Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 403 | Febrero 2015


Central America

Migrants on the road, churches in civil disobedience

The Kino Initiative diner and so many others, plus the parish church and hostels in Ciudad Juárez, and numerous lodging houses on both sides of the border are oases that make it possible for migrants to defy migration laws and renew their energy and hopes on a daily basis. Nuns, priests, pastors and Catholic and Protestant faithful run these arenas of civil disobedience along with non-Christians. They are good people who work with their souls to breathe life and universal fraternity into the world. I met some of them and sing their praises here.

José Luis Rocha

Undocumented migrants aren’t alone. They wouldn’t be able to enter and stay in the United States without sustained daily support. Who are the “criminals” who help them violate the law? Are they “coyotes” crouching in the bushes? Hot-headed anarchists ready to take on the State and rage against all authority? Should we seek them in the shadowy networks of drug traffickers, terrorists and gangs, as some suggest?

The great accomplices
of the undocumented

Among the main accomplices of those who slip past the border controls and sit at a table to which they were not invited are the faithful from different religions. It makes more sense to look toward altars, search in pious brotherhoods, snoop around temples and stir up sacristies than to seek them in the shadows. They are in the churches, confessional NGOs and explicitly Christian universities. They are priests and nuns, presbyters and pastors, imams and rabbis. They are the most active catechists and worshipers. They don’t wear the red star but rather rosaries and scapulae. They aren’t moved by the financial gain many seek, nor are they held back by a much feared hell. They’re moved by such diverse motives as only acquire meaning and value through their convergence in a political framework of tension between disrespect for the law and the fact of anti-immigrant legislation.

The significance of their actions is played out in a scenario where the universal citizenship represented by belonging to a global church is put to the test by earthly policies that deny and constrict inclusion and fraternity in the tight straightjacket of nationality.

Who are these accomplices of crime? What do they plot in their rebellious secret councils? Why do they work against the law and erode state sovereignty? Why are they so stubborn and disobedient? What do they think?

I can offer you some answers by doing a quick review of their actions on behalf of undocumented migrants. They all demonstrate political effectiveness and defiance and represent merely a sample of hundreds of similar actions throughout the extensive territory of the United States. Regrettably, my direct experience is limited to the spheres of the Catholic Church, but I know that Protestant and other churches, as well as many non-Christian groups, share the same ideals and do similar work.

The Kino Border Initiative

My travels along the routes of the disobedient begin in Nogales, a two-headed metropolis of 235,000 inhabitants split by the border line. One head is Nogales, Sonora, in Mexico and the other is Nogales, Arizona, in the United States. One people settled across two nations: more than 21,000 in the United States and “the rest” in Mexico, separated by a barrier judged impassable. On the Mexican side, barely a stone’s throw from the Mariposa Gate Port, an entry and exit post in that barrier, is a diner where the Marist Missionary Sisters and the Jesuits feed migrants twice a day. This is the Kino Border Initiative diner, coordinated by the Jesuit priest Sean Carroll.

On the other side of the street, across which hangs a brand new metal sign welcoming you to Nogales, the sisters have a dormitory for women who need to stay a relatively long time. A bit further on, coming into the city center, is the San Juan Bosco hostel, which in its 31 years of untiring service has sheltered more than a million migrants.

The Christian La Roca Hostel, located in another district, was raided by 20 state and municipal police on July 9 last year. The police arrived at 11 pm, hooded and armed to the teeth. They pointed guns at the 20 migrants staying there and at the Salvadoran family that runs the hostel. They made them kneel and with shouts of “The first one who moves, we’ll fuck your mother!” stole their money, mobile phones and any valuable belongings. When they left with the booty, one migrant picked up the phone and reported the raid to the nearest police headquarters. That only ensured that the same crew, alerted to the call by the same police, returned to look for the accuser, took photos of all the migrants one by one and threatened to kill them if they tried to report them again.

The next morning, at the Kino Initiative diner, the haggard and still trembling migrants recounted what had happened. It was just part of that day’s violence, one report among those that Sister María Engracia collects daily. She founded this mission in 2007, a follow-up to the tamales a group of women would cook and distribute among the migrants every month. Sister Engracia recounts, “Many migrants used to sleep in the cemetery, on the tombs, because the police didn’t bother them there; they used to stay there for up to three months because they didn’t have any money.” It’s still where those who stay in Nogales for longer than the three nights offered them by the San Juan Bosco hostel spend the night.

“I wanted to return to the edge”

When it started, the diner was no more than Sister Engracia, handing out lunches she extracted in a dizzying blink of an eye from the back of a pick-up truck parked on the hard street with a bridge for shade. That was during the boom era for deportations through this border post. She fed more than 200 migrants a day, with the miniscule resources she was able to scrape together.

Sister Engracia doesn’t succeed in hiding the impetuous and welcoming inner strength inside her diminutive person; it’s as if being a native of Jalisco means that tequila fire runs crazily through her veins. Does she know she risks her life daily? Undoubtedly, but risk is no issue to treat with solemnity. The closeness and daily occurrence of violence give it another flavor. A migrant in transit tells her that tomorrow he’s going to try and cross the border for the second or third time. “See how it goes,” she says with the experience that knows all about danger and fate.

