On July 12th, 1992, President Bill Clinton said these words in Berlin, Germany:”We stand together where Europe’s heart was cut in half and we celebrate unity. We stand where crude walls of concrete separated mother from child, and we meet as one family. We stand where those who sought a new life instead found death. And we rejoice in renewal. Berliners, you have won your long struggle. You have proved that no wall can forever contain the mighty power of freedom.”
In 1992, the Clinton Administration built the Nogales wall.
Writing about this trip is too hard. Blogging is about telling a head knowledge, something cognitive. While I’ve learned so many facts and data and seen charts and numbers, this trip has given me a heart knowledge, a knowing that I am beginning to feel deep within. I know these are cursory glances at my day, and I hope that when I talk to you I can go into more details, show you pictures. But here is what’s happened.
Friday and Saturday I found myself in Mexico for the very first time. I found myself staring at a twenty foot fence. I found myself praying at the memorial of Jose Antonio, a 16 year old boy who was shot through the fence nine times by Border Patrol agents because some people were throwing rocks at the fence.
We began Friday at the Kino Border Initiative, a Jesuit ministry that provides shelter, food, counseling, and legal services to migrants, particularly the recently deported. Their goals are to affirm human dignity and foster a spirit of bi-national solidarity through humane, just, and workable solutions.
At Kino we spent most of the time reading and listening to the stories of immigrants. There was the story of Erika, who, after falling from the Nogales wall and broke her spine, was deported eight days later. There was Victor, who has never seen his grandchildren and speaks of the trauma he has suffered. There was Bianca, who escaped trafficking.
I don’t want to get more into their stories because they are just too sad, and at the end of this post I am going to be telling you in detail the story of my friend Herm. But each story of suffering and death at the hands of our border policy represents a re-crucifying of Jesus. The worn off skin of the feet of the immigrants are the nails in Jesus’ feet, for as Jesus says in Matthew 25, “as you did to the least of these, you have done to me.”
Kino was a powerful experience because we learned about the history of “prevention by deterrence” policies–where we have systematically blocked off main cities as passage points, forcing immigrants to cross in the desert, to cross into death. We learned about how the Trump Administration wants to increase mandatory minimums for those seeking reentry after being deported once, which will disproportionately harm parents of US children. Trump also wants to make seeking asylum more difficult when it is already almost impossible.
After Kino we went to the House of Hope and Peace (HEPAC). HEPAC offers daycare, adult education, gardening, kids camps, and a lunch program, seeking to improve the lives of those living in Mexico, to give hope to those who cannot cross or desire to stay. By preventing life in Mexico, HEPAC hopes that they can prevent more people from making the dangerous journey through the Arizona desert.
The desert is a harsh and dangerous space for immigrants. I cannot bring myself to describe what happens to those who suffer in the desert, much less what death looks like. The leading cause of death in the desert is from dehydration. So on Saturday we went into the desert to do a water drop. Along the way we found so many articles of clothing. Abandoned shoes. Jackets with a sleeve cut off, most likely for a sling or a tourniquet. But the most heartbreaking thing we saw was an empty gallon jug, still sealed, with a slash in the bottom. Though giving water is humanitarian aid, which is never illegal, Border Patrol agents and fishing and wildlife hunters often slash water drops, spilling the water in the desert, spilling what may have been the difference between life and death. Gives new meaning to the water of life Jesus offers.
That night we traveled to the San Juan Bosco refugee shelter. When immigrants are deported to Nogales, they are simply dropped off at the border. Thanks to the ministry of Bosco, there is a van waiting for them to bring them to shelter, to house them, to feed them, to care for them. Visiting Bosco has been the most soul stirring moment on the trip because we were allowed an entire hour to get to know the story of some of the immigrants. It was at Bosco that I met Herm, and this is his story that he wanted me to tell the world.
Herm was brought to America in the late 80s-early 90s when he was ten by his uncle. Back then they could simply drive across the border. Ever since then, Herm has been living in LA and has called America home for the past 25 years. Herm started off working in low-paying service jobs but eventually worked his way up to becoming a bartender. He told me he could make the best margarita! Herm graduated high school and finished two years of college classes towards a business degree.
Herm met his wife at a club, which his faced flushed as he told me. She became pregnant while they were dating, and because his family is honorable, he married her. They had their only child, a girl named Sara. Sara is now fifteen years old and is in ninth grade. Both Herm’s wife and Sara are US citizens.
Herm was violated for a traffic violation. A daughter no longer has her father, a wife no longer has her husband, because of a traffic violation.
For many of us, a traffic violation is a slap on the wrist, a mild inconvenience. For Herm, even though America is his home, even though he got his high school degree and speaks perfect English, a traffic violation cost him his family.
While talking to Herm, I immediately noticed that he was incredibly smart. He knew more about NAFTA than I do and probably most of y’all reading this. When he heard I lived in Boston he brought up JFK. He read a biography on him, and loves JFK because JFK loved Mexico. He then apologized for what happened in the Boston Marathon bombing. Herm told me about how Israel is testing technology in Arizona to use in Gaza (did you know that?).
Herm is currently journaling about being deported and kept from his family, about being an illegal immigrant from the country he grew up in. He’s writing because he read The Diary of Ann Frank and relates to her.
All because of a traffic violation.
Herm asked me to tell his story. I asked him what was the one thing he would want me to tell you all, and he said this: care for us emotionally. It meant everything to him that we were there and not judging him. Gustavo Gutierrez once asked, “Do you care for the poor? What is their name?”
I know your name Herm.
May we all pray for those crossing the desert this night. Amen.