Last month, I went with a group from the Catholic Coalition for Migrants and Refugees — a group now forming in partnership with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, which my brother-in-law, Frank, is part of — to visit Annunciation House in El Paso. Loosely, it is a network of migrant shelters that offers an immersion education program called The Border Awareness Experience.
We stayed in the shelter called Casa Vides and took part in the life there with the volunteers and guests.
We met with advocates from other organizations, a community organizer, Border Patrol, researchers, volunteers in the various shelters and with priests and others who care for migrants on both sides of the border. We attended Federal Immigration court. We took in an art exhibit of art left behind by the children at Tornillo detention camp.
We visited the Walmart memorial where 22 Hispanics from both sides of the border were killed in a mass shooting in August. The emotional impact of that was intense.
We hiked up Mount Cristo Rey (Christ the King) at the convergence of Texas, Mexico and New Mexico, praying a migrant-themed Stations of the Cross on the way up. At the top is a huge statue of our crucified Lord surrounded at his feet with a giant crown. There is an altar there, where Mass is said. It was beautiful and poignant. The landscape appears impossible to cross. No border fence is necessary, but sometimes people do make it through. It was hard to see how they survived.
The most enduring reality for me, however, was the border wall itself.
Driving through the city on our first day in El Paso to tour the border fence — an 18-foot slatted steel barrier, with an extra 5 feet of “anti climb” on top, numbered in sections — it seemed strange to see the freeway on the other side, looking very similar with the same kind of cars on it, but technically another country and separated by this forbidding fence.
There are six busy border crossings in El Paso. At some of these we could see groups of school kids with their backpacks going back and forth, and long lines of freight trucks waiting their turn.
Chris, a volunteer with Annunciation House, talked to us about border history and about some of the effects of NAFTA on the people south of the border — how they lost family lands and were driven to work in the factories built along the border (for $2 per day) in places where there was nowhere for them to stay, nothing around, and no one they knew who they could stay with, so they built carton homes near the factories. Eventually these shanty towns formed along the border. He was taking us to one of these called Anapra.
We got out of the van a few feet from the border fence, section 357. The woman with us who is originally from Chile, Maria, wept when she saw it. Both of us went to the fence and touched the cold steel, praying.
It felt strangely familiar to me. Then I remembered why.
I spent many a Wednesday afternoon praying in front of what was then the abortion clinic on 29th Street, even before it was built along with other people who stood on the sidewalk with rosaries in shifts in front of the fence. The border wall, too, is a place of death and tragedy. People jump in desperation and die or are terribly injured here. It is a place of injustice, people driven into poverty or fleeing violence, then forced back, denied relief, treated as criminals and in many cases, denied their lives and the lives of their children.
Similar to the abortion clinic, this place of desperation and death is somehow also sacred. It is the place of the suffering of God’s children. God cherishes all of their tears, sacred to him. We could do no less.
Some of the women were taking pictures of a baby doll lying in the dirt with its head smashed. I had purposely left my phone behind so I didn’t do that. I didn’t have to. I will never forget it.
Gathering together, we did some reading on the history of border policy together and discussed it. Then each of us talked about our impressions of the border wall.
I talked about how this place felt similar to the abortion clinic and all the time I spent praying there. I told how in my hometown the abortion clinic did finally close and the site is now the offices of Coalition for Life.
I said we can have hope that someday this wall would come down and this site became a symbol of the victory of the spirit of friendship, cooperation, acceptance and love. It could happen!
In the 1970s, there was just a chain link fence at the border. Just before NAFTA was implemented, the people of El Paso can tell you, the 18-foot steel fence we see now went up. This is generally taken to mean that the politicians involved knew that mass migration would result from the policies of NAFTA.
We met with Border Patrol at another section of the wall. People in my group asked good questions that the four Border Patrol officers seemed to appreciate.