She arrived in Nogales after a journey that didn’t anticipate this destiny: “I worked in schools, then I looked after my mother for four years. I went to Brazil and that’s where I analyzed my practice. According to the analysis, I hadn’t been able to do anything because I had worked with the lumpen proletariat... and that isn’t the social class with which one should engage in revolution,” she adds with an ironic edge to her voice. “The revolution must be made with another sort of person. I became convinced it was necessary to work with people from a different level. So I gave Bible classes throughout the country. Then I was a vicar of my congregation and spent five years in the center of power. But I felt I was getting too comfortable and wanted to return to the edge where I started, so that’s how I set off for Nogales to work with migrants.”

A good breakfast
and good energy

Working with the bare necessities and occasional volunteers went on for four years. With support from the Society of Jesus and the diocese, the diner now has a building and a substantial team.

Mariana and Armando are the first to arrive each morning, after getting their children off to school. They are a married couple who migrated from Puebla and vibrate with this work. In a matter of minutes, Mariana can scramble seventy eggs in a gigantic frying pan then warm the respective tortillas at the same time as supervising the enormous coffee pot. She’s barely ruffled by the chaos unleashed by infinite administrative screw-ups. Posted at the metal gate with a sturdy, intimidating presence but a sweet tone of voice and gentle words, Armando is careful to filter out unsavory human traffickers and con men. His clinical eye never fails.

Once the migrants are seated, Sister Alicia offers a quick prayer then leads them in a role-play: they’re sailing on imaginary rafts and have to put on some paper life jackets; they must touch their left ear with their right hand and their nose with their left index finger and then the other way round. In surroundings shot through with mortal danger, this triviality seems like a surreal afterthought.

But it works: everyone laughs, the ice melts, the tension drops, conversations start with table companions and for the moment they forget that each one is anyone, dragging past troubles and well-founded fears. At the end of the day, everyone is on the same raft, even though the life jackets are as flimsy as paper. Sister Alicia works a miracle every day: she repeats her role-plays with the same passion and fresh pleasantry as the first time.

Surrounded by so much violence

Next, Sister Engracia speaks. She invites them to report violations of their human rights. This is how they collect stories that contribute data to FUNDAR, an investigation center that advocates for human rights.

This observatory shows that not only unemployment and re-uniting with family moves them to seek other lands. Violence with its many faces from their point of origin—domestic, political, institutional, criminal, gangster, mafia—also comes up as a motivating force. Among Central Americans, postwar fangs are still sunk deep into a region that isn’t managing to rise from the depths: drug barons with right of entry to the police, sky-high bribes, repressive military bodies from the 1980s recycled into cocaine guards, kaibiles training The Zetas in the art of brutal murders as their main persuasive tactic. In Mexico, the violence of drug trafficking is undiminished and even fanned by military operations destined to curtail it with the application of an eye for an eye. In the past two presidential terms it developed an irresistible ejector force.

Other sources tell us that many, although not the majority, travel by train. Even those who use this means of transport don’t use it for the entire journey. Central Americans who cross Mexico by train only account for between 10% and 14% of all Central Americans who cross this country. Buses are the most used and safest means of transport.

Some manage to get in,
others are deported

Many of those who have already been deported—the biggest group of those served by the diner—traveled up the East coast and entered the United States through Tamaulipas into Texas. Some entered via McAllen, others through Laredo. Nogales, which is now the main crossing point for Central Americans rather than the Tucson area, is located in McAllen. Nonetheless, Tucson, with its terrifying desert, is still the area that takes most lives and where many deportations occur given the strategy of splitting groups up to discourage them from re-entering.

Some guests at the hostel had been captured in Calexico or McAllen, separated from the family and/or friends they were traveling with then transported to Nogales to be deported through the Deconcini Gate Port. They are among the last to be deported through this border post.

In October 2014, the Mexican government inaugurated the extended Mariposa gate port, the one closest to the diner, which cost $200 million. Here they have fitted out a kilometer-long tunnel with bars to evacuate those detained by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), otherwise known as “la migra.” In single file and without a return ticket, men, women and children will walk unarmed, in the bowels of a colossal iron cage that seems to have been designed to contain the excesses of a legion of Cannibal Hannibals.

“Borders are just
imaginary lines in the sand”

Information such as the above continues to fall in drops as the migrants eat a substantial breakfast, served by the Green Valley Samaritans, two Jesuit novices and three young volunteers, one from the United States, one US-Colombian and another who came from the faraway Czech Republic; she had been a curator at the Prague Castle museum.

They all work in other services, and this chopping of tomatoes and chilies to better preserve them in the form of a succulent red sauce is neither the least deserving nor most humble task. With their coordinator Marla Conrad, they all carry on fraternal conversations with the migrants, treating them not as a mass of deportees but as the human beings they once were: mother of two children at high school, musicians in a small band, catechists, seamstresses, bakers, children looking for their mothers, taxi drivers looking for a better future...

Christopher Boitano, one of the novices, tells me how he ended up there: “In the spiritual exercises I reflected and discovered that Jesus was a migrant. That’s why I came here. I was also concerned about the dehumanizing effect of migration: the same words Dominicans use for Haitians are used in the United States to refer to Mexicans and Central Americans. People have a right to migrate. Borders are nothing more than imaginary lines in the sand.”

