Director, Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach
On October 12, at the US/Mexico border, where the Santa Fe bridge divides the sister cities El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, the waters of the Rio Grande flow below, bounded on both sides by layers of barbed-wire fences. Under the late afternoon sun, 200 people, young and old, lay and religious, Latino and Anglo, crossed by the Customs and Border Patrol agents who guard the middle of the bridge, turning back would-be asylum seekers fleeing from violence and persecution in Central America and Mexico.
Our little band of 200 people were participants in a Teach-In for Justice, sponsored by the Hope Border Institute and the Latinx Catholic Leadership Coalition. We had come from across the United States to offer our solidarity with the border communities ten weeks after the August 3 massacre in El Paso that left 22 dead, injured dozens, and traumatized this border community.
On that day, fueled by extremist rhetoric from politicians in Washington, DC about migrant families “invading” and “threatening” our national security, a young white man travelled 12 hours to a Walmart store in El Paso and fired his automatic weapon at families from both sides of the border who had gathered there to buy school supplies for their children.
How could that have happened?
Increasingly, people on the border and the Catholic bishop of El Paso are making the connection between our nation’s history of institutional racism and violence. In the words of Bishop Mark Seitz, “Hate visited our community and Latino blood was spilled in sacrifice to the false god of white supremacy.” El Paso was targeted because this community, which is 80 percent Mexican-American, has showed amazing solidarity and hospitality to migrant families who have crossed the border in large numbers in recent months.
Throughout the weekend we saw proud reminders of that legacy of hospitality on smiling faces of people wearing T-shirts that said “Todos Somos Migrantes” – “We Are All Migrants” – and signs and banners displayed throughout the city that said “El Paso Strong.”
What we saw on the other side of the bridge in Mexico shocked us, and only confirmed the strong words used by the bishop. Small tents lined the street at the foot of the bridge, and under each tent families and children peeked out at us. They are the faces of the latest attempt by the current administration to discourage and effectively deny the right of asylum to those who are fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries, what is called by the US government the “Migration Protection Protocol,” and by migrants and the social workers, church workers and lawyers trying to help them the “Migration Persecution Protocol.”
In his 2017 pastoral letter on migration, “Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away,” Bishop Seitz offered a penetrating analysis of the drama on the US/Mexico border, in the light of the Gospel and Catholic Social Teaching:
“Our broken system of immigration is a wound on this border community. It is a scandal to the Body of Christ in El Paso.” The letter is prophetic and hopeful: “As a community deeply shaped by the reality of migration, we celebrate our strengths and unique identity … even when others would belittle the contribution of migrants and falsely portray the reality of the border.”
Now, two years later, the bishop issued a new pastoral letter, “Night Will Be No More,” signing the letter at the closing Mass of the “Teach-In for Justice.” While the tone of these two letters has changed from “joy and gladness … when sorrow and mourning flee away” to a more sobering “night will be no more,” the message remains a prophetic one: “We must recommit ourselves to the hospitality and compassion that characterized our community long before we were attacked.”
Specifically, the pastoral letter calls on our nation’s leaders to “halt the deportation of all those who are not a danger to our communities, to stop the separation of families, and to end once and for all the turning back of refugees and death at the border.”
The connection to the massacre in El Paso, and the racism and violence that have characterized the current administration’s policy towards migrants and refugees, could not be clearer. While anti-immigrant sentiment and legislation is nothing new in the history of our country, the vehemence with which these exclusionary policies have been implement has reached new levels of hatred and cruelty.
According to the National Immigrant Justice Center, a clear timeline can be drawn of the Trump Administration’s efforts to end asylum, and effectively deny entry into our country of migrants and refugees. From day one, with the “Muslim Ban” on refugees from Muslim-majority countries, to the prolonged and indefinite detention of asylum seekers, to the “zero-tolerance” policies triggering family separations, to the current “Remain in Mexico” policy effectively warehousing Central American asylum-seekers in shelters in Mexico, or forcing Mexican asylum-seekers and their children to camp out in sub-human conditions we saw when we crossed the Santa Fe bridge just a few weeks ago, the U.S. has effectively said “No!” to the Gospel call “to welcome” migrants and refugees.
These are troubling times we live in, but for Christians the last word is not one of crucifixion and death, but rather resurrection and life. In Bishop Seitz’s words, “The burden of the history of injustice on the border is heavy. We must wrestle deeply with this legacy, lament over it passionately, confront our own biases and repudiate racism completely.” The migrant families and their children camped out at the foot of the Santa Fe bridge in Juarez hold up a mirror to the consequences of our immigration policies, with its roots in racism and xenophobia.
These migrant families and their children also hold up a mirror to our Christian faith – or lack thereof, what the pastoral letter refers to as “a life-threatening case of hardening of the heart.” Because Scripture and the Gospel are clear: We, too, were once “strangers in a foreign land” (Exodus 2, 22), and in every migrant and refugee we encounter the living presence of Christ: “For I was hungry, and you gave me to eat, thirsty and you gave me to drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25: 35).
The weekend “Teach-In for Justice” in El Paso was extremely hopeful, and equally challenging. There is a sense of urgency and drama at the US/Mexico border. Human dignity is at stake, both the dignity of migrants and refugees asking for asylum, as well as our own human dignity calling us to solidarity and hospitality. It is a matter, not only of charity, but also of justice. We must not let the hateful rhetoric flowing from politicians and citizens across our country divide us: “Perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4, 18).
The call from border communities is for new leadership, that will defend human dignity, offer compassion, work for justice, celebrate diversity. In the words of the pastoral letter, “This new type of leadership must restore agency to those communities and individuals who have been victimized and also center their voices, memories and hopes in discerning the path ahead.” We must continue to reject hatred and violence, racism and xenophobia, and immigration and refugee policies that exclude and punish the most vulnerable among us.
As we offer our welcome and solidarity to migrant and refugee families and their children, and join with the El Paso community still mourning their loved ones so violently taken from them, we affirm the words of the Guatemalan poet Julia Esquivel: “In every evening, we continue to love life and do not accept their deaths!” For our faith tells us, “We have been threatened with resurrection!” Life, not death has the last word, and we are called by our faith to defend and protect life wherever it is threatened, especially the lives of the most vulnerable among us, the migrant and refugee families and children.
Copyright © 2019 Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Washington, D.C.