By Cindy Rice
(Washington, D.C.) November 8, 2010 – Last month I traveled to Arizona and Mexico to visit the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), our bi-national humanitarian effort to address the migration crisis on the U.S. – Mexico border, and our chaplaincy program at the Florence, Ariz. detention center. As a relatively new Jesuit Refugee Service/USA staff member, this was my first trip to see these JRS/USA programs.
As we drove south from the Tucson airport to the border town of Nogales, I was struck by the beauty of the scenery as well as its unforgiving nature. It was hard to imagine how desperate I would need to be to attempt a three day journey through such harsh territory.
Nogales straddles the border of Mexico and Arizona, directly in the crosshairs of the immigration debate. But, most surprising to me was the realization that the residents of Nogales are not polarized – they have lived as neighbors for years. The border wall that divides the town in half is a fairly recent phenomenon. I could not help but be reminded of the Berlin wall, particularly as I had just seen a portion of that wall on display at the Newseum in Washington the previous week.
We walked into Mexico from the U.S. side of the border without fanfare. No one asked to see our identification. The border area is filled with earthmovers, trucks, and construction barricades as a new multi-million dollar gateway is under construction. I am told this is to alleviate the long wait which often led to massive spoilage of produce bound for U.S. supermarkets.
The KBI way station is just on the other side of the border and would not beg a second glance were it not for the line of men and women standing patiently awaiting entrance. It sits on a hill just above the sidewalk and two volunteers stood outside the gate chatting with the men while they waited for the signal that dinner was ready. When Sister Rosalba announced they were ready, Aldo and Adolfo gave first preference to the women, and then the men, checking each person’s deportation document to determine that they had been deported from the U.S. within the previous two weeks. This process assures that recent deportees are given priority, and keeps undesirables (coyotes, men who take money to escort people through the desert across the border) out. If there is enough food, those whose deportation preceded the two week window are then served.
Once everyone was seated, Sister Rosalba took the microphone and made a brief introduction of the staff (and visitors) and explained why they were serving them. "We care for you." She also asked the group not to waste the food, to either share what they could not eat with another, or ask for a smaller portion. Then she introduced Fr. Pete Neeley, S.J. to give a blessing. As he gave the blessing, all bowed their heads, and one woman quietly wept. Silently, gently, a volunteer handed her a napkin so she could wipe her tears.
Following the blessing, conversation was spare. Within thirty minutes, most everyone had eaten their soup and tortillas and prepared to leave. Volunteers helped wash the dishes in the industrial sink recently installed outside the tiny kitchen. As each person walked toward the gate, they warmly thanked the KBI staff, volunteers, Fr. Ken and me. And after giving thanks, they descended the stairs as daylight faded to find shelter for the night.
KBI includes several programs, one of which is a shelter for unaccompanied deported women and children. We visited the shelter in the early evening; it is an apartment very close to the Kino feeding center near the border. There are beds for eight women but the shelter accommodated 12 women the night before, and though only eight women greeted us, more were expected to stay that night.
I was pleased to see that the air conditioners and heaters funded through a grant from the Raskob Foundation had arrived. One a/c unit was running in the window of the dining area as we visited. The women gathered around the table, some sat at the table, others sat on chairs against the wall in small groups. One young woman was seated alone and it appeared as though a child had drawn with purple marker all around her mouth. It was shocking, and at first I averted my eyes.
Sr. Lorena was on staff this evening and explained to the women why Fr. Ken Gavin, S.J., Fr. Pete Neeley, S.J., and I were there. She asked if anyone wanted to share their story. The young woman who sat alone – Christina – said she wanted to share hers. As she relayed her story, we sat transfixed, occasionally asking questions. She had a daughter, had a job, had health benefits for her daughter in Mexico. Why would she leave?
She explained that she had met a man from the U.S., had fallen in love, and that he told her he would arrange to move her (and her daughter) to be with him in the U.S. She believed him and believed her guide who said he would take her there. She did not ask how long the trip would take, nor did she imagine it would be as dangerous as it was. She followed her guide along with a group of eleven migrants.
They walked for two days and late the second day, she fell ill. "My guide was good, he did not leave me." The group stayed together and helped her to walk the last bit to a highway where a vehicle was to take them further. There was no room for Christina. She told us the guide didn’t want to leave her but the others told him they would call immigration to pick her up, and so he left.
Christina's lips were blistered and purple from dehydration and sun. Her leg was injured. Her feet were swollen and also purple. "I will never go back in the desert," she whispered. "I told him that he will need to get me a visa the next time." But visas for girlfriends from Mexico do not exist.
Another woman told her story, she was told by her coyote it would take only five hours to cross the desert. She brought no food, no water for the passage. Her group met up with another and was caught the second night. She fell and injured her leg while fleeing the border patrol. The patrol ran by her, she was not seen and the border patrol gathered the other migrants and began to leave. She knew that she was well hidden, but how would she find her way out of the desert? The guides had run away, she was injured, had no food or water. She called for help, and when they did not hear her, she struggled to her feet and hobbled after them. She would not die as 250 migrants died in the desert in 2010.
"Why did you leave your home?" we asked. Tears welled up in her eyes and spilled over as she tried to form an answer. "There is much age discrimination in Mexico," she said. "I’m 47, I will never be hired in Mexico."
I believe her.
Cindy Rice is the Development Director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA