You have to leave Washington to know the reality of migrants at the border

In this July 17, 2019 file photo, three migrants who had managed to evade the Mexican National Guard and cross the Rio Grande onto U.S. territory walk along a border wall set back from the geographical border, in El Paso, Texas, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

The bus in Agua Prieta is crowded on this late September morning. I am sitting between a mix of locals on their daily commutes and a delegation of Catholic sisters and other immigrant advocates. We are bumping through this town in the northeast corner of the Mexican state of Sonora, just across the border from Douglas, Ariz. After a brief trip, we pull up at the Centro de Atención al Migrante Exodus.

The migrant shelter, connected to the Sagrada Familia Catholic parish, is small and unassuming. Inside, a large fan in the corner labors with little success to defeat the desert heat. Chairs are arranged in groups of small circles. For the next hour, I get a crash course in the realities that migrants face when they try and cross an increasingly militarized border. There is no self-serving stump speech from a politician or cable news punditry today—instead, only the pain and persistence that migrants share with us through tears, the incongruous but reassuring laughter of their children playing in the background.

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“I want our stories known,” a Cuban man seeking asylum tells us. “There are no human rights in my country, and you can’t express what you think.” His wife, an aspiring doctor, cries as she recounts what she describes as harassment from the regime of Raul Castro. “I gave up everything to cross the border,” she says. “I want to be free. The United States is a country of opportunities.”

“I want our stories known,” a Cuban man seeking asylum tells us. “There are no human rights in my country, and you can’t express what you think.”

After only half an hour in conversation, I am struck by how much trauma is in this room. The emotional wounds of leaving everything you know behind, the physical injuries many have endured on their journeys and the psychological distress of living in a precarious limbo state where the future is uncertain feels palpable. Some of the migrants speak about still living in fear of the drug cartels that harassed and extorted them, the grim reality that lurks outside the four walls of this temporary sanctuary.

Despite the weight you feel as migrants share their stories, there is also extraordinary resilience. “We will not be a burden to the government,” one migrant says. “We want to work hard and take care of our families.”

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When the migrants arrive at the shelter—after journeys from southern Mexico, Cuba, Central America, even recently as far away as Russia—they are given an identification number, which the shelter uses to keep track of their stay. Next, they are taken to a small waiting area at a port of entry down the road where they officially ask to enter and apply for asylum in the United States. They then wait until they are called by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer. It can take a month, if not more, before the migrants are called to even make their claim.

“We will not be a burden to the government,” one migrant says. “We want to work hard and take care of our families.”

“Most people are leaving their communities because of violence and displacement of their lands, others because of political repression,” Adalberto Ramos Gutiérrez, the shelter director, told me. Of all the many Trump administration policies that have left migrants with increasingly few options, the most harmful, Mr. Gutiérrez says, is what is commonly referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” policy. Asylum seekers arriving by land at the U.S.-Mexico border, even after passing a credible fear of persecution screening—a first step in the process for requesting asylum—are now required to return to Mexico to await their asylum hearing in U.S. immigration court. “This generates uncertainty in their process and puts them at risk,” Mr. Gutiérrez said.

Staff and volunteers at the shelter, and a migrant resource center across the street, are also in greater danger now. “Defending migrants in Mexico has been criminalized,” Mr. Gutiérrez said.

Sister Lucy Nigh, who lives across the border in Douglas, Ariz., is a volunteer at the shelter who has worked with migrants for the past decade. Mexican volunteers, she notes, are especially at risk and have been threatened for helping the migrants. “The U.S. volunteers have been an important support throughout the past six months when Agua Prieta has experienced an influx of asylum seekers,” Sister Nigh says.

“Ranulfo Arroyo Cirilo, Age 44,” is written in white paint on the cross, a marker where the migrant’s body was found in the spring of 2014.

After our group walks back across the border into the United States with a simple show of a passport, we take a bus to a patch of desert less than a mile from the border wall. A short walk down a dirt road, we gather around a small wooden cross painted red. “Ranulfo Arroyo Cirilo, Age 44,” is written in white paint on the cross, a marker where the migrant’s body was found in the spring of 2014.

