By now, many of us have become familiar with the cold facts and statistics of our nation’s failed immigration system and the immense human suffering it causes. Twenty-five thousand Central American children cross our border every year trying to be reunited with their families. Ten million people live in our country without authorization and are exposed daily to exploitation. Thirty thousand people are detained, many sent to for-profit private prisons at a cost of over $2 billion dollars annually. And over 400 people, men, women and children, die in the desert just outside of this town of Nogales, alone and, too often, nameless. And 2.1 million people have been deported in the past six years breaking up families, disrupting the workforce, and damaging communities.
But in his powerful homily at a Mass where the altar abutted the hideous, rusting 30-foot high fence at the border in Nogales, Arizona, Cardinal Sean O’Malley reminded us that these are not simply statistics. Reflecting on the parable of the Good Samaritan he challenged every
one of us in the United States to find a neighbor, a fellow human being, in each of the suffering people who risk their lives and at times lose their lives in the desert or in their efforts to be reunited with their loved ones, and to find a way to a better life.
The two-day delegation of U.S. Catholics bishops to Nogales certainly brought the human reality to the forefront. The journey, which I was privileged to make, was really more pilgrimage than anything else- a deeply spiritual encounter. At each stop on this pilgrimage, as Cardinal Sean urged, we found a neighbor, a fellow human being.
Walking through a dried riverbed, an arroyo, much used by the immigrants and the coyotes that lead them, we experienced just how brutal and dangerous this crossing is. I found myself stumbling through the soft sand. At another moment, someone yelled out to one of the bishops: “Watch out for that cactus, it is a Jumping Cholla”. This is a cactus with very painful needles that will actually reach out and attack you if you get too close. At another spot, we were warned the rattlesnakes were out early this year. They told us at night the temperature could be freezing and in the daytime in summer as high as 120 degrees. As we walked, we found abandoned water bottles, knapsacks filled with the few possessions someone carried, and torn shreds of jackets still hanging on long thorns. It was this human detritus that caused each of us to pause and consider: a fellow human being suffered through this. Did they make it? Did they die along the way? What was their name? Did they find their family again?
We spent time with the Border patrol and found in them neighbors, too; fellow human beings whose compassion for the vulnerable was palpable, and whose experience of the cartels that control these parts was horrific. They explained the border strategy they must follow as a matter of U.S. policy. At another moment on the pilgrimage, we reflected on U.S. government policy. It seems the 1994 NAFTA treaty allowed goods to flow freely through this border. But it did not allow people to move freely with the goods. In fact, U.S. government policy clamped down on the movement of people, and forced those moving north through three zones along the U.S. border: near San Diego, near El Paso, and here in Nogales. The government didn’t even bother with a fence in many places because the thinking was if anyone wanted to try to cross the desert, they were free to take their chances with the cartels or with the desert. “If they die, tough luck.” Clearly, people desperate to rejoin their loved ones, or find work to care for them, will take just such risks.
We learned from the medical examiner that deaths in the desert rose from about 15 per year to over 400 per year- a direct result of this government policy. The medical examiner opened the freezer door and showed us the rows of body bags of the nameless dead. With great respect, he showed us the personal effects of those dead. Later we saw skeletal remains, which the forensic anthropologist was hoping to identify. Silence was our response, haunted by Cardinal Sean’s question: Who is my neighbor? You could not be in this place without asking who was this person? What was their name? Is their mother or father, or spouse still looking for them? And, perhaps, another chilling question for me as an American: how can it be that this person is dead and unknown because of a calculated government policy? It would be an underestimation to tell you of the layers of grief and sadness this stop on the pilgrimage raised.
We crossed the border into Sonora, Mexico led by Jesuit Father Sean Carroll, and accompanied by the Mexican Federal Police for our protection from the cartels, to visit a comedor, a sort of soup kitchen operated jointly by the California and Mexican provinces of the Jesuits. I could not help but think of the great image Pope Francis uses for the church- “a field hospital”. Here twice a day those deported, and those waiting to cross the border, come to be fed. They are much younger than they were three years ago on my first visit here. In fact, many are teenagers. They are overwhelmingly from Chiapas, and Oaxaca, heavily indigenous areas, and from Central America. They arrive exhausted, hungry, and already alert to the violence and dangers around them. The first feeding is not simple food; it is spiritual. Each guest is called by name and escorted to a table, and served. Volunteers abound and are joyful. The message is clear: You are my neighbor; a fellow human being; you have dignity. Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City and I were at a table talking with several of these young men. As we left, they told us they would go to the Mass the next day.
From the comedor we visited a women’s shelter run by Sisters of the Eucharist. The halcones, or “look outs” for the cartels watched every step we made. At the shelter, we met with women who had been deported in attempts to be reunited with their children in the U.S. One woman had fled her country when her husband threatened to kill her and her daughter. In another meeting nearby, the mothers of teenage boys from the Mexican side of the border shared their grief and anger at the killings of their sons by the U.S. Border Patrol. One teenager was shot through the fence from the U.S. side of the border fourteen times in the back. We were told the FBI has been investigating this case for the past year and a half. What happened to these neighbors of ours? What is being done about it? How does the human heart bear this? Clearly, this was another pilgrimage moment.
On another stop, we attempted to attend a session for the Streamline Court at the federal building in Tucson, where people are brought before a judge in shackles, consult for 2 minutes with an attorney, enter a plea, and are sentenced. Sixty-seven people were scheduled to be processed that afternoon. We arrived about forty minutes into the scheduled court session only to be told the judge had handled all these cases in 32 minutes. Some folks were sentenced to 60 days, others up to 180 days. Many were sent to a for-profit prison. Again a wave of shame and anger as I wondered: how can somebody make a profit on such human misery? What is wrong with this picture? Later we heard just how profitable a business this can be as the margin is made by an inflated bill to the federal government, and stingy rations and medical care for the incarcerated. For a number of years I walked past our Supreme Court every day. All I could image in my thoughts was the carving above the door: Equal Justice under the Law. What has happened to our legal system? To us as a people of law?
Cardinal Sean said in his homily along the border fence: “we are here to discern our own identity as God’s children.” That was certainly an impact of the pilgrimage, but no more so than in the celebration of the Mass. Cardinal Sean lead the congregation gathered there on both sides of the border to affirm we are all the children of God, neighbors, fellow human beings. At one point, Bishop Wester and I looked over at the fence and we saw the young men whom we had sat with the day before at the comedor. They were smiling and waving at us through the slats of the fence. As Catholics, we proclaim the Eucharist is the source and the summit of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium #11). It takes us out into the world and brings us back to the praise of God and communion with one another. When I looked and saw Cardinal Sean and Bishop Jerry Kicanas giving communion to hands reaching through that border fence, I don’t know if I have seen such a Catholic moment in my 40 years as a priest.
This was an iconic moment, showing us who we really are before God and with and for each other. And it was a reminder of St. Augustine’s words: “we may live in the city of men, but we belong to the city of God.”
All of this then leads me to urge Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, and Catholics everywhere, and people of Good Will across this country to discern again “who we are before God”; “who we are as nation.” The moral imperative we will find woven into this identity will impel us to shake up every politician, both political parties, and our nation to act now and fix this broken immigration system.