asylum seekers
Photo courtesy of Al Doerksen

Border Patrol agents talk with three women from Romania who were seeking asylum after crossing the Mexican border to get into the U.S.

Come along on this MCC virtual learning tour of the Mexico and U.S. border. Each year, MCC takes groups to the border to meet folks who are directly involved with migration. Why not tag along?

The wall

First let’s get a look at the wall – at least the part of it in Douglas, Arizona, where our tour begins.

Jack Knox, a member at Shalom Mennonite Fellowship, greets a Border Patrol officer during a walk along the fence. MCC courtesy of Al Doerksen

This segment was rebuilt about five years ago – one section of  1,050 kilometres of fences and walls built along a third of the border between Mexico and the U.S. Beside the man-made barriers are mountains and deserts that act as natural deterrents to crossing.

“The only reason to cross the desert and take my children with me, knowing they could die, is because it’s more dangerous where they are at,” said Saulo Padilla, MCC U.S.’s immigration coordinator and our guide for this tour and other border tours. “If you think the desert is a safer place, it must be really bad where you are coming from.”

Sylvia E. Shirk, pastor of Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship, prays at the wall.Photo courtesy of Al Doerksen  

“The wall is a reflection of us in the U.S. because we put the wall up,” Saulo tells the tours. “It speaks about our fear of people on the other side.The wall is a symbol of hate, insecurity, of misinformation.”

Everyone in the learning tour, you included, brings different thoughts, opinions and feelings to the wall. Group participants are invited to pray there, telling God what’s on their hearts and listening to what is on God’s heart. Want to join them?

Calvary Cemetery

Saulo Padilla places flowers and lights a candle at the grave of an unidentified migrant at a cemetery in Douglas, Arizona.Photo courtesy of Al Doerksen

The life and death decision that people make when they cross the border starts to become more real when we visit Calvary Cemetery to see the graves of some of the 6,500 people who have died trying to cross the border since 2000. Many of them have never been identified. To honour the lives of people who died there, we sing, pray and light candles to put on the graves.

“This is important,” Saulo explains. “There is a mother, brother or child crying because someone is missing in that family and no one knows where they are."

Colibrí Center for Human Rights

Colibrí Center is a group that works on reuniting families with the remains of loved one who died crossing the border. We’ll go to Colibrí  next.

Kat Rodriguez, from the Colibrí Center, displays the belongings of migrants whose remains were found in the Arizona Desert.MCC photo/Saulo Padilla.

While you are there, you are likely to see bags of personal effects that migrants had with them when their bodies were found. These items and DNA will be used to help connect the deceased with their families. Saulo reminds the group of how distraught Mary Magdalene was when she couldn't find Jesus' body. For ages, people have valued knowing where their loved ones' bodies are located. 

Jane Doe.MCC photo/Saulo Padilla

Tours don't usually go to the morgue, but you can visit just this time on the coattails of one group who went to the place where unidentified bodies are kept while there’s still hope that family can be located.

“You could smell death,” said Saulo, as he described his experience walking into the morgue where bodies and remains of bodies are stored. Some in the group couldn't bear to stay. Others forced themselves to stay and read the tags — Jane Doe, John Doe, baby feet.

 “We walked out of there with a sense of urgency and also with a sense of having been in a holy place,” Saulo said. “This is life. People are dying. What do we do to stop the deaths?"

Border Patrol officers

There's more to learn. Want to talk with some Border Patrol officers? OK, let’s do that.

A learning tour from Paoli Mennonite  listens to a Border Patrol agent sharing his perspective.Photo courtesy of Al Doerksen

One Border Patrol officer, who is not named to maintain his freedom to talk, told a learning tour that his faith impacts how he carries out his job. Saulo remembers him saying, “If I find a migrant who hasn’t eaten for days, I give them my sandwich, water, and first aid if needed. Then I detain them.” 

His words may sound callous or they may sound compassionate. Either way Saulo makes it a priority for tours to hear from the officers because "they are humans created in the image of God." And their job is dangerous. Heat stroke, gun violence, suicide and vehicle accidents have cost the lives of 125 agents since 2000.

From the eyes of a borderland tour participant

Sylvia E. Shirk, pastor of Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship in New York City, wrote about a Border Patrol apprehension she observed.

Three migrant women and a baby who crossed the border into the U.S. are processed as asylum seekers as an MCC  learning tour group visits the border fence in Douglas.Photo courtesy of Al Doerksen

Late one afternoon as I walked near the Mexico/U.S. border wall on the outskirts of Douglas, Arizona, I leaned in to get a photo of the barrier.

