Since moving to the borderlands of the Mexican frontier last year, I have been amazed at what the migrants are willing to go through in seeking a better life for themselves and for their children. The causes for migration are numerous: in many areas gangs and cartels operate openly; in other areas climate change has made farming impossible; some countries have become failed states and lack basic necessities; LGBT+ persons are among those fleeing persecution because of who they are.
I see families risking everything, even death, for the slimmest opportunity at a better life in the U.S. for themselves and their children. Most come knowing that their chances of being granted asylum by the immigration judges are extremely low, but they are willing to come for that mere possibility of a better life – or for at least for a couple of years of safety.
Some of the people I’ve interviewed have been on the road for months or years. It’s not uncommon to meet a couple with, for example, two small children: the parents might be from Venezuela, with one child born in Brazil and the other born in Panama!
When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat them. The stranger who lives as a foreigner with you shall be to you as the native-born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you lived as foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am Yahweh your God.
To get from Colombia to Panama, migrants must cross the Darian Gap – a wild jungle with natural barriers such as swamps and rivers and human predators preying on the most vulnerable.
Ignatius Harding OFM, who is here with me in El Paso, Texas, was conducting an interview with a newly arrived father and daughter. He asked him if his wife would be joining them.
“No,” the father said, “my wife drowned in the Darian Gap.”
We heard of another family with five young children. The mother also drowned, and the father was left trying to care for the children by himself. Luckily, another man “adopted” the family and accompanied them through the gap and up to the U.S. border. The men took turns sleeping at night, so that one would be awake to watch over the children.
Some migrants have told me that the worse part of their trek through the Darian Gap was seeing all the dead bodies.
One woman was making her way to join her husband in the States. She was accompanied by her small daughter and her next-door neighbors with their two small children. When crossing a rushing river, she lost her balance. She was able to toss her daughter up onto the riverbank and someone grabbed her arm to help her out of the river. She looked back to see the other couple and their children being swept away down the river.
Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Most of the migrants we see are couples in their 20s with young children. The children have seen horrific things on their journey here, but I find their resilience to be amazing. Within minutes of coming into our shelter, they begin playing with the other kids. It is wonderous to see Haitian children, Latino children, and children from other cultures organize themselves and learn to speak a common language made up of a mixture of Haitian creole, Spanish, Mayan, and other languages.
It is also quite clear, watching them play, that racism is learned. They see no differences between themselves, beyond that of language, but even there they learn to communicate.
Undoubtedly, the trauma they experienced will affect them throughout their lives, but – having reached the safety of our shelter – they can be children again and simply play.
Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
to a city where they could settle.
At the migrant center in Agua Prieta, Mexico, we mostly dealt with migrants who had crossed the border illegally, were caught and then sent back across the border. I encountered a man, older than most, maybe in his mid-40s. He was walking very gingerly, so I could tell that he had hurt his feet in the desert, not an uncommon occurrence. I asked him how he was doing.
“I feel so blessed,” he replied.
I was surprised because of the condition of this feet and the fact that he had been caught and expelled from the United States, and so I asked him why. He told me that he had become separated from his group the first night in the desert. (This was last February, when the temperatures at night in the desert were in the 20s.) He wandered that night and then hid out during the day. The following night, he thought that he would die from hypothermia.
He said that he prayed and put everything in God’s hands. He looked up and thought that he saw a cross in the sky pointing to a star on the horizon. He walked towards that star and came a small settlement. All the houses were dark except one. He went to that house, intending to ask them to call the Border Patrol to turn himself in.
When he knocked, though, the person answering the door, said, “Shh! There are migrants here.”
He went in to discover that the migrants there were from his group! They had arrived the night before! He told me that that they waited in the safe house for a couple of days and were then loaded into cars for the journey up to Tucson. His car was stopped, and that’s why he was returned to Mexico and our migrant center.
For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.
According to UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are over 100 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. As ocean levels rise and climate change continues to play havoc with our fragile world, this number will inevitably continue to spiral upwards.
Watching the news, one can get the impression that the borderlands are a wild territory with masses of migrants chaotically rushing the bridges over the Rio Grande. The reality is quite different.
The migrants we see are families and vulnerable people seeking a better life. As each new group is dropped off at the shelter by the immigration authorities, we tell them, “¡Ustedes son libres! You are free!” While they still face the immediate difficulty of getting to their destination in the U.S. and – down the road – having to face immigration courts which deny most asylum claims, for the moment they are in the U.S., and they and their children are out of danger.