During the conversation, the additional services the diner provides get underway. They distribute personal care items and clothes and shoes in excellent condition. The novice who is also a doctor provides medical care. The Mexican consul subsidizes return tickets for Mexicans, taking their fingerprints and other information because their government will give them this gift only once in their life.

A gringo looking like a member of the beat generation hands out a treasure for walkers: shoelaces. An elderly couple collects milk and other products about to pass their sell-by date donated by supermarkets and gas stations. The organization “No More Deaths,” which must hold the record of members in prison for leaving food and water in the desert on the migrants’ route, gives telephone calls to those split up by the migra and deported through different exits to facilitate their possibility of reuniting.

$90 million in “dispossession”

In a flash they cross “to the other side,” the gringo side, to cash the checks the US government gives deportees to replace the money they were carrying. Since the migrants have no way to cash the check in Mexico, it effectively represents a confiscation, a compulsory tax exceeding the millions obtained by the Zetas through extortion.

Parodying David Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession, No More Deaths discusses this form of dispossession by deportation in its third major human rights report, “Shakedown: How Deportation Robs Immigrants of Their Money and Belongings.” It is a thoroughly researched report overflowing with accusations, the most shocking of which is this one: immigration authorities failed to return their money and/or other belongings to a third of the 400,000 people they deported in 2013. Most of them lost around $100, but others lost more. A large part of the money was directly stolen by agents and another part was returned in the form of pre-paid debit cards or personal checks impossible to cash in Mexico except in greedy banks that charge a 25% commission. As a result of this expropriation, 81% of those interviewed couldn’t buy a return ticket home, 77% couldn’t buy food, 69% couldn’t pay for accommodation and 53% were exposed to danger.

Those benefiting from this accumulation are the US Treasury Department; NUMI Financial, the company that issues the prepaid debit cards; and the ICE agents or local police who don’t report the illegally obtained money. This dispossession has occurred in millions of cases, except for the 1,481 attended by the No More Deaths Property Recovery Assistance Project between 2011 and 2014. If $37,025 was either prevented from being lost or was recovered in 165 properly documented cases mentioned in “Shakedown,” we could be looking at almost $90 million for the 400,000 deportees in 2013.

A movement with Christian origins

According to Marla Conrad, No More Deaths has Christian origins. John Fife, a retired Presbyterian minister, who is a co-founder, created the Samaritan patrol as well, to help migrants in transit, and also founded the Sanctuary Movement in 1982.

Sanctuary was born on March 24, 1982, on the second anniversary of the assassination of Monsignor Romero, when members of the Tucson Presbyterian Church announced to the Reagan government that they were prepared to violate migration laws by turning their churches into sanctuaries for Central Americans fleeing the death squads. Fife hid hundreds of Salvadoran and Guatemalan migrants and helped them cross the country and get to Canada. He was spied on and accused in 1986 of “human trafficking” in violation of federal laws. He and nearly a dozen others had 71 charges filed against them, including conspiracy, transporting and sheltering illegal aliens and encouraging unauthorized immigration. Six of them, including Fife, were sentenced in a trial that once again put civil disobedience on the table.

In 2004, together with other religious leaders, Fife founded No More Deaths and the “New Sanctuary Movement.” Since 2008, No More Deaths has been a ministry of the Tucson Unitarian Universalist Church. Alicia Dinsmore, a No More Deaths promoter and collaborator on the shocking Shakedown report, tells me that they have lawyers fighting deportations in Tucson and that a team travels to Mexico to provide different services and items to those who are about to cross the border: three telephone calls, Vaseline to reduce friction and prevent blisters, water filters and chlorine so they can get rid of bacteria in the water.

“I think that to a great extent,” says Alicia, “we’re the reason Central Americans and Mexicans migrate so it’s unfair to make the migration process so difficult and deadly. The United States is the main one at fault here. We make the policies that bring them here and we also have the jobs that attract them, then we make it almost impossible for them to cross over. Our laws have many ridiculous features in order to exclude them.”

“The country on the other side”

The Kino Initiative diner is located in what appears to be a no man’s land, but isn’t. It has owners; two owners. On the Mexican side the “hawks” monitor even the most minimal movements. “Hawks” or “points” are the names given to the cartel operators who lurk around and report on any gaps in border vigilance in order to sneak through drug shipments. They complement their income by charging migrants a toll.
The US side belongs de facto to the Border Patrol, with a license to dispose of lives and property. They demonstrate this when they shoot at civilian pedestrians on the Mexican side, an increasingly common practice that took the life of José Antonio Elena Rodríguez, a 16-year-old student gunned down by a Border Patrol agent.

On the night of October 10, 2012, after a basketball game, José Antonio was walking along the sidewalk of Calle Internacional, which runs parallel to the border fence. People in the neighborhood heard between 14 and 30 gunshots. From a watchtower, an agent hit José Antonio with 2 deadly bullets and finished him off with 8 more, most of them in the back. The US government hasn’t even disclosed the identity of the killer. But the youth’s mother filed a claim with support from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Natalia Serna, one of the volunteers from the diner, dedicated one of her most beautiful and moving songs to José Antonio. “My name is José Antonio” starts like this: “The country on the other side / is a coward and a thief. / It stole my life and didn’t want to show its face. / How much life they took / on that night of horror. / They kept my life, / but not my heart.”

