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BY LENA CHAPIN | January 21, 2019

“Show me the border,” Diego Adame, Community Organizer with Hope Border Institute and our guide that morning, challenged. From high on the mountain, the city of El Paso, Texas was indistinguishable from Juarez, Mexico. We saw one continuous metropolitan area with tall buildings, highways, bridges, homes, and church towers. Even after he pointed it out, the wall was difficult to find and easy to lose track of. So we drove down the mountain into the side streets of Sunland Park, New Mexico, crossed some railroad tracks, and parked in the sand near the tall metal planks reaching skyward. Three border patrol vehicles shifted nearby.

The U.S.-Mexico border from Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Here was this wall. The wall that I had come to see. The wall that is creating so much pain and discourse across the U.S. That wall, those slabs of metal are the division… right?

Soon, two men approached on the other side of the fence. We started exchanging morning pleasantries, talking about how cold it was outside, joking about the displeasure of having to go to work. They wished us well on our journey to learn more about the border and headed off to start their days. It struck me as we circled up for prayer how typical the conversation was. It would have been almost the exact conversation had we been in line at the grocery store, but instead, there was an 18-foot steel wall constructed between us.

Immersion participants chatting with local residents through the border wall.

Later that day we would drive over the bridges into Juarez and visit with people living in the neighborhood of Anapra, feeling welcome, hospitality, and warmth. We came back across, joking with street vendors and tallying up the different license plates going through the border checks fairly easily. Throughout the week, everyone we spoke with living in the tri-state area (Chihuahua, New Mexico, and Texas) had similar sentiments: “ I was born in ________, but I live in _____________ and I work in ______________.” The cities were almost interchangeable. Many people travel frequently—sometimes even daily— between these three states and two countries. And everyone we met was working to improve their community.

Returning to the U.S. from Ciudad, Juarez.

As the week continued, the wall moved into the background of my thoughts. Even as the President was declaring a national crisis and continuing to use it as a divisive measure within the interior, those at the border went about their lives.

On Friday morning we heard a presentation from Dylan Corbett, director of Hope Border Institute, that best embodied the phenomenon I was feeling regarding the wall:

“When I consume the Eucharist, I am not consuming anything. Rather, I am being consumed. Christ is bringing me into a relationship with everybody. St. Paul said ‘Once I am brought in I can no longer say to the foot, I can no longer say to a person, I do not care about you.’ If it’s true that Christ, that God, is bringing us into deeper relationship with everybody, that He is creating something, He is acting through history, He is bringing about the birth of something new, the body of Christ—and the Eucharist is about that, feeding that, nourishing that, growing that— then you have to ask the question at the end of the day: what is really real? Is that wall really real?”

It certainly didn’t feel real later that day as we celebrated Mass at a detention center, sharing in the Eucharist with hundreds of men and women from around the world. As we entered into communion with these men and women and shared signs of peace and brief conversations, internal and external borders faded into the background. We were Christians, family, one body of Christ.

I had the same feeling at the shelter for folks seeking asylum who had been released by ICE. There weren’t divisions just because they had passed through the wall or crossed a borderline. There was no “us” and “them.” There were simply parents sharing understanding glances as children made messes out of cookies and juice. There were weary travelers appreciative of clean sheets and the promise of a good night sleep.

The whole concept of borders was challenged as I learned more about the history of the area; the trade routes, how these Native lands became part of Mexico, then the U.S., and even then, borders shifted between New Mexico and Texas.

But the wall is real. Structurally, destructively. This wall that doesn’t seem real even after seeing it and touching it is being used as a pawn to actively oppose the work of the Eucharist, the work of God. It is dividing the U.S. internally through opinions and beliefs. It has caused thousands of people in the interior of the U.S. to go without paychecks, which means many of them are going without food. And it is continuing to be a physical representation of the idea that some deserve to have the freedoms that the United States offers and that others do not.  

It’s been said by many advocates for justice that problems at the margins are because of exploitation and lack of knowledge from those in positions of privilege. Faith leaders for centuries have called us “to go to the margins.” There seems to be a pattern here…it is only through encounter that walls fall away. I know mine did.

BY CLAIRE PETERSON | April 27, 2018

[Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Jesuits Central and Southern Province.]

In the heart of El Paso’s Segundo Barrio neighborhood, at the edge of the United States – Mexico border, Sacred Heart Parish is a source of help and hope for its community. A Jesuit parish since its founding 125 years ago, Sacred Heart, or Parroquia Sagrado Corazón, is more than a religious home; it also provides programs for the immigrant community, a food bank and a weekend food service and catering project. This March, it was a focal point for a border immersion experience, welcoming 18 Jesuit partners in mission who came to learn more about immigration and the experiences of people who seek to start new lives in the United States.

The entrance to Sacred Heart’s pastoral center, in the busy Segundo Barrio, El Paso, Texas.

Father Rafael García, SJ, associate pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, and Mary Baudouin, USA Central and Southern Province’s provincial assistant for social ministry, organized and led the border immersion in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, March 15-18. The trip included four full days of opportunities to hear diverse perspectives about immigration, encounter migrants who have come to the United States seeking asylum, safety, and stability and learn about some of the organizations migrants encounter.

Jesuit partners in mission “immersed” themselves in a border experience in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

Immersion trip participants traveled to El Paso from all over the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province and beyond. Some were members of Jesuit parishes in Kansas City, Mo.; New Orleans, Saint Louis and San Antonio, Texas. Other participants are employees of Jesuit apostolates, including the Ignatian Solidarity Network, Loyola University New Orleans, and Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Two Jesuit novices who are ministering in El Paso also joined the group. Participants’ ages ranged from 22 to 81, establishing a foundation for rich, intergenerational dialogue and reflection. The convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph, where the group stayed, provided a welcoming and reflective space to unpack each day.

The Spanish word for “encounter” – encuentro – translates more precisely to “discovery.” Indeed, immersion participants related that their experiences on the trip revealed the deeper aspect of the word, as they not only encountered new facts and ideas, but also felt authentic connections, kindled by meeting people where they were on their journey.

A participant chats with a young girl across the border fence at Anapra.

While visiting the border wall between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, participants met with a Border Patrol agent who discussed his work. His was the first of many varied points of view on migration that the visitors would hear. Members of the group also visited El Paso nonprofits like Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services and Manos Amigas, each of which provides important services to immigrants and refugees, from safe shelter to legal assistance.

Anna Hey of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, Dylan Corbett of Hope Border Institute, and Ruben Garcia of Annunciation House, each offered their expertise and knowledge to aid the visitors in understanding the complexity and challenges of the U.S. immigration system.

Hey, an attorney, presented on the challenges and myths about the immigration system, noting that in El Paso, only about 2% of applicants are granted asylum, compared to the national average of 50%.

“Seeking asylum is not a crime, and denial in an asylum case can be a death sentence” when people are fleeing violence, threats, extortion, political instability and extreme poverty, Hey noted.

Beauty and poverty co-exist in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

Across the border in Anapra, one of several impoverished neighborhoods in Juárez, the group toured a construction site where nearly 40 young volunteers from the community were helping to build sustainable, low-cost houses, and visited a parish, a nonprofit and a support group for impoverished women with cancer. Members of the support group, housed at Centro Mujeres Tonantzin, shared their testimonies and experiences with the health care system. The system, they said, looks great on paper, but fails to meet the needs of those on the margins. Citing one example of unforeseen challenges, the women explained that chemotherapy can only be received in the capital city four hours away. That requires the sick woman to arrange for child care, then pay the $70 bus fare just to make it to the treatment center. If they also have to pay for lodging, it can become an insurmountable burden for women in rural areas. This is one of the many “problems that come from being a poor woman with cancer,” said one member of the support group.

A woman describes the challenges of “being a poor woman with cancer” navigating a broken healthcare system.

While in Anapra, the group also visited the Kansas City organization Manos Amigas, which supports ministry to students and the elderly, and has been accompanying this community for over 25 years.

One beautiful and challenging encounter was a visit to the El Paso U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center where migrants are held while they await trial. Father Garcia regularly provides pastoral care there. Father García and Fr. Eddie Gros, pastor of Holy Name Parish, New Orleans, concelebrated two masses for detainees.

Participants also learned about the many ways in which the combined community of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez accompanies those who are affected by the issues and challenges of life on the border. The two cities, nestled together, divided only by a border, are forever encountering each other. Many people live as if there is no border and see El Paso and Ciudad Juárez as one community that will not be isolated by a border. In some areas, like Anapra, that border is an 18-foot steel fence, and in others, it is a natural boundary such as a river.

