Despair and Hope


A Mural outside of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. "The Americas belong to everyone."
A Mural outside of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. “The Americas belong to everyone.”

On October 20th, 2019, the network of migrant & refugee shelters where I work did not receive any people. Not a single family nor individual was released to us from any of the federal border enforcement agencies. A year ago, we were frantically opening up shelters across town – in a seminary with the Catholic Diocese of El Paso, in budget motels. Each week we increased our network of shelters to accommodate increasing numbers of migrants & refugees who were being released to us from Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The vast majority were families or pregnant women who were seeking some sort of refuge and were released because they could not be detained or turned away.

During that time, I remember working sometimes 12 or 14 hour days helping out with the various needs – where I lived, we would get daily arrivals and daily departures. We also had people calling from around the country offering us donations and wanting to help in some way – the office was constantly filling with boxes of diapers and bags of clothes and toothbrushes that we could hardly walk through the small floor space that remained. The days were so busy, but across the board we were only maybe getting between 250 and 300 a day here in El Paso. We had no idea what was coming.

When these families started coming in increasing numbers to our doors, I started to learn a lot about what kinds of things people were fleeing in the Northern Triangle of Central America (Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador) through personal testimonies. I do not think I knew very much at all about these countries before I moved to El Paso (which is truly disturbing considering how much my country and government has been involved there), but it was not long before I started to hear stories of extortion, kidnapping, near-famine, corruption, and violence that so frequently led to death.

When the new year began, the numbers across the city continued to increase, and it began to sink in that this “uptick” of asylum-seekers and other migrants was not going to end soon. Though every other week the U.S. president wanted it to end, the people were still coming. By May, across our network of shelters (which extended far beyond El Paso), we were receiving sometimes more than 1200 people per day. Our largest shelter, which has the capacity for 500, would sometimes be nearly full.

Now, everything has changed.

Around these parts, I can hear a pin drop. I can know the few remaining folks we work with by name. I can go weeks without being called on an emergency transportation run or a food-pickup or donation transfer or hospital visit. Some of us just sit around waiting for something to happen. Out of town volunteers have decided to go home.

But why?

Though the reasons people come and go in the first place are very complex, the drastic drop in releases of families and individuals into the U.S. does have some very clear causes.

It is not because these countries have run out of people. They are small, but they are not that small.

It is not because they have all found refuge in their neighboring countries, or in Mexico, so they don’t need to be here.

It is by no stretch of the imagination because the reasons they decided to leave home in the first place have gone away.

It is, in largest part, because we have created policies and practices that have closed any remaining doors that existed. Through metering, the Migrant “Protection” Protocols, and the countless attempts to deny people the right to even apply for asylum here, we have effectively sealed off the border from those who are seeking relief. We have pressured (*forced?) the Mexican government to work as a first line of defense for our border policies, demanding that they stop the people from coming or else their economy will pay a very serious price. We do not have any work visas for these people to apply for; for most, there are no legal pathways anymore. In the name of the American people, we have through various means shut the door on our neighbors who have come seeking refuge. We have said and are saying there is no room at this table for you.

I cannot think of a better, more accurate metaphor for this entire socio-political moment than that of the burning house. We have set our neighbor’s house on fire, and when they come to us for protection, for dignity, for work to feed their children, we dare tell them to walk back into that burning house and wait for the fire department to come. Which, for most, does not come in time.

I am not very good at writing. I always am self-conscious that I come off as too serious or too aggressive or too emotional or not emotional enough. I have so many things I’ve written up that I think are not good enough to share with anyone else. If you get me on the phone or catch me in person, I can’t stop going on! But there is something difficult about putting it nicely onto a page because there is editing ability and then it better be worthwhile !

But I will say that these days, I go through a wide range of emotions that are centered around moments. I still have joy in the moments shared with the few people that we still offer hospitality to; I have joy in the community of volunteers and the beautiful El Paso and the many great and miraculous and holy things that happen around here and in daily life. I have joy in God’s beautiful sunsets and sunrises and in all the daily resurrections and miracles I get to see.

