Columban Mission Exposure Trip to the US/Mexico Border (2)

4th April 2015 - by James Trewby

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A small group of Columban contacts in Britain is spending Holy Week 2015 on a Columban Mission Exposure Visit to Texas and Mexico, exploring issues around migration.

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Kyra Trewby is a volunteer for ‘Faith in Action Week’  and other Columban Justice and Peace initiatives. She works in the charity sector. She writes:

Our day began with a visit to the U.S Border Patrol at the border fence in New Mexico. One of the most striking things I saw was the patrol vehicle hooked up to a row of tyres which are designed to trail behind the vehicle as they drive up and down the strip of sand next to the border fence. The tyres smooth the sand down, allowing the officers to see any footprints that have crossed the sand within the time it’s taken them to drive back along the border. This gave us an idea of just how often people try and cross the fence. The patrol officers told us they usually apprehended between 3 and 5 people in their area each day. I couldn’t help thinking back to pressing my own fingerprints into the scanner at Dallas airport, my British passport tucked safely in my pocket.

And if we thought we’d seen a pretty big fence that morning in New Mexico, it was nothing compared to the legal fences that make up the U.S. Immigration system. Shalini Thomas from the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services of El Paso talked us through what it really looks like to get in line to apply for residency, citizenship or asylum and how broken the system is.

It became apparent that those first footprints on U.S soil are, at best, only the beginning of another long and difficult journey.

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Matt Sanderson, 25, is a charity worker living in South London and will begin teacher training later this year. He writes:

Our time in the Borderlands seems to be speeding along; each day full of rich experiences and meeting people who all play their part in the story, the narrative, of the immigration reality of this area. Today was no different and three ‘highlights’ have, for me, had one stream (perhaps you could say a Rio Grande/Rio Bravo) running through them, that of belonging.

We started our day at ‘Los Americas’ the Immigration advocacy center in downtown El Paso where Kate, a volunteer from the Border Servant Core, spent time with us sharing the work of the Centre and her experiences. The centre takes a quote of Franklin D. Rossevelt, from 1939, as their motto, “Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants …” That’s true for me and I’m sure true for you too. Kate focused on the process of asylum and highlighted that only 1.6% of Mexicans are awarded asylum in the El Paso Circuit and reminded us all of the harsh reality of those awaiting asylum, their experience in detention centers and what they may be leaving behind; for many, it seems, they are living a state of limbo having fled the homeland out of great fear but not belonging to their new country – where do they belong?

Later on we visited the Chamizal Memorial Cultural Centre which tells the story of an area of land which had been much disputed between Mexico and the U.S. until the Chamizal Convention of 1963. The centre is conscious that the story of this land should not be solely about political bargaining and agreement but also about the ordinary people whose lives were, and are, affected by this agreement – those who were paid to move and leave their ancestral homeland. The centre is preparing to gather oral history of those who have been impacted and how this has affected their sense of belonging and identity. How fascinating it would be if all those who played a part in the story of immigration in the borderlands could take time to listen to the ordinary voice. This made me think that the sense of belonging is more than merely which country you live in but of heritage and identity too. We returned back to our centre and managed to tune into the U.K. party leaders debate where, unsurprisingly, immigration was a hot topic; rhetoric on clamping down on immigration was aplenty but it was good to hear talk of the individuals, of the numbers constituting the targets as our fellow human beings


 These themes of belonging remained as we travelled across the border to Juarez to start the Tridiuum with Mass of the Last Supper at San Juan Diego chapel in a very simple and beautiful chapel on the edges of the city. Here the signs that we were in the desert were clear, sand taking the place of tarmac. This small community welcomed our group and though we could not converse, as my Spanish is shamefully non-existent, through sharing in the Eucharist I felt a sense of belonging and of being united with them in faith. We had crossed a man-made border to be with them; and while we were praying as one our nationality did not matter, our belonging was shared in something much more important – as children of God.

I have ended the day with many questions, ‘Where do I belong?’, ‘What is my identity?’ , ‘What defines me: my place of birth, my residency, my faith?’