From the convent’s porch, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez are indistinguishable–the red ‘X’ sculpture is just across the border.

Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, a hospitality home for migrants, said, “The world will no longer allow us to live in isolation.” It is imperative, Garcia urged, that U.S. citizens come to see the nation’s “intimate relationship” with migrants, many of whom are fleeing their home countries for reasons not unconnected to American foreign policy, the drug trade and a low standard of living.

The group had ample time to reflect on their experiences, the moments of challenge, confusion, discomfort and joy throughout the trip, and the pull to be more radically welcoming to all God’s people.

Father García and Mary Baudouin hope this immersion will be the first of many opportunities to experience encuentro at the border. At the end of their stay, the group was invited to question: What am I being called to do in response to what I have seen? What can I do to continue to learn about borders in my community? 

Fr. Rafael García, SJ, thanks immersion participants after the congregation blessed and sent them forth during Mass at Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso.

The border immersion experience was a collaboration between the USA Central and Southern Province and the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI). JSRI, which this year celebrates its tenth anniversary, is itself a collaboration between the UCS Province and Loyola University New Orleans. Based at the university, JSRI seeks to educate and advocate on issues of race, poverty, and migration. Father García, who ministers to immigrants and refugees in El Paso, is also an associate of JSRI.

BY ISN STAFF | July 18, 2017

“The system is broken. We need comprehensive immigration reform. It is overdue.”

Bishop Mark J. Seitz, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, spoke today with Catholic leaders and media from across the country regarding his pastoral letter entitled, “Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away: Pastoral Letter on Migration to the People of God in the Diocese of El Paso,” (English / Español) which was officially signed earlier today during an event in front of religious and civic leaders in El Paso.

The virtual conversation was organized by Hope Border Institute and broadcast from Sacred Heart Church of El Paso, a Jesuit parish just yards away from the U.S.-Mexico border, and offered an opportunity for Bishop Seitz to share an overview of the letter and respond to questions. The letter is the first official pastoral letter on immigration issued by a U.S. Catholic bishop in a number of years and builds on a pastoral letter issued by the bishops conferences of the United States and Mexico, “Strangers No Longer: Together On the Journey of Hope.”  

Bishop Seitz spoke directly to examples from a broken immigration system, and emphasized the need to respond as a Catholic community to “do all we can, as Pope Francis has called us; to accompany people in these struggles.”

Throughout the pastoral letter text, a number of specific diocesan initiatives are introduced, including (1) initiating a “commission on migration” comprised of both priests and lay leaders; (2) establishing the Soñador Fund, providing Catholic school scholarships to Dreamer children, who Bishops Seitz referred to as the “most innocent among the innocent;” (3) establishing an extensive leadership formation program in migrant ministry and immigration advocacy, including a rapid response program; (4) development by diocesan attorneys of a policy memorandum for all parishioners advising on legal rights should immigration enforcement officials approach parish; and (5) a call for a moratorium on detention and deportation.

“It is not right to send people back into the situation they fled,” says Bishop Seitz, referencing countless cases of migrants who have come to the U.S. amid threats against their lives and the lives of their families. “This a ‘de facto death penalty’ for people who have crossed our border for refuge and asylum.” He emphasized that the U.S. helped write international asylum laws and expects other nations to uphold them, and our country’s responsibility to do the same.

Bishop Seitz shared the story of Carlos Gutierrez, a young man in his mid 30s, who is married with two young children. Eight years ago, he was a successful businessman in Chihuahua. A ruling gang began extorting funds from him and his businesses and Gutierrez came to point where he could no longer sustain payment amounts. On an outing with friends in a local park, Gutierrez was abducted and attacked with a machete, losing both legs. He survived, and fled as soon as he was able, arriving in El Paso. For last eight years, has been in the process of seeking asylum, but has not yet legally received it. “What is wrong with a system that would send a man back who has lost both of his legs to the place where they did that to him?” asks Bishop Seitz. “This is clearly a broken system.”

He also emphasized the gifts of migrants to the diocese and El Paso community, and the peaceful, loving, hard-working, faithful, community-oriented culture embodied in migrant communities, allowing El Paso to be the safest city of its size in the U.S. “I feel so blessed to be here on the border with this migrant community,” he shared.

