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‘People die in the desert in a quest to cut my grass’

The Kino Border Initiative is a binational ministry founded in 2009 by six Catholic organizations — including Jesuit Refugee Service/USA — located in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. (Robert Dolan S.J. for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Sunday, May 29, 2016
(Nogales, Sonora, Mexico) May 30, 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 — located in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. The following is the second of a three-part reflection of the trip written by Macpherson. 

“Finding my Mom in Nogales, Mexico”

We visited the Kino Border Initiative women’s shelter in Nogales. The shelter is on the top floor of a building that contains what is called “condos,” but these structures are very different from what an American considers a condo. The units are less than 900 square feet and may house up to seven women with their children. As we approached the building, we had to climb a long series of streets from the dirt path leading to the structure. At an altitude of 4,500 feet in Nogales, we all felt the difference from Charlotte’s 750 feet.

As we made our way up the steps, our coordinator told us that the area under a broad shade tree by the steps is used as a staging site for the men and women to await their coyotaje, which is a colloquial term referring to the practice of people smuggling across the United States–Mexico border. As we trudged up the many stairs it was an interesting side conversation. There was no one in sight and it was already becoming oppressively hot.  

When we reached the condo building, we continued to climb the interior stairway to the top floor. Along the way, our coordinator pointed out that on one floor, two adjoining condos serve as the lodging for the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist who administer the day-to-day operations of the dining room at the Nogales, Mexico, site of the Kino Border Initiative. To say that the accommodations are modest is an over statement by all stretches of the imagination. The simplicity of their living is notable. 

When we reached the women’s shelter, we had an opportunity to speak to one of the women in residence. She is from Honduras and fleeing gang violence. She is the mother of four children – ages 4 to 15 – who are with her in the shelter. After a year of travel from Honduras to Nogales she has reached the border. Along the way, she worked at every imaginable job to earn the money for another bus trip to the next town. In Nogales, she is faced with the decision of returning to Honduras and confronting the dangers that had forced her to flee, or going to the Nogales border crossing and claiming asylum based on her fear of returning to violence in Honduras.

It certainly seems like an obvious decision until one begins to understand the nuances of such a claim. When she initiates the request, she will be incarcerated for a certain period. The confinement may be for several days or up to 18 months. Her best option is that she and her children move to a holding area for several days and then she is released on her own recognizance with relatives that she has in Los Angeles. The worst case is that she is separated from her children and is held for a prolonged period separated from her family. As we spoke with her, she held a four-year-old boy on her lap for about 45 minutes. During that period, the child may have been the most well behaved four-year boy I have ever met. 

As I sat in my chair and listened to this woman’s story, I couldn’t help but think of my mother. She was a Scot from the Highlands who lived to almost 103 years. Until the end, she was entirely “with it.” Near the end of her life, she finally had to go to an assisted living facility. The reason was that her body was simply breaking down. She was a great person in the truest sense of the word “great.”

She was also tough, uncompromising and stern. I was chatting with her one day when a young staff member came into her room and asked her a question. After she replied, the young woman asked if she was a Scot. Her answer was straight and not rude. She said, “I’m an American. I’m here because America is a gift to humankind.” On her path to citizenship, she was a maid, a waitress, telephone operator and a store clerk. She did laundry and raised her children. At 57, she fulfilled her lifelong dream and became a college-educated teacher. For her first 10 years in the United States, she would have been considered an “illegal alien.” As I looked at the woman who sat across from me with her four children and a desire to seek a refuge of safety in America, I was looking at my mother.     

After meeting with the woman and spending some time with a young woman who was a novice in the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, we made our way back to the stairs that led us to the condominium. As we descended the stairs outside of the building, we saw a group of about nine people in the distance lying under the large shade tree. While we noted their presence, a large Black Toyota SUV stopped nearly in front of us. All the windows were tinted so dark that it was impossible to see inside the vehicle. The driver rolled down his window and there was a quick passage of an envelope. Once that was completed, the man walked to the awaiting group. They all stood, put on their backpacks and began to hike up a narrow gully in the side of the hill. As we followed the movement of the men up the hill, we noticed at the top was a man who was appeared to be a “spotter” for the group to ensure that there were no Mexican or American agents in the area. This movement was not in an obscure part of the desert. I was in a commercial area, which was surrounded by factories and stores. From where I stood and watched this progression, I could see the “Golden Arches” of McDonalds in the near distance.

There is an irony to stand in a place and see American companies prospering in an area that is plagued by corruption and controlled by gangs rather than governments. Meanwhile, families are separated and people die in the desert in a quest to cut my grass.  

The third and final part of this series will run next Sunday. To read part one click here.

Click here for more information about the Kino Border Initiative.

The border fence between Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Ariziona. (Robert Dolan S.J. for Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)