The current humanitarian crisis on our southern border calls us to compassion and mercy as well as greater understanding. The Franciscan Network for Migrants–USA Team organized a three-day experience for a total of 28 people who witnessed firsthand the impact of US and state policies towards our migrant brothers and sisters.
On this visit, individuals belonging to the OFM, OFM Conventuals, OFM Capuchins, Third Order Franciscans, OFS, franciscan missioners, lay people, and among these representatives of Franciscans International, the Franciscan Action Network, and the Franciscan Network’s Mexico Team and Executive Secretariat spoke with frontline immigration workers on both sides of the border, met with migrants, and attended the annual the binational border mass, a cooperative effort of the dioceses of El Paso (Texas), Juárez (Mexico) and Las Cruces (New Mexico).
As we listened, learned, prayed, and reflected together, we felt the impact of this moment in history and this particular wave of migrants fleeing extreme poverty and violence in the region and looking for protection at our border.
On Thursday night, we gathered for dinner, sharing, and prayer at Casa Guadalupe Retreat Center.
Friday was dedicated to learning visit to a number of organizations. At Casa Vides of Annunciation House, Ruben Garcia, founder and director of Annunciation House, shared his perspective on the obligation that the church has to respond to this phenomenon, through the lens of more than 35 years working on migration issues in the El Paso área. Casa Vides provides longer-term housing for migrants who are awaiting political asylum cases and other immigration issues to be resolved, as well as those who have medical or other issues that require longer-term stays.
We also met with Ceci Herrera and Janet Kincaid of Border Service Corps. Ceci and Janet shared how through cooperation with a wide range of groups, including the El Paso International Airport, they have opened up resources and services for migrants moving through the border region. We visited Opportunity Center, a shelter for the unhoused, for migrants, and for those with mental health struggles who need supportive services. Sr. Elise Gittrich shared about the safe space they have created for a population that has few possibilities for support. And we had an impromptu visit to Holy Family Retreat Center headed up by Brother Jarek Wysoczanski, OFM Conv. Brother Jarek was visiting from Poland and ended up staying in El Paso because of the pandemic. He has dedicated his time since then to organizing a hospitality center that serves migrants who are seeking asylum in the US.
After lunch at beautiful Cafe Mayapán, a social enterprise launched by La Mujer Obrera, we met with Marisa Limon Garcia, the executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. Las Americas provides free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees, with attorneys and accredited representatives through the Department of Justice. We ended the day with some quiet time, dinner and prayer at Casa Guadalupe.
Saturday morning brought us to Hope Border Institute where the founder and executive director, Dylan Corbett, provided a historical overview of the region as a context for the current crisis. Nicole Schiff discussed her work with Paso del Norte Center of Hope and the Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force.
At noon, we attended the Binational Border Mass, one of the highlights of our experience. On the US side, the Franciscans were well-represented at the mass that was concelebrated on a platform that crossed the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo connecting the U.S. and Mexico. Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, Texas, who will become the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ migration committee in mid-November, joined Bishops José Guadalupe Torres Campos of Ciudad Juárez and Peter Baldacchino of Las Cruces. On the Mexican side, members of the Franciscan Network’s Mexican Team joined the many participants in the commemorative mass, with white crosses representing the migrants who died crossing the river near the site of the mass this year.
After the mass, we drove to Mesilla Park, NM to visit Holy Cross Retreat Center where we were welcomed by Tom Smith, OFM Conv., for a tour, reflection and dinner. We spent time in the church, enjoying the simple yet magnificent design and artwork that incorporates the surrounding nature and natural light. Fr. Tom described how Holy Cross Retreat Center hosts migrants and refugees on the weekdays and holds retreats on the weekends, and led us in a reflection on building community and reaching out to others in the context of the struggle for justice.
On Sunday, we crossed the border into Juarez, Mexico where we were joined by Beatriz Calixto Toxqui, member of the Puebla/Cholula shelter network and the Franciscan Network’s advocacy committee, Vianey Martinez, of the Network’s executive secretariat, Omar Rios who is the humanitarian support coordinator at Hope Border Institute, and Ramon Marquez and Emelie Viklund, formerly of La 72, a franciscan-run migrant and refugee shelter in Tabasco, Mexico. We visited the “Kiki Romero” Municipal Shelter, where we learned about local government efforts to assist migrants and refugees at this large gymnasium, which contains a first aid station, sleeping areas, children’s área, a library, and sanitation área. Meals are served by the Mexican army three times per day.
We then visited the border wall and Colonia Anapra, where Brother Ignatius Harding and Vianey Martinez were interviewed by El Diario de Juarez newspaper. We spoke with many of the migrants who, after having made the precarious journey through the infamous Darien Gap and on foot through Mexico, arrived to find out that they were no longer excluded from Title 42 as of October.
We regrouped for a lunch meeting with the entire group, wherein we discussed how to increase coordination among the Franciscan Network for Migrants US Team, our Mexican Team, and the Network overall. As the US Team is just beginning to build momentum, this meeting was key to understanding the impact we can have as an Network that connects franciscans throughout the Americas.
We ended the day at Casa Eudes Shelter, a home for migrant women with small children. The sisters and other volunteers gave us a tour and shared the experiences, struggles, the hopes and dreams of the women who are staying there.
In the coming days we will share more photos and reflections from the group. We will also be posting links to all of the organizations we visited in our Para Migrantes page.
Many thanks to Mary Soh, FMM, Gigi Gregory, Omar Rios, and Ramon Marquez for their help in organizing this meeting, and to the friars of the Franciscan Border Mission in Elfrida for helping with outreach and ongoing moral support. Without this team, this Franciscan Border Experience would not have been possible.