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‘Through the looking glass’ at Kino Border Initiative

From left to right: Fr. John Michalowski, S.J., Parochial Vicar of St. Peter Catholic Church, Charlotte, N.C., and parishioners Bob Macpherson, Dave Zablotny and Martha Schmitt at the Kino Border Initiative.
Sunday, May 22, 2016
(Nogales, Sonora, Mexico) May 22, 2016 — Parochial Vicar Fr. John Michalowsky of St. Peter Catholic Church in Charlotte, N.C. and parishioners Bob Macpherson, Dave Zablotny and Martha Schmitt traveled to the Kino Border Initiative at the Arizona-Mexico border May 2-5, 2016, to see first-hand what it means to accompany the most vulnerable. St. Peter’s is a Jesuit parish led by Pastor Jim Shea, a member of the Jesuit Refugee Service Global Education Initiative Steering Committee. Through joint appeals, awareness-raising events and collaborative advocacy, St. Peter’s is an important JRS partner in advancing our mission to educate and advocate the forcibly displaced.

KBI is a binational ministry founded in 2009 by six Catholic organizations — including Jesuit Refugee Service/USA — is located in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. The following is the first of a three-part reflection of the trip written by Macpherson.

“Through the Looking Glass”

Distance may be defined by increments of time and space, but at its foundation, it is fundamentally an emotional passage. It can be fun – "How long 'til we get there, Grandpa " – or filled with a gut fear, like screaming a Hail Mary to yourself over-and-over again under the deafening explosions of mortars and gunfire.

Crossing an international border is certainly a distance, but it also begins a journey. On one side you are in America, the land of First World problems associated with the Internet being down, diets and missing a favorite TV program. It is only a few steps to leave the safety and privilege of one’s American passport and step through the looking glass into a different world. On the surface, much of it looks the same. This close to the American border it doesn’t seem threatening. But within a few steps you know you are in a different place. Clustered around the border are a number of cut-rate dental clinics, pharmacies, bars and hotels that do most of their room rentals by the hour.

As we approach the building associated the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), a ministry on the U.S.-Mexico border founded in 2009 by six Catholic organizations, including Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, I am struck with the simplicity of the setting and small size. I had a sense it would be physically larger, though I am not sure if these thoughts came from viewing pictures on its website or from descriptions of how much work they do. 

I have been “around” JRS for several decades. During my time with CARE, I have worked alongside them – from the genocide in Rwanda to the war in Darfur, Sudan. From my earliest associations, I admired them. They often conducted humanitarian operations in very desperate and dangerous places, including their current work in war-torn Aleppo, Syria. They did so without a lot of media attention and fanfare. Their programing was quiet and productive.

The truth is I never associated them with being a faith based humanitarian organization. If I thought about their name, I could deduce they were a Catholic non-governmental organization, but if there was any clergy amongst them, they were not overtly recognizable as priests.

While considering a visit to KBI, I was struck by how JRS defines itself. JRS has a remarkably straightforward statement. It is to “Accompany, Serve and Advocate.” Once you read the mission and begin to review their programming activities, it is a particularly accurate portrayal of their activities. Through my years with CARE, I quickly learned that the most dangerous part of humanitarian work is to engage in any element of human rights and advocacy. When a non-profit gets too close to speaking for the oppressed and actively witnessing abuse, they begin to upset existing power structures and that can quickly fall into a dangerous encounter with recognized or quasi government authorities.

“Who is in charge?”

As we walked across the border we noticed a group of men sitting under a tree on a hill. The group worked for a cartel that controlled this border crossing and were tasked with keeping “watch” of the crossing. Thus, if the men see someone whom they determine is considering an illegal crossing and has not paid a fee to the cartel, the “watchers” notify the cartel, who arrive to deal with the person. The fee for a Mexican to be in the area is $600; for anyone else its $800 – $1000.

Later in the day, as we assisted in clean up after the evening meal, I noticed our coordinator having an intense conversation with a young man who appeared to be about 16. When we were finished with the dishes, our coordinator came over and discussed the conversation. The young man was from Honduras who had fled the country to escape the gang he was being forced to join. All he wanted was to live with peace and be able to get an education. Despite his teenage appearance, he was 20.

Our coordinator had spoken with him several days earlier about seeking asylum in the United States. She explained that he may be interned for up to 18 months and at the end probably only had a 10 percent chance that his request would be granted. He disappeared for several days to consider the action.

When we met him he had decided he would try anything to escape his former life. We were asked to join him as he presented himself to U.S. border control agents. The reason we moved as a group was to ensure he made it to the U.S. border station under the eyes of the watching cartel members.  We were his safe passage. Injuring an American within sight of a U.S. border station would force the Mexican authorities to react. Thus, it would be “bad for cartel business.”

Where do the politics end and our humanity begin? Back at the Kino center, as I made my way around the dining tables refilling gasses of ice tea for the men and women, I began to talk to some of the people as they got used to us. The nun who administers the center had told the group earlier that we had come from St. Peters Catholic Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. There seemed to be a group appreciation that we had come so far to support the Kino Border Initiative.

I spoke with a young man who had spent 13 years in the United States and was a graduate of Long Beach Community College with a degree in Business, which he insisted on showing me. He had been a shift manager at a local 7-11 Store but could never rise above that level because he was not documented. He paid taxes and followed the laws of the United States. But he ran afoul of someone who “turned him in,” and he was deported in a matter of days.

Parts two and three of this series will run on the following consecutive Sundays. Read part two here.

Click here for more information about the Kino Border Initiative.