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Voices of Hope in a Desert of Despair

Julian, second from right, with Br. David Buer, OFM, of St. Barbara Province who lives in Elfrida, Az., and Sr. Judy Bourg, SSND, and the director of a migrant shelter in Agua Prieta, Mexico, second from left. (Photo courtesy the author)

TUCSON, Ariz. – No words can fully express the horrors that migrants are experiencing at the hands of ruthless drug cartels, “coyotes” — the guides that migrants hire to lead them to the U.S. border —  gangs and other illegal elements that are taking advantage of the most vulnerable as they seek refuge. I know – because I visited the Arizona desert where it borders Mexico. I had to see for myself, and for six days, from Jan. 25 to 31, it was a reality worse than I, or anyone, could imagine.

The Mexican border wall. (Photo courtesy of Julian).

We hear the stories and we know the suffering that these migrants are willing to endure to escape the violence of the northern triangle of Central America, the area including El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. The images of caravans making their way to the U.S. border hardly tell the story, and by the time these stories trickle down to us, we have no idea of the degree of the horrors.

I chose to visit the stretch of the Arizona desert bordering with Mexico because it has been a passageway of hope for thousands of immigrants, mostly from the northern triangle. Neither the iron fence nor the border patrol, or the drug cartels and human traffickers, can frustrate and deter the determination of these hopeful crossers seeking sanctuary – even as death from starvation and dehydration, and worse, follows them with every step they take in traversing this treacherous terrain.

My visit to the border was also in a somewhat official capacity. The Order’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Office in Rome is in the earliest stages of a new initiative – Franciscan Network on Migration – of which I have been asked to be the primary point person for the U.S. side of the border.

When fully operative, the JPIC initiative will cast its net from the northern triangle of Central America, through Mexico and beyond U.S. borders. JPIC’s Franciscan Network on Migration will provide legal, medical and economic assistance, as well as protection against abuse and threats, to migrants leaving the violence of the northern triangle of Central America, as well as other areas, and seeking refuge in the U.S.

It was important for me to experience and see what’s happening. The visit gave me the opportunity to speak directly to the people, especially Franciscans, who are working at the border. There are other religious already in that particular region.

A help station in the desert. (Photo courtesy of the author)

The Jesuits, through their Kino Border Initiative (a program in which six Catholic organizations serve as a humanizing presence and foster bi-national solidarity on the issue of migration on the U.S.-Mexico border), operate a shelter and soup kitchen for migrants waiting to cross the border. The shelter is enormous, bigger than the interior of St. Francis of Assisi Church. They have to deal with the intimidation by drug cartels and coyotes that view this ministry as a threat to their illegal businesses and activities.

Comfort and Joy Amidst Danger
Despite the dangers posed by drug cartels and gangs, a group of Poor Clare nuns, although not working directly with immigrants, have a small convent situated in the main thoroughfare of Nogales, Mexico, where drug peddling goes on day and night. Pointing at a two-foot-square window, one sister said to me, “Padre, esta es nuestra television.” (Father, this is our television.) She was referring to the drug dealing activity they witness outside that small window.

The abbess said she believes the bishop assigned them to the area to be a prayerful and evangelizing presence. I found it amazing to see the level of comfort and joy on the faces of these sisters despite living in the center of the drug trade, crime, and violence – although, thankfully, the drug dealers respect the sisters and even wash their car. We can only pray that their presence converts hearts.

Agila del desierto (Desert Eagle) is another advocacy group whose goal is to help locate immigrants that go missing in the desert. The group brings food provisions and medical supplies for those they find alive.

In total, there are about 25 migrant shelters on the Mexico side of the border whose services to immigrants range from temporary shelter, food, medical assistance, and legal services. These migrant shelters constantly receive death threats from drug cartels and gangs that control the border towns along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Immigration has been a difficult issue even in previous White House administrations. Advocates have always been critical, calling on the government to repair the broken immigration system. But it has become even more difficult with the current administration – and the proof is in the numbers.

We have never had more immigrants at the Franciscan Migrant Center seeking legal assistance. The number rises every day. This is a product of the current administration’s position on immigration, and of the JPIC-Rome Office’s migration network initiative is being created specifically to help immigrants caught in this mass migration crisis.

The Humane Border reported that, between October 1999 and April 2018, there were 3,244 deaths around the Arizona desert border. Human Borders, Tucson Samaritans, No More Deaths, and other immigrant advocacy organizations have strategically deployed water stations at the desert border.  “Water drop,” a term that these organizations use to describe the strategic deployment of the stations, is considered unlawful in areas of the desert considered as government land.

Volunteers commemorate the life of a migrant who died in the desert. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

Rituals and Quotas
I also participated in what they call “cross planting,” a ritual of remembrance. It is a prayerful exercise started by immigrant advocacy groups in which a wooden cross, engraved with the name of a deceased immigrant, is planted on the spot where the dead body is found. Participants gather around the wooden cross and share prayers for the deceased.

Another reality is how immigrants are being victimized by the government’s “operation streamline.”  These migrants are led into courtrooms in shackles and are sentenced to six months at private detention centers funded by taxpayer dollars for crossing the border unlawfully.

Immigrant advocacy groups must continue to be voices of hope in the face of desert threats, harsh U.S. immigration practices, and violent drug cartels and human traffickers. My visit helped me get a better feel and greater understanding but confirmed what we already know – that the situation is extremely dire at the Arizona desert-Mexico border.

Ministering in solidarity with the immigrant, alienated, poor and marginalized is the foundation of Franciscan life. As Franciscans, we believe that our calling is to welcome immigrants and to stand with them in their struggle for justice. We recognize that the immigration reform issue is complex, often dividing people of good will. Yet our faith compels us to love, care for, and seek justice for the stranger among us, remembering that we are all God’s children.

The sufferings of migrants inspire me to work harder and become a better advocate. In the near future, I am planning to go to Texas and other border locations, and down the road, I am organizing a border caravan from California to Texas to shed light on the horrors that are taking place.

This is not an option, but rather a Gospel imperative that friars have chosen. St. Francis of Assisi and his followers were known for hospitality to strangers. In the U.S. today, we are invited to respond to the new “strangers” at our door, our immigrant brothers and sisters. It’s not a question of will we answer the call? It’s a question of how we will respond because thousands of migrants are counting on us.

— Fr. Julian, a resident of St. Francis Friary in New York City, is a member of the HNP Justice, Peace, and Integrity of Creation Directorate and director of the Migrant Center at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi on 31st Street in New York City.

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