Between the drug traffickers
and the border patrol

Nogales is dominated by the drug traffickers and Border Patrol, two lethal presences representing the migrants’ worst nightmare. One group due to its concept of duty: the duty to defend a dividing line they understand not as a political convention but as a battleground. The other group due to its business model, for whom migrants are merchandise, as Father Alejandro Solalinde puts it so well. He is the director of another refuge for migrants, the Brothers on the Road hostel, located in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, in southern Mexico: “They’re victims of human voraciousness. That’s what it is, more than anything else. They don’t see the migrants, because they haven’t been educated to see them as people, to take care of them; rather they see them as merchandise. So they have to get money out of them in any way possible, with beatings, whatever, all to get money out of them.”

Between these two fires, the Kino Initiative diner, the women of La Patrona in Veracruz who throw lunches to the migrants traveling on the train known as “The Beast,” the San Juan Bosco and Hermanos en el Camino hostels, the Posada Belén managed by Father Pedro Pantoja and many others are all oases that make it possible for the migrants to disregard the border every day and renew their energy and hopes while they are carried by people who risk their skins to breathe life and universal fraternity into the world. Without those supportive people and that route of hostels, which is also a route of the disobedient, it would be much harder to cross the fence, that enormous vertical border that Mexico represents for Central Americans, and slip through its holes.

Before leaving Nogales, I accompany Pete Neeley, the Jesuit Superior in Nogales, to the San Miguel School belonging to the Silesians in Tucson. The project called “The other side” has invited him to give a short talk. Pete starts with a joke about the proverbial enmity Jesuits and Silesians have kept up throughout their history and how odd it is that he’s there. As an observation perhaps a little exaggerated, but well suited to catch the students’ attention: here Jesuits and Silesians have a common cause with that of the migrants, to get to the other side.

A priest in Ciudad Juárez

At the other end of the border, in El Paso, Texas, is the Sacred Heart parish church, under Jesuit responsibility since it was founded in 1893. The church gives classes in citizenship to those who are residents and teaches English to both documented and undocumented. This is where Father Donald Ballinger works as the person in charge of migrant issues.

Following a life devoted to secondary education in Jesuit schools, Ballinger was sent to do parish work in Paraguay, where for 15 years he was an active and fearless opponent of General Alfredo Stroessner, Paraguay’s dictatorial ruler for 35 years. During Pope John Paul II’s visit to that country in May 1988, during Stroessner’s eighth and final term, Ballinger was detained along with a group of peasants he was accompanying on a hunger strike protesting crimes against human rights. At that time he was 60.

I met Father Ballinger 16 years later when he was the parish priest of Arcatao in Chalatenango, El Salvador. He possessed an overwhelming energy and used to burst with enthusiasm for his work among the still smoldering scenes of the civil war. A decade later, in March 2014, we met again in El Paso. Now 86 years old, wearing a Chalatecan guayabera, he was still waging far from negligible battles. I visited Ciudad Juárez several times with him.

Ballinger crosses the road distractedly while he reads messages on his mobile phone and angry drivers shout intricate, point-blank insults about his mother. He gets on buses with no idea of the cost of the fare and is baffled when his frail purse does not contain the required sum. The driver ends up accepting any amount and Ballinger reaches his destination, divorced from the world’s hubbub and its pedestrian monetary cares. In a further, even more roundabout, some would say “miraculous” way, he manages to return unharmed and in time for the community Mass, putting divine power and patience to the test.

In the truck, as they call busses in Mexico, a trendy ballad blares out: “They think that because I crossed the line / I’m a drug trafficker / that’s enough of a thousand humiliations / just for being an immigrant / I’m singing for all my people / don’t forget it, bear it in mind / that those who were not wanted / are today elected President.”

Getting across the
border is a miracle

In Lomas de Poleo, a greyish slum on the edge of Ciudad Juárez where every drop of water is liquid gold devoured by a greedy sun almost as soon as it emerges from the faucet, is Casa Tabor, a community of contemplation and political action. It is as nomadic as its founders, the nun Betty Campbell of the Sisters of Mercy and Carmelite priest Peter Hinde, who also founded CRISPAZ, Christians for Peace, in El Salvador in 1984, together with a Lutheran pastor and a Quaker activist who wanted to provide a refuge for those displaced by the civil war. Casa Tabor was founded in 1973 in Washington DC, then moved to San Antonio in Texas and found its final resting place, at least so far, in Ciudad Juárez in 1995.

Hinde tells me there are fewer migrants in Juárez since the wave of violence, but they do still come. At 80 and 91 years old, respectively, Campbell and Hinde belong to an endangered generation of revolutionaries. Hinde, a pilot in the Second World War, crosses El Paso every Friday to protest the US government’s military invasions. In Casa Tabor he and Campbell receive pilgrims and teach them about life on the border, lethal US foreign policy and violence in Ciudad Juárez.

Hinde recommends I read The Beast, the English version of Los migrantes que no importan by Oscar Martínez: “If you read his book you get the impression that it’s a miracle anyone can get across this border without falling into the hands of Mexican drug traffickers or the ‘security forces,’ who are in league with the traffickers.”

Then he tells me a bit about Casa Tabor: “When Casa Tabor, which came out of the Christian Base Communities, was in Washington DC at the end of the seventies and start of the eighties, we used to receive refugees from Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and then El Salvador and Guatemala. We set up solidarity committees with the different countries. In 1981 we moved to San Antonio, Texas, so we could travel overland to Mexico, and then to Ciudad Juárez.” It continues to be a moral reference point and a mecca to which many leftwing faithful make pilgrimages in search of spiritual nourishment and counsel. Sister Betty shows me the collective murals they are making in memory of those murdered in Central America and the dead of Juárez. They are very expressive mosaics.

“There are also dreams on this side”

“Did you know,” Donald Ballinger asked me when we return, “that when I left El Salvador in 2005 I was in contact with a people trafficker? We were negotiating to make the journey from El Salvador to the United States with a group of migrants. At first he asked me for US$5,000. But I told him I wanted to go as chaplain to celebrate Mass with the people and all that. So he cut the price to $1,000.” Donald burst into one of his resounding guffaws in celebration of his victory. “The New Orleans Provincial first said no and then he said yes,” Ballinger went on. “But the Central American Provincial told me: ‘No way whatsoever, because if I give you permission, everyone will want to go.’ It was my way of going with the migrants, accompanying them.”

That’s Donald for you, I thought, a leopard that doesn’t change his spots. His life is as non-conformist as those messages that graffiti artists as daring as he have painted on the channel walls of the Rio Bravo/Grande, glimpsable through the holes in the fence caging the Paso del Norte international bridge that both unites and separates Ciudad Juárez from El Paso: “Walls can never hold back the spring,” “On this side there are also dreams” (signed: Ciudad Juárez Poetry Action), “Rubén was murdered by a migration agent and justice was never done, migra assassins.”

On reaching the other side, we went to Annunciation House, set up in 1978, according to Ballinger, when a group of “young Catholics and idealists met in El Paso looking for a higher purpose, something that might make them feel they were fulfilling a mission.” The Catholic diocese in El Paso lent them premises for providing shelter to the homeless.

Rubén García, the hostel’s future director and at that time director of the diocesan Office for Young Adults, reflects on the unexpected convergence between the consequences of geopolitics and his commitment: “The house was set up in 1978, at the time when the Sandinistas were overthrowing Somoza in Nicaragua and taking control of the country. It was also when the guerrillas in El Salvador and Guatemala threw themselves into the hope that they too could achieve a change in government, which, as we know, didn’t happen. But the civil war caused a flood of exiled migrants and El Paso was one of the border crossings where they arrived; which is why we received them here.”

The sheltered homeless ended up being the countryless Central Americans who fled the civil war. Currently Annunciation House shelters those fleeing the recent violence in Central America, violence that’s an aftereffect of the war and the harvest of the arms industry and drug trafficking activity.

Two welcoming hostels

Its mission has placed Annunciation House in such a tense relationship with the immigration authorities that one morning the far-reaching claws of violence reached its own doors. On February 22, 2003, one of its guests, Juan Patricio Peraza, a 19-year old Mexican from Mexicali, was murdered by Border Patrol agents when he was putting out the trash close to the hostel. Eight agents surrounded the young man and one of them, Vernon Billings, pulled the trigger at point-blank range. Juan Patricio’s parents filed a case against the US government, but the Border Patrol went to the police station and threatened to deport the eight witnesses, all guests in Annunciation House.

In July 2014, in marked contrast to this extreme episode, Rubén García got a call from the ICE representative. The number of Central American migrants who were minors detained in the Río Grande area in southern Texas, had greatly exceeded the immigration authorities’ capacity to process them. The agent asked García: “Several planes with 140 passengers each are going to arrive at the processing center in El Paso. We’re going to release them on parole. Can you take in the ones who have nowhere to go?”

“I saw a lot of injustice in our system”

Since its founding, Annunciation House has received more than 125,000 people in its two hostels. They get about three new migrants a week. At least half are Central Americans, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. If they come seeking asylum, they can stay several months and are referred to the Las Americas legal assistance and the Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services.

Ten volunteers look after them and organize the work. Julia, who is one of them, explains her reasons for giving a year of her life to this work: “I was an English teacher at a school in Wisconsin and most of my students were migrants who had crossed the border. That’s how I started to take notice of migration and the US immigration system. I saw a lot of injustice committed by our system. Who are we to say: ‘You can’t come into our country’ to those who want to better their lives? I wanted to change the migration system, but as I can’t do that, I looked for a way to help and learn more about the border and migration and that’s how come I decided to look for a volunteer program here.”

“There don’t have to be countries”

The night before leaving El Paso I met with the Labor Justice Committee, a group of attorneys who support migrants in their labor demands and organize protests against the migration authorities’ human rights abuses. They meet once a week in a room in the Sacred Heart parish church.

If my subconscious hoped to hear some pious statement from them, it was disappointed. They’re a rather warlike group that puts the fragile tools of the law at the service of migrants in an inauspicious field: firstly, because the Border Patrol in El Paso has a very aggressive marketing strategy when it comes to selling itself as a benefactor of the community and secondly, because Texas enjoys a wage policy that allows for paying below the federal minimum level. Not satisfied with this comparative advantage, the region’s employers have committed labor abuses against 98% of undocumented migrants, according to the Committee.

The attorneys organize marches, pickets, fasts and other, ever more media-grabbing events against these conditions. In March, 2014, six of them joined the We Belong Together fast for migration reform and against deportation. Carlos León, a counselor and former El Paso police chief, accompanied them in the session. In impeccable Spanglish, he invited them to look for him: “When you have a problem, talk to me to get proceedings started. I know what it is to fight to get a job to maintain a family. I’m not going to say much. I’m not a good speaker. If there’s anything I can do... What I told everybody: I’m your employee. I was elected by you to serve you, not the other way around. I’m your servant. That’s why I’m here. I’m going to pass around my card, please, talk to me. I don’t back down.”

After the meeting, Donald finished off by clarifying his position: “It doesn’t matter that migrants break the law; I’m going to help them get in. If I can help them, I’ll do it, because people have a right to improve their lives. All people have a right to do that. I’m coming to the point of view that countries shouldn’t exist. We have the right to cross any border to earn our living. When an astronaut looks down on the world, they don’t see borders. God made the world without them.”

Resurrection of the
Sanctuary Movement

In September, 2014, 40 churches in Illinois and other states declared their support for migrants in danger of being deported. “The movement is gaining strength and we’re not alone in our call to the consciences of all those who believe in God,” said the priest José Landaverde of the United American Catholic Church. He added: “It’s a mandate of the Gospel and the Bible” to give sanctuary to those who need it: “We should respect God’s orders and call on the federal authorities to declare a moratorium on deportations.”

Dozens of churches have opened their doors to migrants in danger of being deported. “To open the doors of a church, a synagogue or a mosque and declare it a sanctuary is a serious matter. Religious leaders and their congregations don’t take this decision lightly,” said the Reverend Noel Andersen, coordinator of the immigrants’ rights area of Church World Service.

The eighth person to seek refuge in a church was Ángela Navarro, a Honduran resident in Philadelphia. Captured by the migra when she crossed the border in 2003 at age 17 and now after 11 years living in Philadelphia, bearing two US children currently 9 and 11 years old, Ángela decided to take refuge in the West Kensington Ministry to resist the deportation order that had hung over her head for 10 years. After two months and 6,000 signatures of support, her case was reviewed, the deportation was annulled and Ángela was able to go back to her family and job.

“It’s a biblical mandate”

It’s no coincidence that churches are giving their support to migrants. I’ve related some examples in Catholicism, but among Protestants, Muslims, Jews and Hindus there are also similar approaches, episodes and activities. The affirmation by Landaverde and Anderson of the divine mandate and seriousness of the decision find support in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

The entire Torah orders it, as does the Bible: “Do not oppress an alien; you yourselves know how it feels to be aliens, because you were aliens in Egypt” (Exodus 23, 9). “When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the alien, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 24: 21). They are valuable precepts both for Jews and Christians.

The specifically Christian tradition returns to this legacy. The gospel of Matthew includes a beatitude for those who help migrants: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father; take your inheritance the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For… I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Matthew 25, 34-35). Subsequent development of Christian practice and doctrine also took up the torch. A mandate for hospitality towards strangers appears in chapter 53 of the Rule of Saint Benedict: “But let the poor, and strangers especially, be diligently entertained with all care, because in them Christ is more truly received. For the simple fear of the rich doth beget them honor.”

The US Catholic Church received this particular task in “Ecclesia in America,” Pope John Paul II’s exhortation to US Catholics: “... to help them settle in their new land and to foster a welcoming attitude among the local population, in the belief that a mutual openness will bring enrichment to all.” It reminds them that “the Church in America must be a vigilant advocate, defending against any unjust restriction of the natural right of individual persons to move freely within their own nation and from one nation to another. Attention must be called to the rights of migrants and their families and to respect for their human dignity, even in cases of non-legal immigration.”

There are also historical reasons

Obviously, the degree of commitment varies and all commands for solidarity with the poor and against the accumulation of wealth that will be corrupted by moths and woodworm don’t often produce changes in the conduct of the most self-confessed and self-satisfied Christians.

“God helps those who help themselves” is a condensed version of the popular wisdom regarding believers’ ambivalent reaction towards doctrine and the omnipresent gap between theory and practice in the religious world. Religious commands may have several readings and applications, according to each context. In addition to the doctrinal-religious tradition, there is a historical-political tradition with which it is interlinked, since this is where one finds its expression and the possibilities of the Kingdom of God on earth.

In the United States a historical link exists between the Catholic Church and recent arrivals: Irish, Italians, Polish, Mexicans and now Central Americans. A long tradition places official Catholicism on the side of the migrants. “Go to any church on a Sunday morning,” a Protestant pastor said in 1887, “and you will see lawyers, physicists, traders and businessmen with their families... but the worker and his household are not there.”

According to historian Arthur Schlesinger, of all the ancient religions only Catholics and Jews knew how to attract and keep the workers and immigrants recently arrived in the United States at the end of the 19th century. The Catholic Church particularly attracted the Irish, German, Austro-Hungarians, Italians, Polish and francophone Canadians. Between 1850 and 1900 Catholics in the United States increased from 1.606 million to 12.410 million, a substantial component of which was 5 million migrants.

Fully conscious of immigrants’ potential religiosity, Protestant groups started engaging in missionary work in the Atlantic ports to care for the immigrants’ religious needs and practices. Schlesinger writes that in 1883 the interdenominational American Home Missionary Society organized specialized departments for Germans, Scandinavians and Slavs. According to him, the Protestant churches became well known for doing philanthropic and educational work among the poor and churchless once they took note of their potential as regular practitioners.

“Religious citizenship”

Immigrants have represented a fertile field for proselytes that churches cannot ignore on pain of expiry due to the decrepitude and shrinking of the faithful. Put in demographic terms: no church can sustain itself if it looks only to mere vegetative growth, often limited to the replacement rate; it needs new acolytes.

The migratory and religious history of the United States shows an electrifying dialectic tension in which proselytizing among immigrants responded to a biblical and doctrinal base and the charisma and values of inviting strangers in and feeling compassion for the vulnerable fell on very favorable politico-religious soil. This trend makes it possible for the churches’ claim of universality to be updated in a multi-dimensional theocracy that has been revitalized by successive political negotiations and openings.

The claim of universality has been effective and has enjoyed renewed and creative re-editions. In God Needs No Passport, US sociologist Peggy Levitt maintains that “some people do not live according to an atlas, or at least not the sort that most of us are used to. These people imagine themselves living in a religious landscape... They are not nationals or cosmopolitan, but rather members of faith communities made up of those all over the planet who share their creed. Religious global citizenship implies rights and responsibilities that complement, supplement and occasionally contradict other forms of belonging. For this group, these rules are more important.” They don’t ignore political borders, but “they think of themselves as people who live in an alternative topography, with residents, rules and landmarks that are more important than their secular equivalents.”

For some people, Levitt tells us, one earth, one membership card and one identity are a secular version of the Holy Trinity, and for many more the sacred spaces are more important than current political geography. This claim of many memberships, which does not mean dismissing political citizenship, assumes an acceptance that more and more people possess religious and global passports as well as national ones. Because of this, “religious global citizens want the right to live in accordance with their interpretation of religious law.”

Religious citizenship
vs national citizenship

Levitt’s arguments are convincing, her insight about religious landscapes superimposed on political ones is thought-provoking and her metaphor of global religious citizenship is powerful and in certain circles might find much empirical evidence to support it.

But I think that in order to investigate what’s happening with this citizenship, it’s necessary to explain that only its collision with political citizenship, not its parallel existence with it, could show us its symbolic and political effectiveness. As Bourdieu stated, “the actual symbolic power of the Church can only be effective in relation to certain pre-existing provisions, which are not produced, strictly speaking, by the Church itself.”

These pre-existing conditions in the case at hand are migrations as a historical constant, the US political system and its opening up to civil disobedience, as well as xenophobic reactions and its other, inseparable face: the relationship of patronage created by churches and political parties in ethnic and confessional niches of recently arrived migrants.

The examples Levitt chose to present global religious citizenship don’t immediately manifest their conflict with national citizenship because the comments she collected from the mouths of Pakistani, Brazilian and Irish migrants in Boston could have been made by any of their fellow countrymen or women, without ever having set foot outside their villages: religious authorities are more important for them than secular ones: they care more about what the pope or their imam says than what the President says; the members of their religious community, not their fellow nationals, are their brothers...

Global citizenship only exists if it’s put to the test, if it’s measured against the constraints of political citizenship. Otherwise, it’s a self-image lacking in political effectiveness. Because politics, as Jacques Ranciere stated, is born of disagreement and in this case it’s a disagreement related to the equivocal nature of citizenship: a universally inclusive one vs. a nationally restricted one. The conditions making this disagreement possible are lost in the mists of time.

The political effectiveness
of “religious citizenship”

From the side of the Christian churches it should be emphasized that many centuries have passed since the “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” with which the first Christian communities expressed their will to keep separate the two spheres, the earthly and the heavenly.

The vision of human beings as pilgrims on earth has always been powerful; Arendt believes it to be fundamental to any truly Christian philosophy. But it ceased to inspire behavior regarding political matters when Christians stopped considering the second coming of Christ as imminent. Since then, and even more so with the marriage of Church and State, worldly affairs have mattered a lot.

When Christians noticed that the Kingdom of God wasn’t just around the corner, they began to turn their thoughts more seriously to earthly matters. Their practice had already taken the lead. That’s why it’s necessary to indicate that global religious citizenship emerges as an authentically political element not when it ignores national citizenship, as those would do who are no more than pilgrims on earth, but rather when it fights to extend itself and undermine national citizenship’s exclusive devices.

If global religious citizenship exists at a more tangible than metaphorical level of reality, it’s not about simply coexisting with, albeit turning its back on, national citizenship, but rather negotiating, challenging or even colliding with it head on. This is where its political effectiveness lies.

