ALTAR, MEXICO — This is a place where simple truths — that migrants should not have to die in the desert in search of a way to feed their families — and all the complicated nuances of international trade and immigration policy get woven up together.
Talk about immigration policy, and before long you’re talking about terrorism and globalization and job supply-and-demand and lawbreaking and justice, and so much more.
Father Daniel Groody, a priest who’s director of the Center for Latino Spirituality at Notre Dame University and has spent time along the U.S.- Mexican border interviewing migrants and Border Patrol officers and vigilantes and humanitarian groups, says each group contributes something worth listening to, that this is complicated stuff. But the bits and pieces also begin to add up to understanding — and a determination, on the part of some Presbyterians, that some things need to change.
One pastor from Phoenix said at a recent conference that he’s heard people say, “I don’t want to talk about those migrants” — and certainly, in the border states, not everyone’s first reaction to migrants is sympathy. Some people think first of the illegality of their actions and the strain an influx of migrants puts on education and social services and the jobs they take that could go to U.S. citizens.
But “the border has crossed all of us,” contends John Fife, a former General Assembly moderator and pastor of Southside Church in Tucson. What he means in part is that illegal immigration has brought a massive number of undocumented workers into the U.S. — estimates range from about 9 million to 21 million — and the ripple effects are being felt all across the country, in the small towns of Iowa, where migrants work in the slaughterhouses; in North Carolina and Florida and California, where they pick the crops.
Across the country, migrants are decried as criminals but do work that benefits U.S. citizens — picking produce, building highways, roofing houses, cleaning office buildings and hotels, cutting grass, caring for children and the elderly, and working in restaurants where they’re cooks, they’re dish washers, they’re cashiers, according to Lydia HernÃ¡ndez, executive director of Manos de Cristo (Hands of Christ), a non-profit organization that provides services to immigrants, the homeless and the working poor in Austin, Texas. “It’s so hypocritical because we count on their labor,” Hernandez said.
Jorge LÃ³pez-Pérez, is moderator of La Iglesia NacionÃ¡l Presbiteriana de México — and he was even more direct.
“We need to know that migrants are not terrorists — they are the result of terror,” LÃ³pez-Pérez said. “Migrants are not the ones that rob us — rather, they are the result of that which has been taken away from them.”
The whole complicated mess was dissected and prodded April 14-16 at a conference called “Life and Death on the Border,” sponsored by the Synod of the Southwest and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly and a founder of BorderLinks, a nonprofit group that tries to educate people of faith about border issues, also led a one-day trip to northern Mexico on April 13 for about half of the conference’s 140 participants, who came from the U.S., Mexico and Canada, and included both Christians and Jews.
This was a time for learning, for hearing stories, for trying to understand.
So here’s a starting point. Since 1997, thousands of migrants have died trying to cross the border into the U.S., including men, women and children, some of them baking to death in heat that can hit 140 degrees or higher. They take the risk because they can’t afford not to — the wages are so much higher in the U.S., and they cannot support their families if they stay at home. They come from all over Central America, crossing border after border, even from as far away as Brazil.
This is story of a wealthy, powerful nation bumping up against smaller, poorer ones. This is a story of farmers who plant their crops, but don’t make enough to make a living when they take their harvest to market. This is a story of economics and power and politics.
But ultimately, it’s a story of people.
Casa de la Misericordia
The road climbs up the hills to Casa de la Misericordia (the House of Mercy), leading away from the crowded markets of Nogales, Mexico, leading up into the neighborhoods of dirt and dust and two-room shacks. The Casa has been here for more than two decades now, and about five years ago, with the Casa in danger of closing, BorderLinks bought the property to keep the program alive.
The Casa now operates a day-care center (with funding for about 25 children and space for 70); a feeding program where 300 children are given a hot meal each school day; educational programs for adults (teaching them English and skills such as hair-cutting, sewing and cake decorating) and community banks to make small loans to family-run businesses (such as making tamales or school uniforms). This is an outpost of hope in a place without much hope.
Esther Torres, who runs the children’s lunch program, started with three neighbors making sandwiches in their own kitchens when they couldn’t stand seeing so many children go hungry. First it was 100 sandwiches a day, then 200, paid for from their own pockets. Since then they have hunted down other sources of support, but it comes and goes, there’s never enough.
Francisco “Kiko” Trujillo, BorderLinks’ director in Mexico, grew up in Nogales, and, with Ufford-Chase translating from Spanish, he traced for the BorderLinks group some of the area’s recent economic history. In the 1960s, for example, the Mexican government established free trade zones along the border — giving financial and tax incentives for foreign-owned factories called maquiladoras to be built and operate south of the border.
The maquiladoras attracted workers by the thousands from all over Mexico and they pay Mexican workers about 25 pesos an hour — less than $4.00 a day, Trujillo said, just a fraction of the U.S. minimum wage and often not enough to support the workers’ families.
Still, even a low-paying job is better than none — so the migrants keep coming. Nogales now has a population of more than 350,000, without the infrastructure needed to support such growth. Houses are thrown together out of packing crates and cardboard and corrugated metal. Teachers struggle to educate 65 children per class
If you take the maquiladoras away, “the border will die,” Jorge Alvarado, co-director of Presbyterian Border Ministries, said in an interview. “Some people say the maquiladoras are evil, but necessary.”
About 60 miles south of the border, Altar is a jumping-off point for migrants preparing to cross over illegally — a place to buy supplies, to stamp down the fear, to find transportation for the last stretch and make connections with the “coyotes” who will lead them across. (See “Many journeys, many people” in last week’s Outlook.) Father Rene Castaneda Castro is the Catholic priest here, and the leader of CCAMYN (The Community Center for Assistance to Migrants and People in Need), which offers food, shelter and a safe place for some of those passing through.
Castaneda is a realist — he knows that much of Altar’s economy is now based on the migrant trade, selling the migrants backpacks, piling them into vans to drive them closer to the border, providing them a phone to use to let someone in the U.S. know they are coming. The region’s economy had been based on agriculture and cattle — both of which have been hard-hit by the impact of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.
When Castaneda arrived in Altar, he saw the migrants gathering outside the church in the town square — “the plaza was full all the time with all these people,” he said, with Ufford-Chase translating. Castaneda began to talk with them, and discovered “almost nobody who was in the park came from here” — they had all migrated north towards the border. “I was evangelized by them,” Castaneda said, as they told him where they were from and why they had come.
He began to lift up their concerns in his sermons, in Bible study, but some in his parish asked, “What’s the priest been smoking lately?” One day before Mass he was speaking with a group of elegant, well-dressed women from the parish, “and they asked me a question that made my blood freeze,” he said: “Did the bishop send you to work with us or with them?”
Castaneda said he felt touched at that moment by the Holy Spirit, and answered that “the bishop sent me to work with both — and they are children of God just as you are children of God.”
Gradually, people became more accepting — but there is still opposition to assisting the migrants, both in Mexico and the U.S.
Castaneda was asked about the Minutemen, volunteers from the U.S. who have spread out along the western Arizona border to try to round up migrants crossing over. “Picture a basketball” being submerged in water, he replied. You can push the basketball under, but the water will just move somewhere else. As the Minutemen block one section of the border, more migrants in Altar cross farther east.
“Until we begin to deal with the root causes” — the economic reasons the migrants are heading north — “we’re not going to see a difference,” Castaneda said. Some Minutemen describe the migrants as criminals or terrorists or invaders, but “every migrant comes looking for a job and a way to eat and survive and protect the dignity of his or her family,” he said. “You all know migrants are not choosing to come to the Sonora Desert for vacation.”
Talking to God
Groody, an assistant professor of theology at Notre Dame, has spent time over the last decade talking to migrants about God, in detention centers and hospitals, waiting to cross over, under the hot desert sun. He asks them what God looks like when they’ve run out of water and are afraid of death. One man told how his daughter said she was hungry and asked for food — and he knew he had no food left to give her. “She looks at you with these big eyes and says, ‘Daddy, give me something to eat,'” Groody says in a documentary he’s helped make about the migrants.
When you hear that, you’ll walk for as long as it takes, the father told Groody. “You’ll go to another country.”
Groody has come to see migration into the U.S. as sort of a living story of a crucified people — a story of oppression, sacrifice, risk, challenge, faith, hope and love. He speaks of the parallels of the biblical story and the migration journey — of the parting of the Red Sea as Moses led the Israelites out of slavery, of a family of 15 he met who swam across the Rio Grande.
In the Old Testament, Yahweh tells the people, “I’ve liberated you from Egypt . . . but when you get to the promised land, don’t forget where you come from,” Groody said. He called that “the most radical thing” — that “biblically the national security rests in being faithful to the covenant,” in caring for the most vulnerable and the oppressed.
Groody sees God everywhere in the desert.
He told of driving with a friend when they saw a man standing by the side of the road holding an empty water jug. The friend drove on past, knowing it’s against the law to give an illegal migrant a ride, saying, “I never take chances with people like that.” Then the priest said: “That’s Jesus. Pick him up.”
