Columban Mission Exposure Trip to the US/Mexico Border

1st 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.

Blog 1
Daniel Hale, a J&P campaigner who lives in South London.

Hi from the Columban Mission Centre in El Paso, Texas. El Paso, and its twin city of Juarez south of the border (about a 10-minute heavily fortified walk from here) were founded by a Jesuit priest in 1650. El Paso, the pass to the north, a key trade route, is nestled between two sets of hills, and the desert stretches out beyond the city limits.

And it’s here that the effects of economic and political decisions made many thousands of miles away have an immediate impact. Crowded into their small home, we heard Fr Peter Hindes, O.Carm. and Sr Betty Campbell RSM, co-founders of the Tabor House Community, recount their years of work raising awareness of the impact of American foreign and economic policy among the peoples of Latin America. Their home, made by their own hands, sits on a bluff in a poor area of Juarez. Now in their 80s and 90s, for the last 20 years they have welcomed visitors like us as part of a ‘reverse mission’ to get people in developed countries to understand more of the reality lived by local people. They continue their work listening to the testimonies of the people of Juarez.

Out in the yard, Sr Betty has a memorial wall upon which she invites us to write the names of men and women disappeared or murdered over the last bloody 20 years. Free trade agreements and the structural reforms they accompanied failed to lift many out of poverty, they argue, and increased the stakes for those who would capture the wealth that was generated. This drove an epidemic of violence in the city, with up to 300 murders a month. 15,000 people died, and are still dying, though in smaller numbers. Few investigations are undertaken, few people get justice. Sr Betty’s simple memorial seems to be the only place of recognition of the loss of life.

Back at the Columban Mission Centre in El Paso we were treated to tacos by Elizabeth, an undocumented migrant. After her son witnessed a murder in Juarez, she and her family were targeted by 12 men with AK47s. She was shot five times. After four months in hospital, she made a full recovery. Her brother and her sister in law were not so lucky. Frightened for her life, she fled with her husband and grand-daughter to the States. Sitting in front of me, her story starts to hit home. The names on Betty’s makeshift memorial include Elizabeth’s family too. Elizabeth, stranded in a country that doesn’t want her, lives everyday the impact of decisions that lack compassion and justice.

Blog 2
Adrian Dixon, a teacher based in London

After breakfast we went off into the State of New Mexico to see a pecan orchard. After lunch we went to visit a centre for agriculture workers set up by Carlos Marentes. He is an amazing man who was so passionate about his work and the position of agriculture workers throughout the world as the centre is linked to organisations worldwide.

Carlos’ talk was so inspiring and thought provoking. He explained how a typical day begins around midnight when workers wait in the street near the centre and perspective employers come along. The lucky ones get an offer of work while the others just have to wait for another 24 hours. Those who found work are then transported to the various farms, orchards and other work places where they have to work for around ten hours. Conditions in the field tend to be bad with a lack of drinking water and toilet facilities. This, together with the presence of chemical fertilisers, are often detrimental to the health of the workers. On return to the Farmworkers’ Centre around 3pm, the workers have the opportunity to make use of the varied facilities offered including kitchen, showers, and a medical centre. There are also educational facilities and several workers opt to study for a Secondary Level Certificate.

At 9pm, lights are switched off and people have the opportunity to have a few hours sleep on the floor before they rise at midnight to repeat the whole process. Perhaps the most shocking statistics given to us by Carlos was that 22% of the cost of produce is for production and only 8% is for worker’s pay. This certainly opens up many questions.

On returning from the Farmworkers’ Centre we had some free time before joining the large congregation in St Patrick’s Cathedral (El Paso) for the Mass of Chrism.

Blog 3
Jess Barnett, a Lay Chaplain in a boys’ school in East London with a long term connection with the Salesians of Don Bosco.

 This morning we had an early start, so that we could rush off to the Immigration Court to be present at some hearings. We had no idea how many we would sit through nor what to expect really. Once we got there and Bob [Fr Bob Mosher, Columban priest and our host] had explained a few of the technical terms and told us to stand when we addressed the judge it all began. We stood to greet the judge, the attorney took his place and invited the first respondent to sit. That’s when I began to feel uncomfortable. The judge, the government’s representative and the attorney conducted an entire conversation about the respondent and her case, all in English, all before going ‘on the record’. I found myself getting more and more annoyed on behalf of the respondent. She couldn’t understand them, but looked worried at the fact that they were discussing her. This continued with every case. Most were rescheduled due to a lack of paperwork. One case, however, was ‘closed’. Although as this simply means the man won’t be deported (unless he breaks the law) without moving him forward in terms of residency I felt it kind of left him in limbo. He still has no real rights within the US, it’s just that they won’t continue to investigate him, it all felt a little bizarre to me.

After that we went to Annunciation House and the Nazareth Hall, 2 shelters that care for undocumented migrants in different ways. Annunciation House is a place for people to go if they have no where else, no family or friends to travel on to, where as Nazareth Hall was more of a transient community, with people only staying a few days. Both were hard in different ways. While we were cleaning rooms at the Nazareth Hall 2 families arrived, sent by the border patrol. Again, it was difficult to be present at what felt like a very personal moment. I chose to do something practical and continue to clean the rooms they would be staying in. My heart went out to a teenage boy, who most have been around 14 years old, he looked so lost and dejected, like he just needed someone to tell him what was actually going on. I never got the opportunity to speak with him, even just to say ‘Hola’, but I was moved by the emotion evident in his face. I wanted to reach out to him as I would any boy in England.

In the evening we went on a march in remembrance of Cesar Chavez, a man who did great work in gaining rights for migrant farm workers. It was amazing to be a part of something full of such celebration, where people were proud to be associated with this man and wanted others to learn more about him too. I have no idea what tomorrow holds, but the learning we’ve done so far has lead me to a deeper understanding of the emotions involved on both sides of the issue. Ultimately today has made me value the dignity of every person and the importance of having a voice!