Just at that moment there was movement behind me on the Mexico side of the wall, a scuffle on the gravel road. I looked back to see three women with a baby walking down the hill behind me.

I watched a Border Patrol truck speed to where they were and apprehend them. The women were made to sit down on the road, remove their shoes and belts, undo their hair and put their belonging into plastic bags provided by the Border Patrol. 

Reflecting later on what I had witnessed, I wished there could have been a kinder, gentler way to receive those who flee for their lives and request asylum.

Detention centre

It's time to visit a detention centre in Florence, Arizona, where about 1,200 people are detained. We can’t show you inside, but we can tell you about what we learn:

The detention centre in Florence, Arizona, holds people who are waiting for deportation or for legal cases to be resolved.MCC photo/Saulo Padilla.

Q: Why are people held in detention centres?
A: Detention centres are used to house people while they await deportation or legal decisions that would allow them to stay in the country. Government officials say they want to ensure that migrants will show up for their court appearances, but the detention centres are often far away from families and lawyers. 

Q: How long are they there?

A: Some are there for a few days; others for several years, depending on how long it takes for their cases to be concluded. The backlog is long, in part because of a shortage of immigration judges to hear the cases.

Q: What are conditions like?
A: Conditions vary depending on whether the facility is government run or privately run, Saulo tells us. Government-run facilities, like this one in Florence, tend to be clean and provide sufficient food and medical care. Detainees living in Eloy Detention Center, a privately run facility in Tucson, describe extreme cold, lack of privacy, poor food, lack of access to medical care and many disrespectful guards.

Q: Who pays for this and who benefits?

A: Taxpayers pay about $261 million annually through government contracts with private detention centre companies. Contracts require the government to keep the centres above 80 percent occupancy. Recent documents from the Department of Homeland Security suggest that detention centre occupancy could rise from its current level of about 34,000 people to 80,000 as the government widens its deportation net from criminals to anyone in the U.S. without proper documentation.

Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project

Who handles all those legal cases? Come along to the Florence Project, a non-profit legal service organization providing free legal services to men, women, and unaccompanied children in immigration custody in Arizona.

Ben Harville, senior staff attorney at the Florence Project, talks to a learning tour about asylum cases.Photo courtesy of Al Doerksen

The demand for the attorneys' assistance far exceeds the number of attorneys available. So one of Florence Project’s activities is to do legal workshops with detainees so they know their rights when they plead their own cases in front of a judge.

If you were on an actual learning tour, you would learn a whole lot more about the legal process, the lack of legal avenues for immigrants and the lack of representation for people inside detention centres. For now, we will simply say that it’s complicated. 

Casa Mariposa Detention Visitation Program

In nearby Tucson, Tina Schlabach, co-pastor of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship, regularly visits people in nearby Eloy CCA Detention Center. She is part of an interfaith group, Casa Mariposa Detention Visitation Program, that supports men and women in detention and upon their release.  

Tina Schlabach is co-pastor of Shalom Mennonite Fellowship, which financially supports Casa Mariposa, and ministers to detainees through letter writing.Photo courtesy of Al Doerksen

I visit because it is essential that our wider community hear the experiences and stories of the women and men held for many months in these isolated prisons.  

Some who we visit have recently crossed the border, asking for asylum and safety in the U.S. because of the many forms of violence going on in their home countries. Others we visit have lived most of their lives in the U.S. without documents until  apprehension from police or Border Patrol. The stories of their trauma need to be heard.

Sitting together in the visitation room of the Eloy Detention Center, person to person, friendships and connections are formed between us, and the isolation is broken. Jesus asks us to recognize him in these sisters and brothers (Matthew 25).

The stories of their resilience are a testimony to the power of love, motivating these mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, to endure what they must to reunite with their families, to find safety and a life where they can work to support their children.   

Cross vigil

Michelle Milne, Nadina Cabrera, Johanna Reynolds and Sylvia Shirk participate in the weekly vigil.MCC photo/Saulo Padilla

When we return to Douglas, you can pick up a cross and join the weekly prayer vigil that has taken place every Tuesday for the past 15 years. If your cross bears a name, call it out as you walk, bearing witness to the passing drivers. The vigil humanizes the border situation for the local community and is a way of honouring families of the victims.

Migrant Resource Center

It’s time to cross the border into Agua Prieta. Chances are you’ll come with your shoelaces and belts if you have them, and probably even wear some socks and underwear. Good. Perhaps you can share some of your extras with deportees who don’t have those things.

Miriam Maldonado and Brenda Cuellar talk to participants in a learning tour about the work of the Migrant Resource Center.Photo courtesy of Al Doerksen

Mexicans who are caught crossing the border are commonly booked and escorted back across the border without shoelaces or belts because border patrol took them. They may not have socks or underwear,.

