My life changed the moment I stepped across the border in Nogales, Arizona. I knew I would return from the Kino Border Initiative trip with a better understanding of migrant issues, but I never could have anticipated how I would encounter God during my time there.
The Kino Leadership Days were a four-day intensive program for students who were passionate about social justice and already had a background in immigration issues. The goal was to form young men and women into advocates through exposure to the structural problems at the border. One of the central ideas of KBI is “HAC,” which stands for Humanize, Accompany, Complicate. That is, their method for educating is to humanize the situation of the migrants, to accompany them in their journey and their struggles, and to complicate your understanding of immigration.
I was privileged enough to attend this service-learning experience and was blown away by the knowledge of the Kino staff members, the stories of the migrants, and the community I built with the other teens on the trip from Jesuit schools across the country. I felt especially inspired by Pete Neeley, SJ, a Jesuit priest who has devoted his life to immigrants and runs KBI.
During the trip, we had many opportunities to serve and be present at the Comedor, KBI’s migrant shelter just across the U.S.-Mexican border in Nogales, Sonora. I served food, washed dishes, and sorted laundry, but the most impactful part for me was the opportunity to listen to the migrants’ stories. One man I talked to named Juan told me how he used to live and work in the U.S., left voluntarily to return to his family in Mexico, and hasn’t been allowed back in the U.S. for over 20 years. Juan’s story particularly touched me because he lived in St. Louis for six months of his time in the U.S. Why, I wondered, could I return to my fruitful life in the states while Juan couldn’t? What made the two of us so different?
Juan’s story was one of the luckiest. Many of the other stories I heard involved the mafia, which controls Mexico and threatens the well-being of Mexicans across the country. One woman, named Biena, told me her harrowing story that brought her to the border. The mafia was after her brother when he died of natural causes. Gang members went to her demanding her brother and refusing to believe that he was dead. When they threatened to burn down her house, Biena knew she and her toddler son, Mateo, had to leave. They made their way to Nogales mostly on foot and were waiting at the border for a legal way to cross.
Biena’s story was inspiring because, even after all the hardships she had been through, she was making the most of the situation. She was co-organizing a peaceful march for asylum along the border wall that will take place later this month.
Perhaps the most moving interactions I had at the Comedor were with the migrant children. I am the oldest of four kids, and I saw my younger siblings in these young kids at the shelter. One boy, Fernando, flipped bottles with me outside the shelter, a game I play with my siblings at home. We also played soccer with some of the unaccompanied children at the Comedor. These kids are no different from American children, but they are denied the same basic human rights just because of where they happened to be born.
In addition to the personal encounters with migrants, we got to talk to the Kino staff members, who are experts on immigration. I learned that the biggest hurdle for migrants right now is Title 42, a U.S. health provision that states people applying for asylum can be denied on the basis that they could spread a dangerous disease in the U.S. Since the beginning of the pandemic, this law has been used to prevent almost all cases of asylum. This has created a humanitarian crisis, forcing shelters like the Comedor to operate on double time, migrants to return to their dangerous homes, and, in dire cases, migrants to attempt crossing the desert into the U.S., an extremely dangerous venture.
Ending Title 42 should be the top priority of U.S. lawmakers because it violates both federal law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While the immigration crisis is a way larger and more complex problem, saving asylum is a more manageable issue.
As I reflect on the trip, I recognize two overall takeaways from the trip. First, I was challenged and inspired to humanize, accompany, and complicate the situations of immigrants even 1000 miles from the border in St. Louis. I learned that it is important to be on the ground working with immigrants face-to-face, but there is so much advocacy one can do regardless of where they live.
Second, I learned just how much one can find God in all things on this trip. I found God in my fellow Kino teens who shared my goals and hopes for the experience. I found God in the Jesuits and other staff working hard to serve migrants at KBI, and I found God in each and every migrant searching for a better life. As men and women for others, we should be just as concerned with our peers walking the halls of SLUH as we are with those in need. And if the migrants have hope and faith in God that their situation will improve, then so should I have faith in God.
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