By Victoria O'Keefe
My experience with the Columbans in the borderlands was immensely powerful. I am a New Yorker with Irish immigrant grandparents that came to the US by flight with no money to their name and empty suitcases carried along to “look” the part. It was fascinating to learn about the migrant narratives at the US/Mexico border in 2019 and how policy has determined who gains admission, when, and how. The level of learning and firsthand witness afforded me the opportunity to become more knowledgeable and acutely aware of how policy shapes human lives.
The time in which I participated in the Columban US/MX Border Awareness Experience was profound as the border was attracting much attention in media. Senators, Congressional leaders and presidential candidates were making rounds outside children detention facilities and refugee centers with hordes of press following along. Images of huge groups of migrants idle at the Mexico side of border along with images of children detained in cages on US soil flashed across major media each night and I found myself seeing places and spaces I walked through earlier in the day.
Visions of highly militarized bridges with armed patrol and coiled barbed wire, towering concrete walls, patched iron mesh fences, dry desert, and scorching heat preventing the union of peoples, communities and families are like photograph stills that stay with me.
During my time at the Border Awareness Experience:
I heard from immigration attorneys and advocates who provided the most succinct and clear information on why path towards citizenship is so rare and near impossible.
I listened intently as Border Patrol Officers said that no wall would ever be tall enough or impermeable and that people will always find a way to cross.
I visited another border wall constructed on private land by U.S. citizens made possible by the largest Go Fund Me campaign recorded to that point, and found myself disgusted by the waste and absolute hate that went into its construction. Then I realized who paid for the government sanctioned wall too.
I prayed as my hand went through a border fence and grasped the tiny hand of a child on the other side of an arbitrary line that separated us nonetheless.
I marveled at the families, women and children asylees, who we hosted for dinner as they ate unassumingly after having endured and surpassed the worst.
I lived in an eco-friendly home that still stands as testament on how to live responsibly and sustainably even in the harshest conditions.
I was inspired by my fellow participants and leaders of the experience, who poured their hearts and imaginations into the reflections shared each night.
I left El Paso, greatly altered by my brief time there.
Since my time with the Columban Center at the border, I have tried my best to share what I have learned and know as truth. I have lead reading and reflection on School of the Americas and its proliferation of violence resulting in migrants at the border, on NAFTA and its correlation to the missing limbs of workers in maquiladoras a mile away from Texas, on the misnomer of the Migrant “Protection” Protocols, and on annual ‘allowances’ and mere admissions of migrants through the United States Refugee Admissions Program which makes our country look pathetic and unhospitable as it is when compared to countries like Jordan and Uganda. I have been able to discuss with students the status and treatment of farm workers as it benefits agribusiness and perpetuates forced labor and slavery on U.S. soil which we enjoy in our foods found at the grocer. I have advocated on local, state, and federal levels to promote permanent pathways to citizenship. I have also grown deeper in my work to advance peace and resiliency of the poorest internationally with Catholic Relief Services, so that migration is not born from dire circumstance, violence, and lack of recourse. After reading books shelved in the Columban house in El Paso, I lead a staff development on Feminist Theology and its implication in Campus Ministry after one particularly inspiring read. Another book recommendation that all migration activists were speaking about down there at the time entitled, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border stayed with me and became one installment of the Social Justice Book Club I run. My commitment to Fair Trade products and considering where all sourced goods come from has grown and effected my workplace and family members as a result. And when a university faculty member at my place of employment helped create a cross-border action and weekend of learning back at the borderlands, I was asked to co-lead the delegation because of my previous experience and knowledge gained.
My own personal and professional development has been deeply enriched and been made more valuable through my experience with the Columban Center US/MX Border Awareness Experience. What would be even more valuable would be the protection and flourishing of children not forced into migrant status, safe and sustainable communities around the world (particularly in the northern triangle and other hotspots at this point of the human story), and policy that took into account the interconnectedness of all human persons and dignity towards people and our common home, the earth.
As people of many faiths and good will onto others, we are called to act in the here and now. If you are unsure of where to start, begin with a learning experience like that of the Columban Center Border Awareness Experience. Acknowledging the differences in accessibility for people because of cost and other factors, I urge you to invest in an experience like this or sponsor someone you think could be transformed by the experience, this will open you in ways unimagined.
I have grown closer to Jesus-as-immigrant and to saints throughout history that cared deepest for the poor and most vulnerable. I have noticed ways in which I can live more simply, have reckoned with my influence, and focused it on shaping my immediate surroundings as it relates to justice and right relationship with others. Memories and thoughts that stem back to my border experience are frequent and continuously call me to a place of humility and service. I hope that with more time passed, I will be able to expand further on the ways the experience shaped me and hope to yield measurable results on how that investment on me paid dividends for others, especially our migrant family.
Victoria O'Keefe is the Residence Campus Minister for Social Justice at St. John's University in New York City.
Copyright © 2021 Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Washington, D.C.