“Migrants on the border are being held hostage through rhetoric and action by politicians in faraway places,” said Dylan Corbett, executive director of Hope Border Institute, a community organization that seeks to bring the perspective of Catholic social teaching to bear on the social realities unique to the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez-Las Cruces region through a robust program of research, reflection, leadership development, advocacy and action. Today’s signing and celebration affirms the value of our identity as a border community and the contributions of migrants, while serving as a protest against demonization of migrants and migrant communities and militarization of the border.”

Speaking on the proposed border wall and increased militarization of the border, Bishop Seitz expressed grave concern that additional wall construction would continue to push migrants into the most dangerous border areas where enforcement is not as strong—increasing the number of individuals who lose their lives attempting to seek asylum.

“Start with the Gospel,” said Bishop Seitz to the assembled leaders in immigration and media. “There is so much richness that calls us beyond those things that would divide us.” The call to open the doors of communication between Anglo communities and the immigrant community is imperative. “We need to open up the doors, find structures that bring communities together. Worship together, gather for meals. Once you accomplish that the whole narrative changes.


View the recorded conversation with Bishop Seitz:

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published as part of the Ignatian Solidarity Network News From the Network series.

BY FR. RAFAEL GARCIA, S.J. | January 26, 2017

Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso, TX, because of its location and founding mission to serve impoverished immigrant persons, has long had an outward focus on social ministry.

The parish, founded in 1893, has supported initiatives to address the long list of challenges faced by the community: struggling public education, irresponsibly maintained rental housing, unemployment and low wages, vulnerability of the youth and elderly, violence in various forms, and irregular immigration status.

Situated just blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border, the parish is witness to about 120 migrants and refugees–families with minor children–arriving daily from Central America’s northern triangle. They are processed at the border, “paroled”, adults fitted with an ankle bracelet, and then permitted to travel to stay with family members or friends. Upon arrival, they are required to report to the nearest ICE office and continue the immigration process (often seeking asylum). Most families and individuals stay in El Paso for only a day or two, but the need is great during that time.

A great effort by churches and individuals provides shelter, food, and help with connection and transportation to family and friends in other parts of the U.S. It is an amazing effort, renewing the diocese and greater community. Women religious from other cities and college students on ‘break’ come to assist.

This migration is rooted in a significant human crisis. Violence in Central America is perpetuated by gangs, drug traffickers, etc. who are outside of government control. They extort, threaten, kidnap and kill individuals and families, with the hope of obtaining their servitude, driving people from their homes.

Mass for men at a US Customs and Border Patrol detention center

Despite the parole process, hundreds are detained in the city at a large facility where Jesuit Refugee Service provides staffing for the chaplaincy program. I am one of the volunteer priests who celebrates Mass and hears confessions at the immigration detention center, and will soon have clearance to provide other religious services at Southwest Key, a network of three immigration residential detention facilities for undocumented, unaccompanied minors. Pope Francis calls us all to go to the margins. The margins and the marginalized look differently throughout the world, and here in El Paso, the Jesuit community makes great efforts to follow this call.

Mass for women at a US Customs and Border Patrol detention center

Earlier in January, more than 650 El Paso residents gathered at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for an interreligious prayer service for the undocumented and migrant community of El Paso, presided by Bishop Mark Seitz and organized by the Hope Border Institute. Two families from Sacred Heart Parish participated, including Efren Loya, an 18 year old senior at a local high school and part time parish employee who came to the U.S. at age six from Cuidad Juarez, El Paso’s neighboring city. As a DACA recipient, Efren was motivated by his experience at the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in 2016, as well as the present uncertainty and fear of many, to speak out about his experience as an immigrant student. Efren hopes to become a pediatrician serving immigrant children, as he has experienced how difficult it is to attain affordable medical care. He is applying to several universities but the cloud of uncertainty gets thickens as questions arise about the future of the DACA program.

Rosa and Rosa Chavez, Fr. Rafael Garcia, and Efren Loya after January interfaith prayer service

The mission of Sacred Heart Church and its strategic location continue to give it relevance, especially when there is an increase in immigrant scapegoating, making them the lightning rod for complex problems in our nation. The mission of the Jesuits in El Paso is an ongoing response to the call of Pope Francis and the Society of Jesus to attend to the migrant, refugee and those on the margins.

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published as part of the Ignatian Solidarity Network Voices for Justice blog series.