Lessons From Ministering on the Border

I recently spent three weeks at the border between El Paso, Texas and Juárez, Mexico. The experience strengthened my resolve, as a person of faith and Sister of Mercy, to share more about how the situation there concerns all of us in the United States.

In the shelters where thousands of refugees await their court dates, I met many migrants who quietly maintained their dignity despite sleeping for months on floors and suffering degrading treatment from U.S. border authorities.

As their faces became real to me, my heart lurched. I could recognize the hope in the eyes of parents waiting for the chance to request asylum, even as I knew almost none of those requests would be granted.

I greeted a newly arrived woman at the Juárez migrant center. As she wept, I learned she was waiting to talk with a doctor about being raped on the journey north. Her four-year-old daughter clung to her and broke my heart.

People throughout the U.S. who pay attention to this crisis are appalled. The problem is most of us just aren’t paying attention.

The truth is, even if folks know a little about the border, many Americans simply have no idea about the U.S. policies that have created the displacement crisis. “The people in the U.S. are good people,” I remember a speaker in Nicaragua saying back in 1985, “but they live in a cloud of disinformation.”

Most are not aware, for instance, that the U.S. government supports a Honduran president broadly considered illegitimate and criminal. Our own lack of awareness contributes to that reality — and to the thousands of Hondurans forced to flee their homes. Among the migrants I met were women from Honduras who’d received death threats for participating in protests against that government.

It’s not a new situation. I grew up waking to the smell of coffee my dad made every morning, never once realizing that the Central Americans who grew and harvested that coffee were paid so little their children didn’t have shoes.

Guatemalan friends in Omaha, meanwhile, tell about family members back home whose children are dying due to lack of food and access to medicine. Their country is experiencing drought for the third year in a row, accelerated by our own government’s hostility to climate science.

When you look a little closer, it’s no surprise that desperate people risk their lives and freedom to cross our border. When will we realize everything is connected — and that how people treat one another shouldn’t be a partisan question?  

It’s foolish and retrogressive to accept a kind of citizenship that implies toleration, silence, and approval of crimes against the innocent,” warned the late Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan in 1977. Still, we are blessed to live in a time of growing awareness. We can no longer avoid the truth except by deliberate choice.

To learn more, I recommend books such as New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins; Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security, by Todd Miller; and Sand and Blood: America’s Stealth War on the Mexico Border, by John Carlos Frey.

Slowly, many are waking up. At the border, I met generous, caring volunteers from around the United States and Mexico. I saw rooms full of donated blankets, clothing, and other supplies, and learned of campaigns to raise cash to support the shelters and get legal aid for asylum seekers.

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