Recently I visited St. Mark Parish in El Paso, Texas, and had the opportunity to talk with volunteers who staff the parish’s RICO ministry, which serves unaccompanied minors under the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). RICO is an acronym for Refugio Infantil Comunidad (Community Child Shelter), but it is also named after the pastor’s nephew Rico, who was killed in Mexico.
The pastor is Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas, who knows too many stories of violence like the one that befell his nephew. His face turns to a grimace as he recounts one of them: Ana, a Salvadoran woman whose husband and baby were killed, leaving her and her other two children to flee for dear life north into Mexico and eventually the United States. Along the two-month journey, she scavenged for food and tried desperately to protect her children from attackers. She was arrested when she made it to the U.S. border, but while in ICE custody she was allowed to visit St. Mark, where she was welcomed and experienced the first real human contact for many weeks. By that time, her children could barely tolerate solid food.
Volunteers at the constantly busy parish recount similar stories. A husband and wife team hold back tears as they remember the two-month window of time when ICE allowed them to shelter thousands of migrants who streamed across the border fleeing violence. For eight weeks, Adrianna and Antonio Posada lived and slept in the parish hall, taking care of men and women who had no other place to go. Men and women were raped along the journey; one man was left entirely naked after being attacked; one woman broke both legs after scaling the wall separating Mexico and the United States.
Stories such as these are part of the daily reality of life on the border. Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso has written movingly of this reality in his recent pastoral letter “Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away,” in which he recounts several similar stories. There is a pattern among them: families are torn asunder by uncontrolled violence in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador or Mexico; they make heart-wrenching decisions to leave home, often at a moment’s notice and with nearly nothing for the dangerous journey. They travel through the valley of the shadow of death, often suffering further violence; and they arrive at the United States border. There they are treated like criminals, often having to wear an ankle bracelet so they can be tracked, or living in detention until they can be sent back over the border to a hopeless future.
Bishop Seitz puts his finger on the way that political realities have shaped the lives of countless numbers of people. He writes, “I am bishop of a flock frightened by the flashing lights of police cars in the rearview mirror, who wonder if this family outing or that drive home from work will be the last. I am spiritual father to thousands of Border Patrol and ICE agents, who put their lives on the line to stem the flow of weapons and drugs and those who carry them.”
He understands the way that policy changes impact both migrants and members of law enforcement, all of whom are children of God. He knows something about the ways that changing laws and policies can throw generations of families into turmoil—whether it’s because of parents arrested and deported while their children are in school, or whether it’s because of adult siblings unable to visit each other because they live on opposite sides of the El Paso/Juárez border. Yet he also knows that many ICE agents work hard to provide for their families and subject themselves to danger on a daily basis because of the perfect storm of unjust economic conditions, the illegal drug trade, and broken immigration laws.
During my visit, I participated in the annual Border Mass, a cooperative effort of the dioceses of El Paso, Texas; Juárez, Mexico; and Las Cruces, New Mexico. The altar for the Mass was set upon an ad hoc platform right over the Rio Grande, which in El Paso is little more than a concrete storm canal that marks the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Bishop Seitz, the celebrant this year, stepped off the platform and waded across the shin-deep water to offer communion to a priest from Juárez, who then shared it with the several hundred congregants on his side of the water. The bishop’s action reminded me of the way someone described refugee volunteers as gente puente—bridge people. The Church, as the living body of Christ who bridges the human and the divine, also provides a bridge for suffering people to experience healing. Let us pray for the graces to provide such bridges in our troubled world.
Dr. Tim Muldoon is Catholic Extension's Director of Mission Education.