By Gail Presbey, faculty member, University of Detroit Mercy
A Mercy Border Immersion Experience in El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, took place May 8-13, 2022. Following is one in a series of four reflections from a participant in the experience.
I was grateful for the opportunity to travel to the U.S.-Mexico border and see for myself the struggles that immigrants have, and to meet the people who are ministering to their needs and organizing for change. I was glad to do so in the company of Sisters of Mercy, Mercy associates and educators at Mercy institutions. I’d like to focus on the women I met there and the important work they do.
Sister Bea works at Casa Vides in El Paso, which is part of Annunciation House’s network of shelters for immigrants. Sister Bea explained that she came to the border in 2015 after having lived in Mexico for 28 years. She spoke to us in front of a large mural depicting the Vides family, a struggling immigrant family which has experienced such tragedy and violence. Sister Bea, a Sister of the Holy Spirit, told us the struggles of immigrants in ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention, including pregnant mothers who give birth there. As we arrived, Sister Bea and Sister Deirdre, a Sister of Saint Joseph, were taking a recent arrival to the airport where she would be able to fly to meet family. Those were the moments of joy that everyone at the shelter lived for; the immigrant woman was moved to tears as she accepted the help and looked forward to reuniting with family and being with her loved ones.
We heard from several women speakers at the Border Network for Human Rights. They organize neighborhoods in El Paso into committees to recognize problems in the neighborhoods and then work on solutions together. They also described the “Hugs not Walls” project, which, with the cooperation of the Border Patrol, allows families separated by the border to meet once or twice a year to hug each other, right there on the El Paso-Juarez border. We viewed a 3 minute hug (available on Netflix), a short film made at the 2018 “Hugs not Walls” event. I couldn’t help but cry—just like the people in the film are crying. They are so happy to see each other, and sad that the time is so short and that they are still separated. One of the women at the human rights center said that we need a new Ellis Island and a Statue of Liberty there at the southern border. That was particularly meaningful to me, because my own ancestors, Polish immigrants, came to the United States about 120 years ago through Ellis Island.
At the center La Mujer Obrera, meaning “Woman Worker,” we heard Lorena Andrade speak. The center is in what had been the garment worker area, just a few blocks from the border. After NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, passed in 1992, 35,000 women in El Paso lost their jobs. Most were garment workers of Mexican origin and had about a sixth-grade education. The center’s mission is to help these women start social enterprises, finding ways to support each other and defend their rights. Lorena is also involved in defending the neighborhood against pollution and fighting for its schools to remain open. She wants to try to save her neighborhood by convincing people to stay rather than move on.
In Juarez we visited Santo Niño, the school and therapy center for special needs children, which is run by the Sisters of Charity. We met Lucy who brings her daughter there for help with her seizures, for example. Other children have muscular dystrophy, or Downs syndrome. The public schools are not set up with the level of support these students need, but Sister Carol, a Sister of Charity at Santo Niño, and the others who work there give these children the care they need. The place is cheery and brimming with love and care.
We met Christina Cascade Andrade who runs a shelter called House of Welcome. Having seen daily the hundreds of Haitian migrants in Juarez daily looking for some way to cross the border and a place to stay, she opened this shelter to serve migrants. And finally, there is Sister Betty Campbell, a Sister of Mercy, who lives in a humble house called Casa Tabor in Juarez. It is a Catholic Worker house, devoted to nonviolence and to hospitality for those in need. Her concern for the suffering and death of people at the hands of others, whether migrants, women, journalists, etc., led her to create a memorial in her yard containing the names of people who have died in violence in the region. She invited us to participate by writing the names of those killed onto the walls of this shrine. Her artwork, and the ritual she designed for us, continues to reverberate.