Here to Learn: El Paso Border Immersion Experience and the Grace of “Encounter”

BY CLAIRE PETERSON | April 27, 2018

[Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Jesuits Central and Southern Province.]

In the heart of El Paso’s Segundo Barrio neighborhood, at the edge of the United States – Mexico border, Sacred Heart Parish is a source of help and hope for its community. A Jesuit parish since its founding 125 years ago, Sacred Heart, or Parroquia Sagrado Corazón, is more than a religious home; it also provides programs for the immigrant community, a food bank and a weekend food service and catering project. This March, it was a focal point for a border immersion experience, welcoming 18 Jesuit partners in mission who came to learn more about immigration and the experiences of people who seek to start new lives in the United States.

The entrance to Sacred Heart’s pastoral center, in the busy Segundo Barrio, El Paso, Texas.

Father Rafael García, SJ, associate pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, and Mary Baudouin, USA Central and Southern Province’s provincial assistant for social ministry, organized and led the border immersion in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, March 15-18. The trip included four full days of opportunities to hear diverse perspectives about immigration, encounter migrants who have come to the United States seeking asylum, safety, and stability and learn about some of the organizations migrants encounter.

Jesuit partners in mission “immersed” themselves in a border experience in El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

Immersion trip participants traveled to El Paso from all over the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province and beyond. Some were members of Jesuit parishes in Kansas City, Mo.; New Orleans, Saint Louis and San Antonio, Texas. Other participants are employees of Jesuit apostolates, including the Ignatian Solidarity Network, Loyola University New Orleans, and Jesuit Volunteer Corps. Two Jesuit novices who are ministering in El Paso also joined the group. Participants’ ages ranged from 22 to 81, establishing a foundation for rich, intergenerational dialogue and reflection. The convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph, where the group stayed, provided a welcoming and reflective space to unpack each day.

The Spanish word for “encounter” – encuentro – translates more precisely to “discovery.” Indeed, immersion participants related that their experiences on the trip revealed the deeper aspect of the word, as they not only encountered new facts and ideas, but also felt authentic connections, kindled by meeting people where they were on their journey.

A participant chats with a young girl across the border fence at Anapra.

While visiting the border wall between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, participants met with a Border Patrol agent who discussed his work. His was the first of many varied points of view on migration that the visitors would hear. Members of the group also visited El Paso nonprofits like Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services and Manos Amigas, each of which provides important services to immigrants and refugees, from safe shelter to legal assistance.

Anna Hey of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, Dylan Corbett of Hope Border Institute, and Ruben Garcia of Annunciation House, each offered their expertise and knowledge to aid the visitors in understanding the complexity and challenges of the U.S. immigration system.

Hey, an attorney, presented on the challenges and myths about the immigration system, noting that in El Paso, only about 2% of applicants are granted asylum, compared to the national average of 50%.

“Seeking asylum is not a crime, and denial in an asylum case can be a death sentence” when people are fleeing violence, threats, extortion, political instability and extreme poverty, Hey noted.

Beauty and poverty co-exist in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

Across the border in Anapra, one of several impoverished neighborhoods in Juárez, the group toured a construction site where nearly 40 young volunteers from the community were helping to build sustainable, low-cost houses, and visited a parish, a nonprofit and a support group for impoverished women with cancer. Members of the support group, housed at Centro Mujeres Tonantzin, shared their testimonies and experiences with the health care system. The system, they said, looks great on paper, but fails to meet the needs of those on the margins. Citing one example of unforeseen challenges, the women explained that chemotherapy can only be received in the capital city four hours away. That requires the sick woman to arrange for child care, then pay the $70 bus fare just to make it to the treatment center. If they also have to pay for lodging, it can become an insurmountable burden for women in rural areas. This is one of the many “problems that come from being a poor woman with cancer,” said one member of the support group.

A woman describes the challenges of “being a poor woman with cancer” navigating a broken healthcare system.

While in Anapra, the group also visited the Kansas City organization Manos Amigas, which supports ministry to students and the elderly, and has been accompanying this community for over 25 years.

One beautiful and challenging encounter was a visit to the El Paso U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center where migrants are held while they await trial. Father Garcia regularly provides pastoral care there. Father García and Fr. Eddie Gros, pastor of Holy Name Parish, New Orleans, concelebrated two masses for detainees.

Participants also learned about the many ways in which the combined community of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez accompanies those who are affected by the issues and challenges of life on the border. The two cities, nestled together, divided only by a border, are forever encountering each other. Many people live as if there is no border and see El Paso and Ciudad Juárez as one community that will not be isolated by a border. In some areas, like Anapra, that border is an 18-foot steel fence, and in others, it is a natural boundary such as a river.

From the convent’s porch, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez are indistinguishable–the red ‘X’ sculpture is just across the border.

Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, a hospitality home for migrants, said, “The world will no longer allow us to live in isolation.” It is imperative, Garcia urged, that U.S. citizens come to see the nation’s “intimate relationship” with migrants, many of whom are fleeing their home countries for reasons not unconnected to American foreign policy, the drug trade and a low standard of living.

The group had ample time to reflect on their experiences, the moments of challenge, confusion, discomfort and joy throughout the trip, and the pull to be more radically welcoming to all God’s people.

Father García and Mary Baudouin hope this immersion will be the first of many opportunities to experience encuentro at the border. At the end of their stay, the group was invited to question: What am I being called to do in response to what I have seen? What can I do to continue to learn about borders in my community? 

Fr. Rafael García, SJ, thanks immersion participants after the congregation blessed and sent them forth during Mass at Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso.

The border immersion experience was a collaboration between the USA Central and Southern Province and the Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI). JSRI, which this year celebrates its tenth anniversary, is itself a collaboration between the UCS Province and Loyola University New Orleans. Based at the university, JSRI seeks to educate and advocate on issues of race, poverty, and migration. Father García, who ministers to immigrants and refugees in El Paso, is also an associate of JSRI.

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