Bound for the border: St. Mary's team follows in footsteps of immigrants
WORTHINGTON -- People who venture into the desert in an attempt to cross the border illegally find their lives changed by the experience, one way or another. Some find a new life in the United States. Some get caught by the border patrol and end up in a detention center. Some die.
A group of people from St. Mary's Church in Worthington recently made a pilgrimage to the Arizona-Mexico border and emerged from the desert with their eyes opened to the plight of those who try to cross without governmental consent.
The idea of such a mission trip was first proposed by the Rev. Jim Callahan, priest at St. Mary's.
"I was looking at organizations that worked with migration issues and came across Humane Borders, which was started in 2000," Callahan explained. "There are many news accounts of bodies that are found in the desert outside of Tucson, Ariz. ... They die of dehydration, hypothermia, being bitten by poisonous snakes."
An estimated 240 people perish each month in the desert along the border. The website (www.humaneborders.org) offers this explanation of Humane Borders' effort:
Humane Borders, motivated by faith, offers humanitarian assistance to those in need through the deployment of emergency water stations on routes known to be used by migrants coming north through our desert. Our sole mission is to take death out of the immigration equation. Our water tanks are on a combination of private and public lands. In all cases we have permission to locate our water stations on these lands in writing from the landowners.
At a staff meeting in April, Callahan suggested volunteering for Humane Borders as a group, since so many of St. Mary's parishioners are from Mexico and Central America. The other St. Mary's staff members -- the Rev. Jose Morales and Faith Formation Director Lisa Kremer (who at the time was working with Catholic Charities) -- immediately agreed to the venture and also recruited two church members -- Barb Kremer and Thai Hua -- to join the mission effort.
"Any time we can deepen our awareness of people's experiences, it helps our ministry, to have compassion," said Lisa Kremer.
Barb Kremer decided to go along as a way of overcoming her own "complacency" about immigration issues.
"I kind of wanted to get back to not being so hardened about it," Barb said. "I needed to go."
The group left Worthington on Nov. 6, driving straight through, 26 hours in the vehicle, to Tucson, where they met up with the Humane Borders personnel. After an orientation, they climbed into a truck and headed out into the desert, where they would check the watering stations.
"One of the things they're finding with the water stations is that the routes are changing," explained Lisa. "Now they're coming over the mountains, and that increases the death toll."
As they checked the watering stations, the volunteers found evidence of their usage, including abandoned knapsacks and water bottles; accounts of people's stories, left in case they didn't survive the journey; a trail where the immigrants had dived under a thorn bush to escape detection by a helicopter flying overhead.
One of the questions that arose during their time with Humane Borders was what happens to the bodies that are found in the desert. They were directed to the Pima County Cemetery in Tucson, where the bodies are buried, many identified only as John Doe and the date the body was found in the desert.
"There's now an organization that is trying to use DNA testing to do identification, but if no one else was to die from here on forward, the number of bodies they have to identify right now would keep them busy for the next 20 years," said Callahan.
After the day spent with Humane Borders, the Worthington group met up with representatives of the Kino Border Initiative, an organization sponsored by six major religious communities with a mission to "promote U.S./Mexico border and immigration policies that affirm the dignity of the human person and spirit of bi-national solidarity."
"It has three components," explained Callahan. "The first is humanitarian aid: food, clothing, medical assistance. Secondly, education on issues of immigration and formation; and third is research and advocacy."
The border town of Nogales is a dangerous place, Callahan explained, that is run by the mafia and drug cartels.
"Over 500 people a day who have been picked up by the border patrol are deported -- they put them on a bus and take them to the border," he continued. "But the immigrants don't know where they are, and they end up risking their lives in the streets of Nogales. Some of them -- especially women -- get kidnapped, sold into slavery. Kino started Nazareth House, which is for women and children who are unaccompanied.
"Kino also documents problems people have faced with the border patrol," Callahan continued. "One woman shared a story about how she and her husband were asked by the border patrol if they were married, then they purposefully deported them to two different places, as cruelty."
The members of the St. Mary's team stressed that the illegal immigration problem has gotten so much worse in recent years, not just because of people's desperation to improve their circumstances, but because migrant workers are no longer allowed to go back and forth freely, so they come to the U.S., bring their families and stay.
"To hear their stories -- they're willing to sacrifice everything," Callahan said. "None would come if they weren't forced to by their situation. ... Terrorists and drug cartels are not the ones risking their lives by crossing the desert."
For Barb Kremer, the key to understanding the immigrants' plight was putting herself in their shoes as she listened to their accounts.
"It was never for them -- always for their family, for their children, to better the lives of their children," Barb explained. "It's hilly in Nogales, and when you stand up in these ramshackle lean-tos they live in and look across the fence and see the homes and malls, it's so compelling, to be stuck in that situation. I think that their determination is no different than ours. As Americans, we take for granted the opportunities we have here. When you don't have that, you see that desperation. ... What drives the human spirit is amazing to me. It's no different than mine or yours and what we'd do for our family."
During their few days in the desert, the St. Mary's group heard many stories of desperation and heartache.
"Carlos was a man that Father Jose met at a shelter, a soup kitchen where we visited," shared Lisa. "After the meal was served, they were standing outside, and he told Father Jose that they were getting ready to cross, but his wife was nine months pregnant, and she went into labor and had a C-section. She was in a shelter, and they didn't have any money, and they needed Pampers for the newborn. For 22 days they had been there."
Hua -- himself a first-generation U.S. resident, having been born in a Southeast Asian refugee camp -- said the trip changed his perspective on immigration issues. Among the people he encountered was a man of about his own age who had been in the U.S. for more than 10 years and was being deported.
"It made me think about some of the people I went to high school with," Hua reflected. "You grew up with them, they became part of your group, but then after high school, they've got to go out and find a job, and they don't have any papers; they're living life scared.
"A large percentage of the Anglo community is not against immigration -- if they come here legally. But if you ask what's the legal way to come here, they don't have an answer," Hua said. "I was one of those people before -- not sympathetic. I came here legally, why can't you? After this trip, my eyes have been opened, my heart has been opened. Now I can actually stand for something."
For the St. Mary's representatives, there were "lots of defining moments" during their trip.
"Sitting in the women's shelter, nine women there telling their stories of trying to cross," related Lisa about a moment that is now engraved on her memory. "One woman sitting next to me started to cry, so I reached over and squeezed her hand, and she held on for a long time. We're all in this together, or should be, and we have to care."
"The whole trip was pretty memorable," concurred Callahan. "It was exciting to be able to go there with staff and parishioners and see the dedication and commitment they have to the refugees. Seeing the face of Christ in these people; it was so humbling to hear everything they experienced, the humiliations, and still be a people of incredible faith and hope. We met one woman who had tried nine times to cross.
"It's not a question of politics, but dealing with human rights of the individual and dignity."
The St. Mary's team has already shared some of their experiences within the local congregation and also hope to take the message to the community at large with a goal of helping to break down the barriers in the community. The racism and discrimination runs in both directions, they noted, because of the immigrants' experiences with the border patrol.
"Part of the way we live our faith is to be an advocate," Lisa said. "The U.S. Catholic Bishops have been outspoken about the need for immigration reform, and a lot of our community has misconceptions about immigration law."
The U.S. Catholic Bishops have declared Jan. 15 as Immigration Sunday, and St. Mary's is planning an observance that will tie in with the team's trip. In addition, the St. Mary's staff is planning a return trip to the border, this time with a busload of volunteers, for sometime in August.