Groody talked to a migrant who’d been left behind in the desert by the rest of his group, who got lost and prayed he’d find a road. Groody asked the man what he’d learned about God. The man told him: “I learned that the only friend I’ll ever have is God. He’s the only one who’s always with me.”
There is not time, in just a few busy days, to master all the intricacies of globalization and international trade agreements. The migrants themselves may not know exactly how they work. But they know they’re having an impact.
Back in Tucson, Ufford-Chase told of a trip he’d made to Guatemala two years ago, and how he’d met some women who’d set up a potato-farming cooperative in their village. The first year was promising — they’d started to make money. The second year, when they brought their potatoes to market, a man set up a stand not far away and began selling potatoes for half the price they were charging. Where did his potatoes come from? They were grown on large agri-business farms in Canada, Ufford-Chase said, then shipped to Guatemala for sale.
Even college-educated professionals from the poorer countries are crossing the border because they can’t make a living. In Los Angeles, Moisés Escalante, who is with the Interfaith Coalition for Immigration Rights, said he’s seeing growing numbers of doctors, engineers, educators, even pastors.
“The root causes of migration are real,” Ufford-Chase told the crowd. “They may seem like letters to us” — as in NAFTA (which created an economic community of Mexico, the U.S. and Canada) or CAFTA (which seeks to add Central American countries piecemeal). Ufford-Chase said his wife, Kitty, referred to another, failed proposal to include all of Central and South America in a trade agreement as “NAFTA on speed.”
Ufford-Chase said he doesn’t think it makes sense to oppose free trade altogether, “because we are a global economy, it’s already happening.” Economists might argue that NAFTA has brought Mexico more foreign dollars and made it more productive than ever before, Ufford-Chase said. But “Mexicans have never been more poor than they are now,” he continued – more people live in poverty and the worst-off are worse than ever before.
“You and I have been encouraged to believe and to buy into a lie,” that it’s appropriate to receive all the benefits of a global economy while taking no responsibility for the global community,” Ufford-Chase said. “It’s the worst kind of lie. It’s not biblical.”
So it’s the responsibility of church, he argues, to insist that all people be treated justly and have the opportunity to earn a living wage. “It’s not going to happen if we wait for politicians to do it, I guarantee it,” he said. And of business: “We are going to wait until we are dead if we wait for them.”
Love drives people north
When Gerald Kicanas, Roman Catholic bishop of the diocese of Tucson, went to Altar not long ago, he looked into the faces of the men he saw in the church there, their heads bowed, their lips moving in prayer. “As I looked into the faces of those young men, I saw human beings, individuals,” not criminals or terrorists, Kicanas said.
He understood what brought them there.
“Work drives people north,” Kicanas said. “Love for people’s families drives people north. A desire to live a decent life drives people north. What I’d like to suggest today is we all make a decision to learn more about this human reality of migration. Even the most casual observer would realize that the migration of people is driven by larger forces — economic, social and political.”
It’s not enough, he argued, “for the people of faith to sit on the sideline, just to watch the world go by and offer prayers. … We need to get involved.”
And the most important priority of the new pope, Kicanas said, will be “to find a way to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor nations, the gulf that exists between the first and the third worlds.”
In the desert
For some who live in Arizona, the pain of the migrants is enough to bring them out into the desert. Last year, volunteers distributed 30,000 gallons of water, searched in four-wheel drives for those who needed food or medical help.
“We’ve found folks out in the desert with everything from broken arms to broken legs,” Fife said. They’ve found people beaten by bandits, women who’d been raped, “people whose feet looked like hamburger” because their shoes had worn through.
Fife has worked with a humanitarian group called “Samaritans,” and now with a movement called “No More Deaths,” which is trying to change immigration policy and to establish a permanent, faith-based presence in the desert through outposts it calls “Arks of the Covenant.”
Erin Tromble, a young adult volunteer in mission, met eight migrants last summer who’d crossed from Tijuana. “They were cold, they were wet, they were hungry, and we had almost nothing for them,” Tromble said. “To this day, the faces of those people still stand in my mind. To this day I can see them standing against the bushes staring at me, trying to understand what I was saying and accepting that I couldn’t do more.”
One young woman was pregnant and exhausted; they took her to the hospital.
Some weeks later, Tromble got a call at home from a man speaking Spanish. They had trouble communicating, but finally she understood. He was asking if she was the woman who had helped his sister in the desert.
She said yes, and there was silence.
Then he said, so clearly, in English, “Oh, thank you.”