What a bizarre situation everyone along the border is in. In a way it is an imaginary line, and all involved are playing a game. The problem is the game is real, and it causes incredible suffering and death, at least the way it plays out. The line is imaginary, but if you think about it, the border fence is violent in so many ways.
Toward the end of the conversation with the Border Patrol officers, which was good, personal and amicable, Sister Anne Catherine nudged me. She had been watching a group of birds who circled several times over the wall, sometimes fluttering to the ground on either side, as if they were showing us something. I watched too. “If only I had the wings of a bird I could fly away to safety,” as the Psalmist says. It’s a sad, surreal feeling to see the border wall and know its consequences to human beings and to our own humanity. Such a cost. Such a strange and haunting place.
Asked about the hardest part of the job, each one the officers had said it was seeing the kids. They said it was hard to get their work out of their heads when they went home in the evenings. It sounded like sad and difficult work, though now and then they get to save the life of someone dying or injured in the desert and that helps for a while.
They talked about the infrared cameras, the anti climb, the sensors under the ground.
There was more, but I don’t remember. I was feeling depressed.
Again I had been praying at a fence — praying for love to win in the end.
At our meeting at Hope Border institute we learned more about how NAFTA affected this region on both sides of the border; for El Paso the closure of factories that relocated on the other side and the failure of the government to keep its promises of retraining workers; in Mexico, family and communal lands being lost to farmers, American subsidized corn flooding the Mexican market, collapsing their economy, people who suddenly were displaced and unable to feed their children, the way the consumption of drugs in the U.S. ($40 billion a year basting into the underworld South of the border) has corrupted institutions and destabilized governments in these countries, especially in Central America. We heard from the experienced how migrants made to remain in Mexico, especially the Central Americans, are targeted by gangs to be kidnapped and how the corrupt police in Juarez sometimes help.
The practice of metering causes misery with 3,000 people under the border bridges waiting to hear their names called. They can be there for months on end.
The night before I left, the shelter I was staying in took in five children. The children were American citizens who had been living under one of these bridges with their parents, who were stuck in Juarez, for months. The sisters offered them showers, a hot meal, a clean, safe place to sleep at least for now.
We learned that another reason people from Central America are becoming refugees is also climate change, particularly from Guatemala, where climate change is happening in real time. Coffee farmers in Guatemala are having to move up 1,000 feet every year as the sea rises. People are losing their livelihoods.
Hope Border Institute, in partnership with the El Paso Diocese, does research and advocacy work. They try to apply Catholic social teaching to border issues. They gave us an asylum claims flowchart. It was very confusing but apparent that it is almost impossible to win an asylum claim.
At immigration court we learned that El Paso judges have a 97% denial rate. These are people fleeing for their lives.
We learned from people who work with those in Immigration detention that it is exactly like prison, only worse. The abuses you have heard about on the news are real and have been witnessed by people I talked to. Detainees, even those who came in legally and are trying to claim asylum, can be there for indefinite periods of time. Then they are almost always deported.
In a moment when we were generally overwhelmed by the problems facing these people my brother-in-law Frank said, “When you have a hole in the boat, charity is bailing the water out. Social justice is fixing the leak.”
I reflected that it is as if we live in a duplex, with the only way out for our neighbors being the door to our house. We have let a dangerous animal into our neighbor’s house, slammed the door and locked it. If anyone manages to get out, we tie him up and throw him into our bathroom. “And take his children,” someone said. “Yeah, that too.”
We ended our visit our last morning there saying goodbye to “El Paso del Norte,” its name when it was one city, at a scenic overlook on a mountainside. It is a lovely place with a view of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso stretching out before us, Mount Cristo Rey in the distance.
The border wall was invisible.
I thought that this must be how God sees this place.
Viva Cristo Rey.
Bryan resident Shawn Manning Chapman, a twice-widowed mom of two daughters, is a Secular Discalced Carmelite, a Catholic community in the Diocese of Austin. She is a private caregiver.