I also experience a lot of anger and sadness and desperation when I stop and think about what is going on; when I read about kidnappings or disappearances or deaths in Mexico and Central America. I become anxious or sad when I hear from government representatives who speak untruths and wield their power for evil, or when I see the masses complacent with that type of behavior. I feel so desperate when I think about all of the people who we have not met who were turned back to Mexico and have decided to go home. It may be safe to assume that people who are willing to return home are not fleeing life or death situations, but I have heard of multiple stories of people saying they “would rather die at home than in a foreign country” or “be buried near their loved ones” which does not reassure me that they will all be safe. And it matters because so much of what these dangers and pressures and unlivable conditions are have come to be because of U.S. military interventions, trade policies, weapon exportation, and our drug consumption.

We have blood running past our hands, dripping from our elbows down to the tops of our shoes. We are standing in puddles of blood, even rivers of blood, as we tell these people they are unwanted and not welcome.

But the last word does not have to be so dark. It does not have to be so morbid, and it is not for me, even though I sound quite hopeless and cynical! It is so very important to acknowledge the wrong, the suffering, the complacency in injustice, but that is not where one should stop. To spend time contemplating the ongoing suffering helps me feel closer to God, because I cannot imagine God is feeling very good about the ways we have continued to disregard all that God and our faith leaders have said about how we ought to live with one another and the earth. But as a Christian, I still believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel. My faith is so renewed in sharing time with people who have had everything taken from them, who have been beaten and extorted and suffered tremendously from hunger and detention and fear, but then say to me “but thanks to God I am okay. Thanks to God I am here.”

In 2017, the Catholic Bishop of El Paso wrote the “Pastoral Letter on Migration to the People of God in the Diocese of El Paso” that has some really inspirational messaging for me. Though I am not from these or any borderlands, I feel quite at home here and I am very moved by the message he puts forth. The letter focuses on the issues of migration and border realities and how they have affected this binational community with special attention to the abundant response that has shaped the spirit of resilience here. He writes, “Our Chihuahuan Desert has been a powerful place of encounter, where a true culture of encuentro has taken root and allowed flowers of life, culture, and faith to bloom even in the driest of sands… We are servants on the patient journey towards the civilization of love that the Spirit is preparing for all of humanity.” To me, that is so beautiful – to think of myself and my neighbors as servants on a patient journey towards a love that includes everyone. I know that is for some a lofty, “pie in the sky” type of idea, but God requires nothing less, and if I really want to call myself a “practicing Catholic” as I do, I hope I can even in the smallest ways strive to be on the right path of that journey. He also talks about how Catholic teaching is very clear on how we ought to respond to migrants, refugees, and those who are very much part of our communities but do not have legal status: “There is no distinction between documented and undocumented when together we receive the Bread of Life in our chapels and churches.”

For me, these ideas are affirming in the light of the suffering and destruction that is occurring for many people across the world. To me, the response to the increasing woes of climate change, gang and cartel rule and impunity, poverty, drug use, and violence is to inform ourselves and make individual and collective choices to address these harms not just for the sake of the people who are directly impacted but for the sake of all of humanity. Living my life in ignorance to all that has been revealed to me, especially these teachings and commands, would hardly be living at all.

So here I am, blabbering on and on with not very much to show for it. I am a very convicted person, and I pray frequently that God use my whole body and soul in someway that builds up and continues this work towards a civilization of love. I haven’t done anything very remarkable, though. I make little kids giggle and paint walls different colors and look people deeply in the eye but there is so much room for growth. Though we volunteers, among many others who work with some kind of similar framework, are constantly despairing over the general direction of our global community and where we believe we are headed now (to abandon our souls for money), there is something about this space that allows us to continue exploring what might be a better way. For that gift, I am eternally grateful.

Though the Bishop’s letter was written specifically to the Catholic Church community of El Paso, I believe it applies equally to all communities everywhere. Moved to action with disdain for human rights abuses, exclusion, and infatuation with neoliberal consumer capitalism and all of its false promises, “May we take up new and prophetic actions to bring about the Kingdom of justice, truth and reconciliation in order to transform this desert, so that the burning sands will become pools, and the thirsty ground, springs of water.” Why shall we strive for springs of water to nourish the displaced and dispossessed? For me, it is because I “trust that God did not create a world without room for all at the banquet of life.”

sunset sky