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