Throughout recorded history, people have migrated in search of a better life. They have walked jaw-dropping distances, across ice and desert, mountains and valleys, jungles and plains, hoping to find easier ways to survive. They have gotten into boats and set sail for shores known and unknown with little hope of reaching them alive.

In part, it is what makes us human—our tireless movement, from here to there and anywhere. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” God commanded Abraham. And he did so, freely.

But is it a human right to migrate according to need? Or is it a human right for citizens of a sovereign nation to be able to monitor and control their borders? How might a reasonable balance be struck between true compassion and suitable law that guarantees the safety and dignity of all people? Those are the kinds of questions that people of faith are asking along the border between the United States and Mexico.

When I first met Sr. Maria Engracia Robles, she was stirring a large pot of beans with one hand and dishing out rice onto plastic plates with the other. She is one of three nuns who run El Comedor, a soup kitchen in Nogales, Mexico, just a few hundred feet from the border. Every day, she and two other Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, Alma Delia Isais and Imelda Ruiz, feed as many as three hundred men, women, and children who have recently been deported from the United States and are now stranded in Nogales, trying to fend for themselves.

El Comedor is a cramped space, encircled by a chain-link fence and sheltered from the rain by a few slats of corrugated metal. The kitchen, off to one side, is only big enough for two people. Yet somehow the sisters and a volunteer from Guadalajara manage to cook impressive amounts of beans, rice, tuna casseroles, and vegetable sautés—depending on what food they receive each day from donors. “We cook whatever we get,” Sr. Robles says. “It’s different every day.” She is a tiny woman with silver hair, an angular face, and small expressive eyes. Despite her diminutive stature, she is a well of strength and determination.

Before every meal, Sr. Robles turns on a microphone to say a prayer. “Thank you, Lord, for this food we have received,” she begins. The prayer is accompanied by much coughing from the migrants, many of whom are sick. “May you guide them safely in their journeys,” Sr. Robles says. She knows well that their quest can take them almost anywhere: into the hands of the Border Patrol; to some distant town or city in the United States, where friends or relatives await them; into the grasp of a “coyote,” who might rob or rape them or leave them stranded in the desert; or home, after they have turned back or been deported. Some don’t survive.

El Comedor was opened in 2008 because of the unprecedented influx of deported migrants arriving in Nogales. This surge was the result of heightened border-patrol activities in the United States, including raids, the use of cutting-edge technology, doubling of the number of border-patrol agents, and mass trials.

Just sixty miles north, in Tucson, seventy men and women are tried every weekday afternoon at the DeConcini Courthouse. These trials are part of a new program known as the Arizona Denial Prosecution Initiative—or, more familiarly, as Operation Streamline. The initiative mirrors similar programs in Texas and California. It aims at deterring migrants from trying to reenter the United States by making their attempted crossing a felony. Each attempted reentry is punished with a longer jail sentence. Moreover, having a criminal record will make it difficult, if not impossible, for such men and women to work or live in the States in the future, even if they enter by legal means.

The trial for each of the accused lasts, on average, thirty seconds. One by one, shackled defendants are identified, asked if they are citizens of Mexico (or another, usually Central American, nation), if they understand their rights, and finally, how they plead to the charge of illegal entry (or reentry). One by one, they answer, “Culpable.”

Many Americans consider the program a great leap forward in securing the border. According to a recent op-ed in the Arizona Daily Star by the chief of Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, Robert W. Gilbert, Operation Streamline has been a complete success.

Meanwhile, in places like Nogales, busloads of deported migrants arrive every day. They are dropped off in clothes they have been wearing for days—in some cases, weeks. Most have no money or papers. Some are ill, and none are from Nogales. Many go to El Comedor for food. At night, some venture into town in search of the few available shelters, while others sleep in the nearby graveyard. Women and children are particularly vulnerable, most of all at night, when a confluence of illegal activities—human smuggling, sex trafficking, and drug running—really gets underway.

Because of the unique dangers facing women, the sisters recently opened a small shelter for unaccompanied women and their children. It and the soup kitchen are part of the Kino Border Initiative, just one of dozens of Christian and interfaith ministries on the border trying to meet the humanitarian needs created by the immigration crisis.

According to Fr. Martin McIntosh, a Jesuit priest who works with the sisters, the Kino Border Intiative is now planning to open a health clinic. “It is desperately needed,” he says, and on my first visit to El Comedor, I see what he means.

I have come to El Comedor with Maryada Vallet, a volunteer for No More Deaths, an interfaith coalition seeking to end the suffering and deaths of migrants in the desert. Maryada visits El Comedor whenever she can to offer her services as an EMT. Within minutes of our arrival, a young Honduran man flags her down. He is shivering and has rolled up his pant leg to reveal, on his right thigh, a deep open wound that penetrates to the bone. “Oh my God!” Maryada’s long-lashed eyes widen. “What happened to you?”

“On the train,” he says. “A big piece of metal got me.” He is referring to the freight trains that travel the nearly one thousand miles from the Guatemalan border through Mexico. It is known by those who ride it as La Bestia, “The Beast,” or more commonly as El Tren de la Muerte, “Train of Death.” Many migrants lose their lives riding atop the boxcars, and many more lose limbs in the attempt to climb aboard.

