Twelve North Carolinians signed up for this year’s Duke University Divinity School trip to Mexico’s border with California and Arizona. They call the experience in Spanish El Encuentro, the Encounter. What we encountered over six days shocked us – and gave us hope for the future.
None of us was a novice on the immigration issue. Six are studying to be Methodist pastors, some in rural areas of North Carolina that have growing Latino populations. One young Guatemalan-American is working in Henderson this summer and another, from Argentina, graduated last month with an assignment to his first church in Uruguay. Five of us were retirees, all Christians serving among Latinos. Joining our group in Tijuana was a young female missionary from North Carolina and Gilberto Martinez, who operates a shelter there for male deportees where our group stayed for the first two nights. Though a few of us were classmates, most of us were strangers when the trip began.
Old ideas began melting away at that shelter, Casa del Migrante. While waiting for supper there, a couple of us struck up a conversation with Tony, who had been deported three weeks before. He left behind a wife and two sons in Los Angeles, but nevertheless seemed to be in passably good spirits. Casa del Migrante had found him a job in a factory making window blinds, enabling him to save enough money to rent an apartment in Tijuana, he told us proudly. Members of his family planned to visit that weekend to drop off furnishings for the apartment before crossing the border legally and driving back to what is now home to them.
We hadn’t expected deportation to be so much a part of the social fabric south of the U.S. border. The shelter not only regularly receives deportees, but also provides them services such as job placement and psychological counseling. The Salvation Army opened a similar shelter for female deportees in Tijuana last month.
The city’s well-appointed cultural museum and upscale neighborhoods surprised us. So did the depth of poverty that has people living atop a landfill still smoldering in one corner from a blaze that flared up months ago. And plenty of other people live in Tijuana without so much as a cardboard roof over their heads. We saw a crowded soup kitchen dining room issuing numbers to homeless people waiting in a long, snaking line to be served a free breakfast and learned that 4,000 breakfast meals were served there every week. Just outside the soup kitchen fence is an immigration office.
Down at Tijuana’s unexpectedly lovely beach, the border fence on the Mexican side is a colorful work of folk art running down into the Pacific Ocean several hundred yards. The fence on the U.S. side, by contrast, is a pristine barrier with new Border Patrol SUVs parked in the vacant land in between the fences. U.S. authorities open a gate in our fence for four hours on Saturdays and Sundays, allowing people to see, speak and try to touch somebody on the Mexican side.
We prepared to leave, with families still clinging to the fence,
when a man named Mario tapped somebody in the group on the shoulder. “Please pray for me to be allowed to go home to my family,” he asked us in clear English, then explained that his family members all had legal immigration documents. Working hard to support them over 20 years, Mario said he just hadn’t taken the time to apply for a green card that would make his presence legal in the United States. Now Mexico, the land of his birth, was a foreign country to him. Mario’s countrymen might call him a pocho, a pejorative reserved for a Mexican who speaks halting Spanish. As we prayed for Mario and his family, first the students touched him, then we all did and we felt his sobs.
Later, we were surprised to learn that Tony and Mario don’t represent most immigrants into the U.S. these days. In fact, more people are migrating south from the U.S. to an economically resurgent Mexico than are migrating north into the U.S.
Today’s desperate migrants come from Central America’s failing states of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Even more desperate people are crossing the Atlantic from Africa and pay smugglers to take them across South America through the jungle into Panama, Central America and Mexico to reach the U.S., The Wall Street Journal recently reported.
On the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona, some will encounter 77-year-old Ed Lord – if they’re lucky. He moved to the desert 40 miles from the border town of Nogales, Mexico, in 2005 when migrants crossing illegally were dying in his new over-55 neighborhood. Lord organized nighttime patrols to locate people sick or injured, thirsty, hungry or without shoes, and supply what they needed to stay alive. The Green Valley Samaritans ask migrants which direction they want to go. If back south is the answer, they are told that the Border Patrol will be called. If north is the answer, the Samaritans look the other way.
“A lot of people in Arizona are opposed to helping migrants, but our position is that humanitarian aid should never be a crime,” Kathy Lord said. “Some Border Patrol officers thank us. They say they don’t want to find bodies, either.”
Sometimes, though, Green Valley retirees find the bones of people who were abandoned because they couldn’t keep up with their smuggler or who lost their way in the dark and nobody came looking for them. The care taken to give them a proper burial moved us to tearful prayers for the unknown.
What happens to undocumented migrants in federal court is almost as sad. We saw 70-some men and a couple of women handcuffed and shackled standing before a judge with lawyers they met only that morning and pleading guilty to illegal entry, guaranteeing deportation, and waiving their rights to trial and appeal. A Pima County public defender told us he suspected most of these defendants did not truly understand the impact of their pleas.
Phoenix, the last stop, held one final surprise: a young woman named Laura who crossed the border with her mom and dad as a young child with six brothers and sisters. She tells of her father going back to Mexico to care for an ailing parent and his determination to return to his family even after two deportations. It shouldn’t take someone’s entire childhood for government agencies to decide to educate them. Laura understands that the legal status she was granted by President Obama’s executive order remains on shaky ground as long as immigration is used in the game of political football we play in this country. Yet, surprisingly, she is unafraid to stand up for immigration reforms. She is determined to get an education and a well-paying job capable of supporting her parents through their last years.
Isn’t it time for the U.S. voter to stand up with Laura and the millions of other hard-working people who fled violence, oppression and hopeless economic conditions to make a better life? Isn’t it time that the political class has an Encuentro with an energized citizenry that recognizes the human suffering U.S. policies are causing families?
It’s past time that we begin treating our neighbors with respect and compassion.
Carol Frey, a former editorial writer at The News & Observer, lives in Raleigh.