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Accompanying migrants in detention and afterwards

The Kino Border Initiative on the Arizona - Mexico border provides needed services to deported migrants. (Cindy Rice — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Friday, February 04, 2011

By Fr. Michael A. Evans, S.J.
National Director, Jesuit Refugee Service/USA

(Washington, D.C.) February 4, 2011 — Part of the task of learning what it means to be the Country Director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA during this first year has meant visiting many domestic and international projects directed or sponsored by JRS/USA. I have been in the job only three months; I have been on the road more than seven weeks of that time!

This past trip took me to visit the projects in Southwest and Western USA. Specifically, I wanted to visit three detention centers where we have JRS teams providing pastoral care, as well as the Kino Border Initiative on the Nogales, Arizona and Sonora, Mexico border. I would like to share some thoughts on those visits.

Although I never made it to El Paso (I was stuck for three days in Atlanta due to the ice storm that paralyzed much of the South and Southwest a couple of weeks ago), I did make it to El Centro, Calif., and Florence, Ariz. First off, the teams are doing a wonderful job with the detainees as well as the government officials overseeing the treatment of the detainees. It was clear to me that both the detainees awaiting deportation and the guards had the utmost respect for the JRS staff. Second, the presence of the staff lends an aspect of respect and civility to the treatment of the detainees. I will admit to being shocked and taken aback by the reference by guards to detainees as "bodies" — as in "we shipped out fifty bodies yesterday;" or when asked how many detainees were in the center, I was told "we have 750 bodies." That being said, the staff have a good rapport with the guards and administration, helping them to fulfill U.S. Government requirements that detainees have the fundamental right to pastoral care and counseling.

Let me give one small example. In Florence, the sisters took us to a non-security residence. They were passing out Bibles, rosaries, and reading materials that had been requested by the residents. When we were introduced, one man spoke for the group. He thanked us for the efforts of the sisters, for their care and concern, and for providing the light of faith in their lives often marked by darkness and despair. The man was to be deported in a few days; his voice began to crack and he started to weep. It appears that he has children and a wife in Tucson who are legal residents. He has fought the deportation but to no avail. He has no choice but to try to re-enter the USA after deportation. I will admit that my own eyes were moist given a fairly complex and emotional situation. His name is Jose and he fled the violence surrounding the drug cartels.

I then visited the Kino Border Initiative. I was deeply moved by the work being done there. On average, 270 men, women, and children are fed at the Center every day. On that day, a dozen Unitarian ministers (heads of their respective districts in the U.S.) were feeding the visitors, passing out clothing, shoes, toiletries, and blankets. After being led in reciting the Our Father and the Hail Mary, the guests set down to eat. That is when we were introduced.

Because I have a bad lower back, I sat down on a concrete stoop to hear the speeches. Within seconds, a mangy orange tomcat climbed up my chest and began batting my glasses, then with loud purring settled in my lap and began to stretch. This was the cue for all of the children to approach me and play with the cat. Within moments, the migrants, staff and visitors’ faces all had smiles – replacing the worn, anxious, and/or fearful ones I had just seen. There is nothing like a cat acting up to humanize a situation.

One little girl, Guadalupe, who had played the longest with the cat and chatting with me, was with her mother in the women’s shelter about an hour later. Both were crying as they prepared to leave the safety provided by the sisters. They, too, were returning to the violence they had left. But this time was different — the mother and child had been taken into custody and deported without two more children.  A friend was temporarily taking care of them in Atlanta.  The friend had said she could no longer do so.  How would the family be re-united?  JRS—KBI and the sisters were discussing the logistics of helping her and the family. 

One thing I understood on this trip: JRS/USA treats refugees, migrants, and deportees with respect. They are persons with a name: not a body, a number, or a case load file. That is what we mean when we say what we are about:  to accompany, serve, and advocate. I was so impressed with what I saw that I have committed to designating the Lenten Appeal for the Kino Border Initiative so that its activities can multiply. I hope that you will support us in this endeavor.

Visit our Multimedia Section for more videos about the Kino Border Initiative.