A white cross marks to place where the body of Ranulfo Arroyo Cirilo was found in 2014. (Photo by author)
A white cross marks to place where the body of Ranulfo Arroyo Cirilo was found in 2014. (Photo by author)

The School Sisters of Notre Dame started erecting these crosses in the desert four years ago, and of the 315 bodies found in this area over the last two decades, one-third now have crosses memorializing their lives. Gabriel Saspe, an indigenous man from the Yaqui tribe who is a retired Catholic deacon, leads us in a brief prayer service, influenced by Native American spirituality, that includes the burning of copal, a type of sap, and the blowing of conch shells, caracoles in Spanish.

“This is to memorialize our brother and all of those laying out there without a cross,” Mr. Saspe says, turning around to take in the beautiful, foreboding landscape in the distance. It is in the mid-90s today; the desert brush around us is prickly and catches on your legs. After only a few minutes out here, the sun is overwhelming. Since 2000, in Arizona alone, over 3,000 bodies have been found in the desert, a grim result of desperate migrants taking more dangerous routes in response to increased militarization at the border.

I returned home to the nation’s capital—where President Trump continues to double down on cruel policies—carrying a stone I picked up in the desert and the stories of migrants.

“We are doing this for Ranulfo, his family, his grandparents, great grandparents, and all the way down to the ancestral lands, which could be right here,” the deacon says. “All of this is native land.”

I live in Washington, D.C., many miles and a cultural world away from this corner of the country. An invitation from the Minneapolis-based GHR Foundation brought me to the U.S.-Mexico border for this immersion trip, which was paired with strategy and brainstorming meetings that included an eclectic group made up of Catholic religious sisters, secular non-profit leaders, border experts, artists and community activists. Given how much time I spend reacting to a relentless media cycle, where opportunities for reflection and discernment are few, it was a rare gift to step back, to reflect on the success of immigration advocacy work already happening on the ground and to think big in a room full of creative people.

It is an understatement to say there are no easy fixes for the complex push factors that drive migration. The glaring deficiencies of political systems to respond effectively and humanely to the largest movement of people across the globe since the Second World War are obvious. But I left hopeful and more convinced than ever that knocking down walls that silo us into disparate sectors is essential to creating both the political momentum and the lasting infrastructure needed to address what Pope Francis calls a “globalization of indifference.”

I returned home to the nation’s capital—where President Trump continues to double down on cruel policies—carrying a stone I picked up in the desert and the stories of migrants. The politics of the hour are dark and cynical, driving us into defensive, fearful postures. On the border, I was reminded again of the most powerful response I have to the resurgence of a nativism that distorts the truth and divides people. The lonely cross I visited in the desert, encircled by those of us who never knew the dead man, could be looked at as a symbol of defeat and despair.

But for Christians, the cross is a source of liberation that connects God and all of us to the pain and brokenness of the world. Christ’s outstretched arms reach across the border walls of language, culture and country. Standing there in the silence of that stark landscape, where immigrants die thirsting for justice, I prayed to the migrant Jesus. And from that prayer comes action.

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JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 6 days ago

What horrors has Catholic social policies wrought. Yet we have people in the Vatican wanting to remake the world in their image. The first step to a cure for what caused these migrants to leave their homes is to admit the dysfunctional polices that have created their countries and to acknowledge the policies that have made the US their destination.

Laura Gonzalez
2 weeks 6 days ago

"Dysfunctional policies"? You mean like greedy oligarchies willing to sell everything they can to US companies who go in and wreak havoc? Do you mean the US history of inserting itself in these countries and making them into personal fiefdoms? What's good for the United Fruit Company is good for all Guatemalans.

Shall we talk about the rightwing government death squads bankrolled and supported by the US? No, let's not, it's not very popular.
"But they still come to the US!" I can hear you shouting. Yes, because the countries that surround them were also used and thrown to the side after being raped by the US. Go where the money went.

JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 5 days ago

They were dysfunctional from the start and the United States had little to do with Latin America except for Mexico with which it had a war. Compare the territory that became part of the United States with Mexico to see how different social and economic policies worked for the people. If you want to bring up United Fruit then you are admitting the countries were dysfunctional to allow this to happen. And they were dysfunctional due to Catholic Church social policies that accompanied the colonization of Spain and Portugal.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
2 weeks 5 days ago

Yep -- and Francis' Argentina was doing pretty well as a beef exporter to the UK before Peronism created a "new development model," i.e., poverty. So much like "liberation theology" (AKA communism with the word "God" thrown in).

Fred Keyes
2 weeks 3 days ago

"They were dysfunctional from the start"

To make such a generalized statement with absolutely no context or argument to support it is simply wrong. Cosgrove, why should we take your opinions seriously?

Alan Johnstone
2 weeks 3 days ago

To J Cosgrove
There is a deep and complex history connecting the arrival and colonisation and exploitation of both American continents and the bits in between.

Your posts are informed and thoughtful in the main but some things you take for granted leave me very puzzled.

OK, a Pope in Rome a long time ago divided up the entire world to the Catholic kingdoms of Europe assigning different parts of the globe as their mission fields.

For complex reasons, these European civilisations were already sailing the seven seas looking for trade, booty, slaves and acquiring knowledge of other resources and arts and skills.
Protestants and non-conformists took east coast of North America and Spanish and Portuguese Catholics the rest with a smattering of others like French, Germans and Dutch.
The cross and the sword travelled together, historians dispute whether they were carried and utilised by the same people. You might have an opinion of that. Guns and germs drastically altered the life, liberty and happiness of all the inhabitants who had arrived about 10 thousand years earlier and saturated the lands.

Now, to my main perplexity. I left the formal study of history sixty years ago but believing that the Americas were in turmoil with government such as it was modelled on European Catholic lines but gravely interfered with by North American Anglo-Saxon Protestant economic colonialism and subversion of South American governance to suit trade and primary produce. Vance Packard was all the rage amongst undergraduates at the time here in Oz.
Why do you keep saying the dysfunctional governments south of the border are to be blamed on the Catholic Church? Genuine enquiry, real interest.

JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 2 days ago

The Catholic Church advocated a social philosophy for almost 1500 years called the "Great Chain of Being." This said there was a natural order to maintain and essentially enslaved 98% of its members to permanent servitude. This changed in England in the 1600's as religious battles between different Protestant sects caused the king to have less power and more for parliament. This eventually led to freedom for the common man and to the industrial revolution in England and its colonies.

JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 2 days ago

The entire world suppressed freedom for all of history so it wasn’t just the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church bought into some of the ideas of Plato’s Republic which recommend this hierarchy as the most effective form of government. It obviously was anything but and is an example of Plato/Socrates erroneous thinking. Spain and Portugal took this philosophy to its colonies.

JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 2 days ago

Spain kept their colonies very isolated till the early 1800’s when many revolted. They only let Humboldt in because he was an expert in mining and they hoped he might help them find more gold and silver. So to claim the United States caused their backwardness is disingenuous but is part of the political masquerade that goes on in the United States.

JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 2 days ago

Because of the religious wars in England more freedom came to the common man in England and Holland. The best example is Pennsylvania which was called the poor man’s country because everyone was equal even the poorest person. William Penn invited poor German farmers to Pennsylvania and within a hundred years 80,000 came and most became prosperous. Philadelphia was the most vibrant city in the Western Hemisphere in 1750’s. There is a large area in Philadelphia called Germantown.

Christopher Lochner
2 weeks 6 days ago

This is a self-congratulatory tome if ever there was one. Note how the author rambles along (substance?), firstly mentions the importance of those with whom he met in DC , then notes the problem to be difficult (!!!), then notes the cross as symbolic of liberation (from?) ending with, ".. I prayed to the migrant Jesus. And from that prayer comes action." Such hyperbole, Such claptrap. Not even the hint of a solution was offered and so this really isn't about the problem as much as the glory of the individuals who state the problem. Where is the love for those already suffering in a country? Where is the concern for those living in failed states such as Venezuela? How can this love, which is born more of ego, and embraces some more than others ever be referred to as a Christian love? It is much more of a selective love representative of a worship for various ideologies and secular leadership. It is rarely a love for a person. Dear Reader, for this and the answer to other world and otherworldly issues perhaps it would be best to read the author's book. I imagine this is the rationale for the book to even be listed!

Laura Gonzalez
2 weeks 6 days ago

Ah, yes. The rightwing cry of "What about Venezuela!?!" This usually comes from people who ahve no idea of the history of the country, or the reality on the ground. But since it fits the rightwing narrative of an example of SOCIALISM (crosses self while shuddering), it must be brought up at every opportunity.

JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 5 days ago

It was the richest country in Latin America till Chavez and socialism destroyed it. Now with the largest reserves of oil in the world is the poorest. How anyone tries to defend that is beyond me.

