This is one of several blog posts written by the participants who traveled to Juarez/El Paso July 28-31 to see and listen to the stories of persons from all sides of the immigration crisis.
It is difficult to reflect on my time in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez with the Synod of the Sun delegation without jumping forward to the tragic events a week later when 22 people were killed in a Wal-Mart by a white nationalist terrorist. This violence contrasts so distinctly with the spirit of the town and region I saw that it makes the act even more unthinkable. Fundamentally, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are neighbors. Until recently, people and goods flowed freely between the communities. They existed as one metropolis with the Rio Grande flowing between them marking one from the other. They are still defined by that relationship in good times and bad. The mass shooting on Sunday, August 4 only highlighted the connection, resilience, and love these communities share with one another.
My involvement in the Synod of the Sun trip to El Paso and Ciudad Juarez grew out of a sense of profound powerlessness. In recent months, the crisis at the border had intensified. Thousands sought refuge in the United States by crossing the southern border. Many turned back. Many more were detained. The conditions at the detention centers and the stories of the people being held there were inescapable in the news. Following conversations with non-profits and those working on immigration issues in the PCUSA, the conclusion was that there was little that we could do. The detention centers did not allow visitors or even basic assistance. Individuals and churches that wanted to help and had resources to help would be blocked.
The reality on the ground in El Paso was somewhat different. Many were working tirelessly to assist those in need. In the weeks prior to our trip, the “Remain in Mexico” policy was instituted. The policy was meant to stem the flow of refugees into the United States. In effect, it moved the crisis to the other side of the Rio Grande. For months, El Paso was housing and feeding thousands of refugees and asylum seekers as they awaited hearings or sponsorship by family or others across the country. Many slept in churches awaiting another place to go. With the new policy, the humanitarian burden shifted south. An estimated 13,000 people had piled up on the Ciudad Juarez side of the border waiting for one of the 10 or 15 coveted appointments to apply as a refugee or asylum seeker with Immigrations and Custom Services. Ciudad Juarez and its non-profits there were adjusting to this new reality and the need as we arrived.
Crossing the border to Ciudad Juarez from El Paso meant walking across the international bridge. The bridge had been closed to American car traffic a few months before and the addition of rolls and rolls of razor wire were noticeable. We were greeted warmly on the Mexico side by our counterparts from Pasos De Fe, a partnership ministry between the U.S. and Mexican Presbyterians. At 9am, the line to cross into America from Mexico was impossibly long, stretching from one side of the bridge to another and down a side road. Some sought refugee status or had meetings with immigration officials on the U.S. side. Most were like the people killed or wounded in the Wal-Mart shooting, simply crossing the border for work, family, or commerce.
Pasos De Fe and a similar, but larger, Catholic facility called Casa del Migrantes were on the front lines of the complex humanitarian crisis at the border. The throngs arriving needed food and shelter. The Mexican government working with church groups and non-profits was doing their best to place people as they arrived. Pasos De Fe was housing 30, mostly, Cuban refugees. Casa del Migrantes had 600 refugees from Central America with the capacity for up to 1000 with proper funding. Other groups did what they could, but many refugees were living on the street or near a local landfill. Those that lived on the street were often the target of the drug cartels or human traffickers. Pasos De Fe and others like them were tackling the problem, but needed more support to expand services. A second floor to their facility Juarez was nearing completion following donations and grant from the Synod of the Sun. A hundred more could stay there. Something could be done and was being done.
This service extended across the border where large non-profits like Project Vida and smaller ones like Ciudad Nueva were providing vital social services to El Paso and the border region. And more than that, they were bringing the vibrant and caring community of El Paso together to provide that help. University Presbyterian Church in El Paso and others partnered with these organizations to care for their city. These were neighbors in need and they resolved to help them.
The trek to the border and across into the United States is a journey of hope. This is motivation of a dangerous and daunting traverse from Central America north. It is an aspirational journey from violence and starvation to, hopefully, something better. It is the answer to a prayer for life and security. The detention centers and the “Remain in Mexico” policy are about destroying that hope. The stated policy goal is for the refugees to turn around and return home. Many are. In the following weeks, maybe most will. We were witnessing its growing effectiveness last week as busloads of people were willingly returning back to their home countries, even in the face of certain death.
I returned home, believing we can do better than that. We should do better than that. We can be neighbors and neighborly to those that are in such need. I believe that because I saw it already being lived out on both sides of the border. If anything, they can teach us how to live into the hope and care they have found.
A week later, in the midst of a horrific act of hate, the ways those communities have responded has done just that. We are neighbors. We can help one another. As Christians, we must.