At the Migrant Resource Center, volunteers tend to the immediate needs of returnees by supplying clothing, medical care and phone calls. Volunteers have plucked thorns out of hands and treated dehydration; they document abuses and help with legal action when they can.

Saulo remembers a deportee who had a husband and children, including a three- to four-month old child, in the U.S. She was facing several years of jail time if she returned and was caught again.

The mother said she had no choice but to return: “I have children on the other side,” Saulo remembers her saying. “I have to cross.” 

Sagrada Familia Shelter

Let’s move on to Sagrada Familia Shelter, a hospitality centre for migrants, and share a meal with those who are contemplating the hard and dangerous crossing of the desert into the U.S. and those who have been deported to Mexico.

Learning tour participants from Paoli Mennonite listen to a migrant, bottom right, talk about his experiences while they eat at Sagrada Shelter.MCC photo/Saulo Padilla

Rafa, a migrant worker, who is not pictured for his security, told learning tour participants that he was planning on heading north. This was not his first experience emigrating. He had spent a few years in Canada and the U.S. working in agriculture but eventually returned home to be with his family. His current financial situation and increase in violence in his hometown was now pushing him to cross the border again.

“Getting a glimpse of the reasons why people might dare to cross the boundary line and venture into the Sonoran Desert causes one to think, “I’d likely do the same thing if I were in your shoes,” wrote Steve Penner, senior pastor of First Mennonite Church in Reedley, Calif., after he attended one of the border tours.

Learning to live in Agua Prieta

If you are thinking by now, that a lot of immigration wouldn’t need to happen if people could make a reasonable living where they are, you’ll want to learn about DouglaPrieta Trabaja.

Miriam Maldonado and Linda Knox work at the Dougla Prieta Trabaja community garden.Photo courtesy of Al Doerksen

A grassroots organization, DouglaPrieta Trabaja is a women’s collective that encourages its members to work towards economic self-sufficiency. They teach sustainable food production techniques, including gardening, aquaculture and small livestock raising – skills women can do to support themselves and their families in Agua Prieta.

Jack and Linda Knox, members of Shalom Mennonite, have been teaching carpentry, embroidery and English – helping people to stay where they are.

Many migrant women come to Agua Prieta expecting to cross the border or after being returned from the U.S. and decide to stay because “living in poverty at the border is better than living in poverty somewhere else in south Mexico,” Saulo explains.

Café Justo
Like coffee? We hope so because when you visit Café Justo, you'll smell the coffee beans roasting and you'll have a chance to buy some before you go.

Adrian Gonzalez demonstrates the roasting process at MCC partner Cafe Justo in Agua Prieta.MCC photo/Jennifer Deibert

Café Justo, a Mexican coffee grower cooperative, helps farmers make a living in southern Mexico. Farmers sell their coffee to Café Justo for two to three times the commercial rate, and Café Justo roasts the coffee and sells it from Agua Prieta.

Saulo says, “When people ask me, ‘So how do we stop migration and help people stay in their communities?' I point at Cafe Justo and say, ‘MCC works in 54 countries around the world providing and supporting alternatives to migration like Cafe Justo.’

“Cafe Justo gives an immediate answer and hope. Cafe Justo is also a ministry of the church, so God is present in this work,” Padilla said.

Loving as God loves

"People God loves on both sides of the border are affected by this situation, Saulo tells us. "For Christians, the way we respond has everlasting implications."

Mark Adams of Frontera de Cristo talks through the border fence with Rigo, who was deported to Mexico after living in the U.S. for over two decades.MCC photo/Saulo Padilla

Throughout the trip, Saulo has been challenging us with scriptures that sure make it seem like our response is to love.

In Zechariah 7:10: Do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. 

In Matthew 25:31: Jesus says that when we welcome strangers, we welcome him, and when we refuse them, we refuse him.

And in Hebrews 13:1, we are told that the Divine can come to us in the form of a stranger. Let us be faithful in our response to God’s call to welcome strangers.

What can I do?

A learning tour visits Rosa Robles, centre, during a nightly vigil. Rosa was protected in sanctuary at the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson for more than 400 days. A week after the group visited, she won the legal right to live with her husband and children in the U.S. Photo courtesy of Al Doerksen

Now that you've finished this virtual tour, we hope that you will want to learn more about immigration. Here are some ways you can:

1.This page of immigration resources will tell you everything you need to know, from your rights as an immigrant in the U.S. to how to speak to legislators about these issues.

2. Learn about refugee sponsorship here in Canada and how you can get involved

3. Donate to support our refugee sponsorship program

 

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