Fred Keyes
2 weeks 3 days ago

Cosgrove, no one is defending Hugo Chavez or his party's actions. But you are creating a boogeyman by conflating his brand of government with your use of the word "socialism." It's much too facile a way to smear governments with a term that has become undefinable because it's used to describe realities as varied as the oppressive governments of Mao and Stalin all the way to the benign socialism of some Scandanavian countries and even the socialism practiced by the Apostles. Sharpen up your arguments, man--what exactly do you mean by "socialism?"

JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 2 days ago

Maduro is a member of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela founded by Hugo Chavez who identified himself with Marxism and a believer in Cuba under the Castro's. The party advocated socialism of the Marxist type. It's in their own words in their proclamations.
Scandinavia are free market capitalist countries. You are confusing high taxes and generous social programs with socialism which is state control of the economy. This control can be direct in ownership or through regulation which makes industry vassals of the state.

JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 2 days ago

Socialism has been tried probably over a hundred times and failed in all except one. In that one case, it was rejected after one generation. Read Joshua Muravchik's Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism amzn.to/33tTB5Y
An economic professor once told us that socialism can work only as far as the eye can see, that is amongst small homogeneous groups. Sharing resources in common is part of the family, religious orders or other small groups of people but not a vibrant society.

Fred Keyes
2 weeks 2 days ago

Cosgrove, your explanation of socialism leaves much to be desired. To you, apparently, societal socialism and Marxist-Leninist communism are identical. As long as you keep making that error, your opinions will remain intellectually slothful and rationalized in the extreme.

JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 2 days ago

I am sorry but I have read several books on socialism. Marxism/Communism is one form and the most extreme. There are many others but I have never heard of anything called societal socialism. I suggest you read the Muravchik book so you can understand what economists and political scientists understand by socialism. Socialism can even use dependent industries as is now done in China and by fascism first in Italy and then in Germany. The key is state control.

JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 2 days ago

From Wikipedia - "Socialism is a range of economic and social systems characterized by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production as well as the political theories and movements associated with them. Social ownership may refer to forms of public, collective or cooperative ownership, or to citizen ownership of equity. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them." Couldn't find a definition of "societal socialism."

Fred Keyes
2 weeks 1 day ago

Excellent, Cosgrove! Now please keep that in mind when you attack socialism you need to be very specific about what you are talking about; don't just conflate every kind of socialist ideology.

Note that I did not capitalize "societal socialism." It's merely my own term term to describe the variety of socialist philosophies, as noted by your excellent Wiki description.

JR Cosgrove
2 weeks 1 day ago

But every form of socialism has failed. If not point to one that hasn't? Again I suggest you read Muravchik book.

Fred Keyes
2 weeks 1 day ago

[duplicate]

Christopher Lochner
2 weeks 5 days ago

I'm really curious. Why is this "right wing"? I consider it to be real vs not- real Christians. Real Christians are concerned with ALL suffering. The "nots" are ONLY concerned when it suits their political narrative. Migrants illegally entering the U.S. is a good issue. Migrants fleeing from Venezuela is the concern of those terrible right- wingers. Lord, how I despise hypocrites. Of course, I'm not suggesting you are.

Alan Johnstone
2 weeks 3 days ago

Laura Gonzales
A truth repeated remains true.
You have just demeaned yourself by trying to belittle a comment referring to the catastrophe of Venezuela by calling it a "right wing" cry.
A thriving peaceful democratic society supported by rich oil reserves being managed by private businesses in a mixed economy with law managed free markets changes to a Socialist state and becomes a basket case with people eating grass or fleeing over the border to neighbouring states.
If you support an atheistic neo-Marxist analysis of history and endorse their recipe for salvation of humankind by transformation of society through elimination of money then some of us think you are a blithering idiot, failing to learn from historical experience and contradicting the only true salvation by the life, death and resurrection of Our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

Give intelligent argument rather than sloganeering and mockery which wastes our time and does you no credit.

Christopher Lochner
2 weeks 6 days ago

BTW. If you believe in the concept of a separation of church and state you may want to check the site of the organization to which the author is a staff member this being Faith in Public Life. (And you thought I was being alarmist when I mentioned the danger of a theocracy!) If, as Samuel Johnson said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” one wonders what this makes people of "certificates of religion" out to be. Of course, donations are welcomed!! They are just another PAC passing themselves off as religious. It is becoming increasingly difficult to ascertain what the meaning of "religious" is anymore.