Different levels of commitment

This occurs beyond the radicalness of the subjects’ positions, which vary hugely because each one has reasons that only the heart understands. The cases of support for migrants are purposefully and representationally diverse and the commitment levels of the people involved cover a very wide spectrum, ranging at least from Ballinger’s anarcho-cosmopolitanism to the timorous attitude of the head of a nearly extinct religious congregation in Virginia that allows undocumented migrants among its members, but fails to concern itself in any way with their legal condition.

Close to Ballinger’s position is that of Alicia Dinsmore and Natalia Serna: one works in one of the most belligerent organizations and the other is preparing a CD with songs that descend to incredibly human details without losing the thread of the denunciation.

Somewhere in the middle is the pious couple that takes milk about to pass its use-by date to the Kino diner one day and to an old people’s home another day. Somewhere else in that same middle is the novice who works with migrants because Jesus did, although, as far as we have reliable news, this historical Jesus limited his movements to such a restricted geographic constituency, without crossing its political territories, that I’m not sure he deserves this accolade. At yet another point is Annunciation House, which started as a hostel for homeless people and by little more than the jerks of US geopolitics and its effect on Central America, turned into a hostel for political refugees and thus into a project located in the eye of the hurricane in an especially convulsive period.

All have in common what Levitt calls global religious citizenship and I call a universal claim. But not all are equally aware of the non-observance of US laws their activities on behalf of the migrants are charged with.

Diverse historical legacies

The presence of the most radical and aware in this gamut of actors is not negligible. It gives a good idea of how today’s migrants are benefitting from the organizational solidarity infrastructure amassed over decades. That infrastructure also involves other accumulations. Veterans such as Ballinger, Hinde and Fife, for example, are nourished by their ideology and their revolutionary trajectory of the seventies and eighties. They continue vibrating with the liberation theology that some, Peter Hinde among them, learned directly from the inspiring words of Gustavo Gutiérrez in Peru.

At the same time that the empire was moving its pieces on the great game table of world geopolitics, there was a flowering of solidarity organizations with the third world, with Latin and Central America, with their refugees and even their guerrilla movements. With time the requests for asylum lessened and geopolitics adopted another script, but those organizations persisted and are now the platform of activism for the migrants: CARECEN, Maryland House, Tabor House, Annunciation House...

The geopolitics of those times produced some antibodies that continue reproducing and challenging the State in other terrains. It’s curious how geopolitics has become the midwife of a civil disobedience that orchestrates the inclusion of those without politics. The politicized of yesterday paved the way for those who aren’t exactly politicized today to move and act.

This gamut also includes youthful volunteers nourished by their direct contact with the migrants. These young people are inspired by flesh and blood migrants or by those they imagine through the idealized versions presented to them by their catechist, parish priest or religious superior. They say they don’t encourage the migrants to migrate. And if you ask, they are all there for humanitarian reasons: for their Christian faith, because as children they played with the immigrants from their neighborhood, because Jesus was a migrant or because in Minnesota they gave English lessons to Latinos and the stories their students told them made them want to come and volunteer.

Diverse and effective
forms of disobedience

The disobedience of Fife and Ballinger goes without saying, while Julia’s is less declaratory and more contextual. And that’s why we see different levels of consciousness and radicalism but similar levels of effectiveness and expressiveness.

In fact, no organization has anything like a declaration of principles about the migrants, yet their petitions—always having to do with the moment rather than with structural explanations—contain both explicit and tacit positions regarding very specific aspects. Their track record amounts to a proposal that membership in imagined nations be subordinated to the universality of the religious community (that was actually Landaverde’s message). Such universality is at the core of their efficacy.

And so is the universality of their message: la migra and other bureaucrats who apply the migratory legislation speak—as do neurotics—a very particular jargon that borrows from the nationalist vocabulary to legitimize itself. But by its universality, the language of the religious institutions obtains greater effectiveness with respect to social validation. While there’s no scale to measure the weight of that effectiveness, there’s also no doubt that religious pressure was behind the migratory relief offered more than 5.2 million undocumented people when President Obama suspended their deportation in November of last year.

The declarations of many religious officials didn’t conceal what Bourdieu attributes to—and presents as a conditio sine qua non of—religious symbolic efficacy, i.e. that religious specialists must necessarily hide the fact that their struggles have political interests. To the contrary, there was a clear call to civil disobedience with the offer of converting churches into refuges for the deportable.

The crucible of disobediences

The declarations of these disobedient activists converted the implicit civil disobedience of the less politicized activists who were practicing daily charity into explicit civil disobedience. And thus was produced the crucible that founds all civil disobediences: that of the retired priests who are dedicating their last energies and years to the undocumented, that of Sister Engracia who left the center of religious power to work in the peripheries, that of those old people who simply take milk from US gas stations to the diner in Nogales rather than see it thrown out because of its expiration date…

They are all part of the great refusal to go along with the program designed at the top. They all inspire and breathe life into their religious communities because they give them a cause to fight for, a living Christ, always crucified and always resurrected. They all believe that God needs no Passport. And that his sons and daughters don’t either.

José Luis Rocha is a member of the envío editorial council and is associated with the Sociology Institute of Philipps University of Marburg, Germany.

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