Two summers ago I passed through the entrance gate to the camp at Auschwitz in Poland and read the chilling phrase, “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Makes You Free). I wandered the now still streets of that concentration camp viewing the scuffed, unclaimed luggage, some marked with its owner’s name. I saw the piles of worn shoes of every size, the locks of hair, the collection of combs, eyeglasses and shaving utensils. I passed through the empty barracks and tried to imagine what it must have been like to live in them.
I saw only the prisoners’ faces in the black and white photographs, yet still I stood horrified, shocked, in unbelief. Then I stood before the wall against which innocent people were shot. I passed through the showers that no longer function and stopped, stunned, by the furnaces. How could it be? How did society stand silent and not shout out? I also visited the concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. I stopped to read a letter displayed behind glass, written by a teacher. The letter urged teachers and parents to bring their children here so that they might see and be resolved never to let this inhumanity happen again.
These thoughts returned to me when I recently invited a group of religious leaders from Tucson and Phoenix, Ariz., to join me on a journey to Altar, in the State of Sonora, Mexico, to see firsthand the plight of migrants. Forty of us, Jews and Christians, boarded a rather comfortable air-conditioned bus to make the journey south. We took the paved road, not the gravel one traveled by migrants who are stuffed into dilapidated, hot vans heading north from Altar through Sasabe and then into the promised land of the United States.
On our way we stopped in Magdalena, Sonora, at the burial site of the Jesuit missionary Eusebio Kino, S.J., who first brought the Gospel to Pimeria Alta--a Gospel that calls us to reach out to the smallest and weakest. I saw the bones of Father Kino, which now lie in a grand rotunda whose ceiling contains a mural of Kino among the people he came to evangelize. Missionaries are never tentative, hesitant. They live their lives as the archer shoots, eye fixed on the target. They teach. They preach. They witness. They speak up and never stand by idle. They are people of action.
We arrived in Altar about an hour and a half later. We were to visit the Rev. René Castañeda, a young diocesan priest assigned by his archbishop to oversee the plight of migrants. Just that morning 22 men, average age about 20, had arrived in Altar from Chiapas. I saw their fearful faces as I passed among them shaking their hands and asking, “¿Como se llama? ¿De donde?” (What is your name? Where are you from?) There was an immediate trust established by the collar I wore. “Su bendición, padre” (Your blessing, Father), many asked.
After a brief conversation with Father René and his staff, he invited us to visit some of the casas de huespedes (guest houses) built by people in Altar to accommodate the influx of people seeking a new way of life in the North. It was there and then that my companions—both Jewish and Christian—had the same inescapable insight. It was as if we had stepped again through the gate at Auschwitz into a barracks, not in Poland or Germany, but in Mexico, where 60 or more men, women and children were stacked in cots three tiers high, two to a bunk, in a room no bigger than an ordinary size bedroom. The black-and-white pictures remembered from Auschwitz and Dachau were now in color—with real faces, terrified eyes with which I could connect, and bodies. I could shake their rough, course hands. The stench, the filth, the squalor told me this was not something from the past, but the real thing.
The 60 people, mostly men, mostly young, some only partially dressed, few with shoes, told us about their plight. They pay $2.50 to $5 a day to stay in this hovel. Food is extra. They pay $1,800 to a pollero (smuggler) to guide them on their journey across the border. They want to work. They want to provide for their families. They want a decent human life—nothing extraordinary, nothing grand. They want basic dignity and a chance to survive.
Some fear migrants as terrorists, criminals or “those illegals.” But when you meet the people and talk with them, you see that they are human beings living desperate lives, seeking the same freedom our ancestors sought when they came through Ellis Island or some other port of entry into the United States. They love their children, enjoy eating, treasure friends and want a stable way of life.
The most touching moment for me was when our group formed a circle around a large white cross placed at the beginning of the gravel road that leads to Sasabe. The cross commemorates the 146 people who have died in the desert along the Arizona border. As we concluded our prayer for these victims, a van stopped, filled with 25 people. They asked for my blessing, knowing full well the dangers they faced. But they were resolved to get to the United States, hoping to find a job and help their families.
On the way back to Tucson we shared with one another the insight from our experience in the barracks. We came back determined not to remain silent but to begin to clamor for a response. Like Father Kino, who reached out to the smallest and weakest, we wanted to speak up and not stand by idle.
The recent document of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Strangers No Longer (January 2003), is a comprehensive reflection that challenges all of us to respond to the plight of migrants and suggests concrete ways in which that response can be formulated. Some of us had read the bishops’ statement; others had read statements on migrants by other Christian faiths or by the Jewish community. But now there was a passion to put them into action. There is no magic, simple solution to this complex and troubling situation, yet some first steps seem obvious.
First, the Mexican government must address immediately the injustices migrants are experiencing in their own country. Human rights violations and the inhuman conditions in which migrants are living must be confronted. Government controls and regulations need to be imposed on smugglers and traffickers, who take advantage of desperate people.
Second, economic development of underdeveloped sectors, such as agriculture, must be achieved through dialogue and action plans worked out between the governments of Mexico and the United States. The vast majority of people migrate in search of economic stability for themselves and their families.
Third, the presidents of Mexico and the United States and their legislators need to renew dialogue to develop a just border and immigration policy that respects the sovereignty of these countries but that also responds to the legitimate need for work, family unity and basic human dignity. It is one thing to develop homeland security to deter terrorists. It is quite another to treat innocent people as less than human. Comprehensive immigration reform, which provides legal entry for migrants, is required.
Fourth, we need to educate people to see firsthand the harsh realities along the border. As one Mexican official said when confronted about the inhumane conditions in the casas de huespedes, “Well, at least we don’t have furnaces.” The comment pierced to the heart, especially for my Jewish companions. Yet people are being led into the furnace of the desert, if you will, where they die from heat exhaustion and lack of water. We need to break down the myths that blind people to the real human suffering going on right around us.
Finally, we need to intensify our humanitarian response to those in need. Our next-door neighbors lack basic human necessities that others have in abundance. This cries out for a response. The pope’s document Ecclesia in America reminds us that for the people of God there are no boundaries or borders. We are one in Christ.
I came back home that night to the same comfort I had left in the morning, but now uneasy with that comfort. I came back home secure as ever, wondering what happened to those 22 young men from Chiapas that we met. How did those 60 people fare who had been jammed together in that small space waiting to head north? I wondered what became of the 25 men, women and children I blessed who were stuffed into the van headed toward Sasabe. Some may have died. Some may have been sent back. Some may have entered the United States only to discover that they had not arrived in paradise.
How can we remain silent? How can we not shout out? Dachau and Auschwitz demand action from us. Though the Holocaust differed from the current border situation in governmental intent, scope, magnitude and effect, it is disturbing to note that they share certain painful common elements. Because of the policies of the U.S. and Mexican governments that blockade the border and give rise to smugglers, people are being led to their death—this time migrants who seek a better life for themselves and their families. A record 146 migrants have died in the Arizona desert this year. More than 2,500 have died along the border since the beginning of the blockades. The loss of one life because of our silence is unacceptable. The loss of thousands is immoral.
I could only think of the teacher’s letter posted in Dachau, pleading for an end to atrocities, to inhumanity, to silence. Never again!