing public critique of the “broken system” on July 18 during a press conference on the release of his pastoral letter on immigration, the first of its kind in a decade. Sending people back to where they fled is a “de facto death sentence,” Bishop Seitz said.
While migrants with tainted histories used to be the primary targets for deportation, under the Trump administration, all undocumented people are now fair game. “There are no longer priorities. Everyone is a priority,” said government prosecutor Stephanie Miranda one day in El Paso’s federal immigration court, where seven judges already face a staggering backlog of nearly 6,000 cases, now surging under Trump. “This is the new and improved government, you know,” quipped federal immigration judge Robert Hough. “It’s sad, really, really sad,” said the court translator. “It’s people’s lives.”
Migrants’ lives are, indeed, destroyed by this “broken system.” On July 19, standing steps away from the Rio Grande and within sight of Mexico and New Mexico, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent Oscar Cervantes explained, unlike in Arizona and California, where the CBP enlists the harsh desert and mountain terrain as allies in border control, few migrants die in the desert around El Paso. Instead, they drown in the Rio Grande. Cervantes said that only three people had so far died trying to cross the river. Within a week of his comments four more Central American migrants would die. Bishop Seitz said more militarization of the border would “drive them into the desert … and we are going to see many more people pay the ultimate price simply for their desire to survive.” Still, he said, “At some point people will become so desperate that not even Trump will scare them.”
Almost any long-time resident of El Paso will tell you that the ever-growing border fence does not just divide Mexico and United States, it separates families. They say El Paso and Juarez are really one big city, and always have been. Most residents nearby neighborhoods, such as Segundo Barrio, a few meters from the border barrier, have relatives on the other side or are newcomers themselves. It’s a city of migrants, says Bishop Seitz, “a place of encounter, a place of enrichment, a place where people could build bridges.”
Now, however, “everyone who looks Hispanic can be stopped” by authorities, said Jesuit Fr. Rafael Garcia at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which stands just a couple blocks from the border. “People are afraid now. They don’t come out like before, he said, remarking on the so-called ‘Trump effect’.
Father Garcia and others blamed Texas’ new SB-4 law for making things much worse, threatening both undocumented migrants and community cohesion. The law, temporarily blocked by a federal judge, enlists local law enforcement to question the immigration status of residents. In response, people are beginning to distrust and avoid their local police, with whom the community had a traditionally harmonious relationship. “This reminds them of where they’re from, the places they fled, where the police can’t be trusted and are corrupt or worse,” Fr. Garcia said.
Father Garcia says the community has started to rally against the “Trump effect” of intrusions, surveillance, and fear. “What it has done is increase civic participation,” he said. “I think if there is something positive, it’s that it has brought the community together.” Another ray of light, he said, are lessons the El Paso community can learn from the migrants’ stories of hard work and hope. “It’s amazing to see their faith,” Fr. Garcia said. Sr. Mattingly agreed. “Their faith is so huge. Mine is nothing compared to theirs,” she said. “So what do I have to give? I can accompany them.”
Faith in action: Ask your members of Congress to vote “Yes” on the DREAM Act and grant permanent legal status to more than 800,000 young people who received temporary relief from deportation and employment eligibility through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which the Trump administration has threatened to end. http://bit.ly/2vIpkzi