Sister Diana Muñoz Alba didn’t have to reach back very far to illustrate the horrors that migrants face deep in Mexico’s impoverished Chiapas region. Speaking to an audience gathered Wednesday at the Church of the United Nations—the UN headquarters and the member countries’ flags were framed in the windows behind her—she recalled what happened on April 19.
Sergio, a nineteen-year-old Guatemalan, died that day as a result of extreme dehydration suffered on the long, hot walk to cross Mexico’s southern border. Sergio and four cousins had each paid a smuggler $3,000 to bring them across the border—without food or water. When they arrived at the Santa Martha Migrants’ Shelter in Salto de Agua, Sergio was sick, so sick that the smuggler left at daybreak, warning him not to talk. By the afternoon, he was convulsing and feverish. A doctor managed to control his fever and convulsions, and then Sister Diana, the shelter’s director, went with him on the ninety-minute ambulance ride to the hospital. But within three hours, Sergio died after suffering a stroke that caused seizures.
Sister Diana, who spoke in Spanish beside a translator, was quiet and matter-of-fact: “we only have a bedroom for men with a capacity for forty people sleeping on mats, a bedroom for women with capacity for twenty-five people, a kitchen, a space for registration, and a small space for nursing and clothing,” she said. Last month, she helped 1,180 people, and 1,105 the month before. At the shelter, she said, “we lack everything: food, medicine, clothing, shoes, beds, fans.”
But quiet as she was, she was a voice from the periphery who challenged the United Nations, religious leaders, and the U.S. and Mexican governments—really, all of us—to do more to prevent the kind of suffering she sees as a matter of routine, as thousands of migrants surge north from Central America into Mexico. The people arriving at Santa Martha shelter “have usually been the victims of countless violations of their rights, such as assaults, kidnappings, sexual violations, extortion, and violent operations carried out in collaboration with the national army, the navy, and the state and municipal police,” she said.
Sister Diana, an immigration lawyer, was part of a panel discussion connected to an effort by the Holy See Mission to the United Nations and Caritas to “bring forth a moral approach” to the UN’s planned Global Compact on Migration. (Franciscans International and the Scalabrini International Migration Network sponsored the event.) The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the process on December 3 on grounds that it “could undermine the sovereign right of the United States to enforce our immigration laws and secure our borders,” but 192 nations continue to work on the compact.