Ministry at the Border – news from the Columban Mission Center

Ann Horgan spoke during the services on 9/15. She is an associate of the Sisters on Divine Providence in Covington; they took a trip to Columban Mission Center in El Paso to observe, reflect, and pray about what’s happening at the border facilities there and in Juarez, Mexico. Ann also attends Guided Meditation at A&HT on Tuesday nights, is on the Board of Directors of Big Brothers Big Sisters, and works at P&G. Here is the story of her July visit to the Border, in her words.

Seven of us from the Cincinnati/ NKY area traveled to El Paso TX in July for a Border Mission trip directed by the Columban Mission Center.  All of us joined for different reasons but we had a common goal.  That was to understand first hand what was really happening with regard to family separations, child detention and people fleeing their home countries.  We had only a general idea of our itinerary but knew for sure that we would find both inspiration and heartbreak in the week ahead.

Two photos by Alex Koehl 

Fr Bob Mosher is the director of the Columban Mission Center.  He hosts mission trips to enable people to stand in solidarity with migrants.  Ours was a mission of presence, not of service.  I wondered how the people serving the migrants would view us and all our questions.  The comment we got from everyone we talked with was the same-  “thank you for being here so you can tell people what is really happening.”

While on our Mission trip, Fr Bob asked us to live sustainably.  No air conditioning, no disposable water bottles, and to use the dish water for outside plants.  We were happy to make these habit changes once we understood the reason for the request:  extreme weather in central America from climate change was one of the factors forcing families to have to uproot themselves and migrate away from the only homes they had ever known.

A little for you on the culture in El Paso, TX  and its sister city of Juarez Mexico:  it is a border community that lives in harmony and cooperation. The cities are separated by only a few hundred yards.

El Paso has a great history of taking care of migrants. Annunciation House is local migrant shelter organization and they never say no when ICE calls to drop of migrants or when migrants find their way to the door.  They find a way to help everyone in need.  The recent story that several people told us was this past Dec 23rd, when 100 migrants were dropped off at a bus station at night with no warning.  Word spread quickly.  Everyone jumped into help: Annunciation House, local churches, police, families.  In the end they helped and housed the 170 people who were released to the streets of El Paso over 2 days.

We visited the museum at the University of Texas.  Their “Uncaged Art” exhibit showed the history of the child detention camp in Tornillo, TX that at one point in 2018 held close to 3,000 children  – there for weeks or months, separated from their families.  Many activists, faith leaders, and politicians spoke out about their plight to demand change.  Pediatricians and psychologists warned of lasting impact, include PTSD, that the detention would have on their developing brains.

The museum’s art exhibit showed the art left behind by the detained children.  This art showed their hopes, dreams, families and faith in God. It showed them trying process the trauma of situation.  One way was through soccer balls – the kids would sign them and send over the fence as symbol of freedom (since then, soccer balls have been banned).  The second way was through identifying with the quetzal – a beautiful Guatemalan bird that legend tells cannot be caged or it will die.

A child visitor to the museum left behind a written message that summed it up: No imprisioning.  Families belong together.”

A few days later we went to a detention center that was still holding children.  We stood outside the building in Clint TX and prayed for those inside.  It was us taking a “prophetic stand” as Fr Bob said.

We spoke with the deputy director of Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services (DMRS).  She is an immigrant lawyer. She explained how US and International law works for applying for asylum: To apply for asylum in the U.S., you must be physically present in the U.S., must prove that you were persecuted in your country and fear future persecution.

She explained the recent policies that are preventing people from presenting themselves at legal border crossings.  The first policy is “metering” – asylum seekers are blocked from approaching border checkpoints, given a number and told to return when their number was called, which was 4 months out when we were there in July.  This is causing a humanitarian crisis on the Juarez side due to the lack of resources of the migrants to stay for months waiting and due to the human traffickers who prey on the poor migrants with no connections in Juarez.  The migrant shelters are almost all on the US side, so there isn’t infrastructure to help migrants waiting for months in Juarez.   A few years ago Juarez was the most dangerous city in the world, now it’s “just” in the top 50.

The next policy change is  “Remain in Mexico“ (MPP) and it is having a similar impact – after the asylum seekers had been able to approach the border and apply for asylum, they have to wait again for months in Juarez, for US immigration court dates.

In Juarez, we met an amazing woman, Cristina, who was running an information session for those caught in metering or the “Remain in Mexico” situation.  She setup tents outside the Mexican government agency where those waiting to apply for US asylum must apply to wait in Mexico.  She provides water, snacks, toilets, and an information session on what was happening to them and what their options were.  We were angry that our government had suddenly put so many asylum seekers in harms way by the sudden policy change.

We asked the college student volunteering with Cristina where the food and water came from for the migrants.  She replied that her family was paying for the supplies.  We asked if she was angry about these sudden policy changes and how she kept doing this hard work.  Her answer was inspirational – she just focuses on helping the person standing in front of her who is in great need.

As of this month, the volunteer agencies estimate there are 9,000 migrants waiting in the Juarez area alone.

We saw Cristina again later that day at the Juarez Diocesan Migrant shelter where she also works.  Over 500 people (mostly families with children) were waiting there either to be able to apply for asylum or for their immigration court date.  These were the lucky ones who had found shelter.  They even had Mexican police waiting outside to keep the human traffickers away.

There we spoke with a father who was sitting under a tree with his 3 yr old daughter.  She never stopped coughing.  He shared that they had fled Guatemala because the drug gangs had threatened their lives.  But he had recently reached the hard decision that they must leave Mexico and return to where their lives were in danger. He did not think his daughter could handle living in the shelter any longer.  We wanted to help her, but we could not.

This was a heartbreaking day.  So much suffering, desperation for loved ones, fear, mental anguish on how to protect their children. We met people caught in terrible situations beyond their control.  Applying for asylum in the US was one of the few options left but they these new policies appeared suddenly putting them in more harms way.

We knew we needed to push past the feelings of heartbreak and being overwhelmed by the scale and complexity of the problems.  One prayer that helped me was one that I found on the wall of the migrant shelters we visited… Psalm 91, Particularly verse 2:   “say to the Lord, ’my refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust’.  My faith has strengthened through this struggle.

I was able to push from heartbreak into hope that we can make a difference and then into a commitment to do what I can.

If you are looking for ideas on how to help, your support would be appreciated. Donations will be used to purchase things for the families when they first arrive. Other resources are needed to buy or rent houses for the families that plan to remain in Mexico for their asylum process. Checks can be written to: Columban Mission Center (please note on the memo line, Migrant Mini,stry) Columban Mission Center 816 Magoffin Ave, El Paso, TX 79901 If you live in or near El Paso and would like to volunteer, contact Cristina Coronado Flores at krusovich@hotmail.com.

Donate online here, noting Migrant Ministry in comments.

Thank you for listening.