Walking in Their Shoes

Arizona Immigration Immersion Trip

It is said that in order to really understand someone, you need to “walk a mile in their shoes.” After spending a week at the Arizona-Mexico border, immersed in the lives of migrants and deportees and the challenges they face, I am still searching for the words to fully describe the devastating reality of the “shoes” in which they walk.

October 16-21, myself and eleven other BVMs, Associates and Friends: Linda Carstens; Ed Feuerbacher; Doug and Barbara Harper; Mary Martens, BVM; Mary McCauley, BVM; Kathleen McGrath, BVM; Mike and Mary McGillicuddy; Mira Mosle, BVM; and Lori Ritz, participated in an Immigration Immersion Experience, led by West Cosgrove, Director of Education at the Kino Border Initiative.

Kino Border Initiative (KBI), a bi-national organization located in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, works to promote U.S./Mexico border and immigration policies that affirm the dignity of the human person. In 2012 alone, KBI served 58,640 meals to migrant men, women and children at their Aid Center for Deported Migrants in Nogales, Mexico; they hosted 302 women and children in their women’s shelter, Nazareth House, to protect them from the threat of abuse and exploitation; and they provided first aid to 2,442 people. In addition to their direct humanitarian aid, KBI is also active in advocacy, and education. The educational aspect includes hosting groups, such as ours, in order to bring awareness to the border reality and how to respond effectively and with great compassion.

Our immersion experience began with a walk in the desert; a walk in the footsteps of the migrants who desperately cross the border into the United States, facing the harsh conditions of the desert: hot days, cold nights, little food or water, and face the risk of being caught, detained and deported by the U.S. Border Patrol, all for the chance at a better life for their families. We were led on our desert walk by a woman who is part of the Samaritans, an organization that brings food, water and first aid to migrants in the desert. She took us down an embankment, under the overpass, a place where migrants frequently hide until nightfall, trying to get to safety. There we saw items left behind by migrants: a pair of shoes, bags, pants, water bottles, all evidence of the lives that had passed through this spot. I tried to imagine the fear and pain of those who had passed through here before us, and the desperate circumstances that must have led them to this moment. Certainly no one would willingly choose this for themselves, unless there were no other options.

After our time in the desert, we made our way back up to our vehicles. As we ascended the embankment, we quickly became aware of the presence of two Border Patrol vehicles, waiting for us. They had received a call about a group of migrants. Upon seeing that we were not at all a group of migrants, they moved along. This encounter, however, left a deep impression—it was truly an immersion into the reality of the migrants’ experience: After going through so much to get through the desert, just like that, it would have all been over. We, however, were able to get in our own vehicles and drive away. Undocumented migrants who are caught do not have that option; they would be detained, potentially face criminal charges and jail time, and after all of that, be deported back to where they started.

That afternoon, we went to the Tucson, Arizona Federal Court and observed the Operation Streamline proceedings. The Operation Streamline program orders federal criminal charges for every person who crosses the border illegally. It is a border enforcement process that forces undocumented migrants through the federal criminal justice system and into U.S. prisons. In a little over an hour, nearly 70 undocumented individuals, handcuffed and shackled, stood before the judge in groups of five, pled guilty to the misdemeanor charge of illegal entry into the United States, and were sentenced anywhere from 30-180 days in prison, with immediate deportation after their time is served. Immediately after their sentence was pronounced, they were led away, distant looks displayed across their worn and weary faces. These men now fill part of the quota, known as the “bed mandate,” which requires the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to keep 34,000 immigrant detainees, per day, in custody.

During our immersion experience we were also able to spend time on the Mexican side of the border, hearing the personal stories of migrants and recent deportees. We visited the women staying in the Nazareth House women’s shelter and listened to their heartbreaking stories of poverty, desperation, abuse, and separation from their families. We also helped serve a meal at the Kino Border Initiative Aid Center (the Comedor). The Comedor is a small space, filled with four long picnic tables, a small kitchen, sinks for doing dishes, and two one stall bathrooms which also are lined with shelves which hold clothes for the migrants who need them. Two times a day, every day, KBI serves meals to migrants and deportees. They truly respond to the Gospel mandate to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. Each and every person was greeted and treated with dignity, love, and compassion while at the Comedor. These men and women were so grateful to be fed, and to be in a safe place, even if only for a short time. Despite their hardship, somehow they still hold on to hope—hope that they will be reunited with their family, that they will find work to provide for them, that life will be better.

West Cosgrove, KBI Director of Education and our immersion guide, told us that the immigration debate going on in the United States is really a debate about us (the U.S.): Who do we, as a people, want to be? While at the Comedor on our last day in Mexico, I met Daniel. Daniel was reserved and hesitant to talk, but the other men at the table helped him tell his story. He had been caught in the desert on his first attempt at crossing the border and had served two months in prison. When we met him, he had just been deported after serving his time. As I listened to his story, I imagined him going through everything we had learned about and experienced in our week there, and I knew that I did not want to be part of a people who would let this happen to a fellow human being. Looking at him, heartbroken, all I could say in response was, “Lo siento” (I’m sorry).

This immersion experience challenged all of us to walk differently. We were reminded of our call to use the “shoes” we have been given to bring about good; to embrace the ones forgotten; to be a voice for the voiceless; to welcome the stranger; to liberate, educate, love, and stand up for justice, especially on behalf of the migrant, immigrant and refugee.

— Tricia Lothschutz