George Obregon
2 weeks 6 days ago

Many North Africans are sneaking across our U.S. southern border and most Americans are completely unaware of this. North Africa is a breeding ground for Islamo-terror.
/geo ex machina

Laura Gonzalez
2 weeks 6 days ago

So FOX News would have us believe...

George Obregon
2 weeks 5 days ago

You should stop listening to the Leftmedia. Free your mind if you can.

+ It's reprehensible that democrats in Congress are opposed to Homeland Security on our southern Border. For shame.
/geo ex machina

Fred Keyes
2 weeks 4 days ago

No; rather it's a shame that some Catholics seem to have no empathy for their fellow Catholics.

George Obregon
2 weeks 3 days ago

It's more of a shame that the naive author of this hastily-written article−and the Vatican−both have no respect for the rule of International Law and for America's sovereign borders in particular...

Let the both of them open the personal borders of their places for anyone to walk in willy-nilly, and then get back to us with the results.
/First Year Law students, pay attention.

Dionys Murphy
2 weeks 1 day ago

"Islamo-terror" -- Great boogeyman story. Along with "socialism." Sadly the FBI and statistics have made it perfectly clear that the greatest threat to America lies in the domestic terrorism of white supremacists, who are supported by the current government in power. It's disturbing that you can't see the actual danger in America because Faux "news" is pointing to the dark skinned "islamo terrorists" saying "look at them! Don't look at the President or all his domestic terrorists."

Christopher Scott
2 weeks 6 days ago

It’s God’s fault everyone wasn’t born in a colonized country,...even though the colonized countries are the root of all evils. All hail PachaMama

Terry Kane
2 weeks 5 days ago

As I understand it, Cubans are admitted to the USA without restriction.
The immigrants from other nations must be accepted according to the laws. Unrestricted immigration is not allowed. Instead of making this country the cruel, uncaring villain, change the laws.
The tone of this article is one which tries to appeal to our compassion and ignores the facts of legality. How dare the United States not allow anyone on earth who is in pain from coming in!
Instead of taking all who wish better lives, why not go to where these unfortunates live and improve the living conditions there? Wouldn't it be better to improve the countries from which they came? Their families are there and they already know the language and social norms.
It doesn't make sense to expect this country to take people into our "racist" nation rather than try to make things better in their homeland. Why subject these sad folks to this cruel, unfeeling country where they will just be forced to endure all the prejudice?
All the efforts of the those at America Magazine to make us ashamed of our nation's laws would be better spent going to the countries from which these unhappy people came and improving the living conditions there. There are a lot of people in the world who want a better life, but it is unrealistic to think all these people can all be accommodated here.

Dionys Murphy
2 weeks 1 day ago

"Wouldn't it be better to improve the countries from which they came?" -- Yes. Sadly US Policies and interventions have done the opposite, often destroying those countries or purposefully installing people who lead to a failed state. It's simply US Policy coming home to roost in the reality of displaced people.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
2 weeks 5 days ago

You also have to leave the editorial opiners of New York and Washington to realize the cost of illegal immigrants impose on working class Americans. Close the border!

Gene 92118
2 weeks 3 days ago

Unlike the author, we live 15 miles from the Mexican Border. The legal Mexican immigrants in San Diego are opposed to illegal immigration for a number of important reasons (economic, safety, etc.). The problem is NOT Trump, but the Democrats in Congress who refuse to improve both the legal immigration system as well as border security which tempts immigrants to cross the border illegally and often be harmed or die in the process.

Terry Kane
2 weeks 3 days ago

"You have to leave Washington to know the reality of migrants at the border," and you have to leave the United States to know the reality of the rest of the world.
We have it better here than any other nation on earth. However, we do not keep our success a secret; we are not a better race of people; we have not just been lucky to have this great nation - we inherited it from wise founders (and we had better keep what they gave us intact or we will lose it forever). Any other country can imitate our success, but they choose not to do so.
The would-be immigrants at the border and elsewhere want to come here rather than stay in their homeland and improve conditions there. The founders chose to change conditions in the North American colonies, and they made a new nation; others can do the same in a different place. The Jesuits can and should help in that effort.

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