The Honduran with the thigh wound is lucky in a way. He did not lose his leg, and he has made it all the way to Nogales. “I’m so close,” he says to Maryada, who is examining his leg, trying to figure out what to do. “So close to the United States. It’s just over the hill, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Maryada says as she begins to pour iodine solution onto his thigh. It spills off in red rivulets, splashing to the ground. He winces. “But you really should go to a hospital,” Maryada urges him. “This is a very bad wound. You could die from it. I don’t have any antibiotics for you, and this already looks septic.” The man clicks his tongue and waves his right index finger, a gesture that means no. Because he is Honduran, there is a good chance that one of the Mexican doctors would report him to authorities, and that, after all the effort, he would be deported back to Honduras.

Maryada bandages his thigh and tells him once more, in vain, to seek medical attention. “I can’t,” he says, “but thank you.” Then he turns, exits El Comedor, and begins hopping down the street, his injured leg stiff as a board. It is hard to imagine him walking a block like this, let alone across the desert. “Good luck!” Maryada calls out, but her words are lost in the wind.

She cannot dwell on it, though, since there is so much more to do. There are blisters to tend to, fevers, coughs, and gastrointestinal problems. There is a man who was recently deported from Bakersfield, California, where he had lived for nearly a decade before being arrested in a raid. He clutches a book to his chest, Cómo Librarse de la Encarcelación, “How to Free Yourself from Prison.” His eyes are glassy, his forehead glistening with sweat. He is diabetic, he tells Maryada, and has not received treatment since he was detained. Two of his toes are gangrenous. Maryada tests his blood sugar, which, not surprisingly, turns out to be dangerously high. “I don’t know what to do about this guy,” Maryada says. The situation is beyond her competence and beyond the resources of the soup kitchen. Maryada calls a nurse back in the States for advice. But while she is talking to the nurse, the man slips out of El Comedor unnoticed and disappears into the streets of Nogales.

At El Comedor, I meet men and women who have lived in the United States for decades, some for most of their lives. Some are fluent in English, and many, like Hector, who was arrested during a raid at his construction company in Utah, have children back in the States and little hope of seeing them. “I have tried to cross three times,” Hector says to me with tears in his eyes, “and now if I try again, I will go to prison for two and a half years. I just want to see my one-year-old daughter. I don’t want her to grow up without a father.”

The number and variety of ministries along the border is amazing. Humane Borders, in Tucson, is an interfaith coalition that keeps large water tanks at strategic locations along migrant trails in the desert. Borderlinks focuses on raising public consciousness about border issues. On the Mexican side, there is a sophisticated network of shelters run by the Scalabrinian priests and sisters. The shelters are located along the migrant trail in Mexico, especially in border towns like Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana.

What connects all of these ministries is a shared sense of calling, rooted in the scriptural injunction to give shelter to the strangers among us. But because church and state do not always see eye to eye on matters of immigration, aiding the stranger along the border can bring trouble. In July 2005, two volunteers from No More Deaths were arrested by U.S. Border Patrol agents for picking up three sick migrants.

Not all Christians in the United States are happy with the rise of border ministries. Many believers are torn between their sense of Christian compassion and their loyalty to law and order. For many, the latter trumps the duty of hospitality. Furthermore, certain groups, like the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, blame border ministries for worsening the situation. “It’s done under the guise of religion,” one Minuteman told me, “and it only gives illegals more incentive to keep trying to cross.” But no matter what side of the debate one is on, all agree that the situation at the border is a disaster, a veritable humanitarian crisis, and that something must be done to remedy the misery.

On my last day on the border, I travel to a ghost town in the mountains northwest of Nogales. This desolate area is a corridor highly traveled by migrants and their coyotes. I have come with a volunteer for Samaritans, another of Tucson’s border ministries, and we have driven miles of dusty roads to deliver packets of food and water to a man called Sun Dog. He is the town’s only resident. Samaritan volunteers leave supplies with him to be distributed to migrants. If the migrants need a place to sleep, he directs them to the town’s abandoned mining shaft and provides them with blankets.

Sun Dog has bright blue eyes and a beard that makes Grizzly Adams’s look tame. He invites us into his ramshackle house and offers us some deer meat. “Sometimes I wind up in Mexico when I’m hunting deer,” he says. “There’s no way of knowing when you’re in Mexico and when you’re in the States in these parts.” He tells me the story of a woman named Maricela. “One day this woman came screaming over the hills,” he says, “running for her life. Behind her was a ’coyote,’ close at her heels. Well, by sheer luck she just stumbled into my arms, by sheer luck! The coyote had brutally raped her friend and was coming after her next. When he saw me, he ran away.”

“What happened to her friend?” I ask. There is an ominous silence. “No one ever heard from her,” Sun Dog says.

Later that day, as we drive back to Tucson, I find myself wondering if there is any real solution to the crisis at our southern border. I think of what Rev. Robin Hoover, founder of Humane Borders, had told me a few days earlier. “We’re no solution,” he conceded, referring to the work of border ministries like his. “We’re nothing but Band-Aids.”

Until the governments of Mexico and the United States make immigration a top priority, little will change. Hundreds of men and women will be tried in shackles every week in the DeConcini Courthouse. Maryada Vallet will keep patching people up with subpar medical supplies. Men and women like Hector will continue to wonder when they will see their children again. Women like Maricela will keep running for their lives. And Sr. Robles will keep waking up every morning at dawn and dishing out beans and rice on plastic plates to hundreds of deportees.

Ananda Rose Robinson is a PhD candidate at Harvard Divinity School.
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Published in the 2009-05-08 issue: View Contents
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