I recently visited the Columban Mission Center in El Paso, TX, for a border immersion experience with students from the Catholic University of America. The journey began on Pentecost Sunday with a rousing homily at St. Pius Catholic Church from Father Arturo Banuelas, who gave us all a call to action to pass comprehensive immigration reform while the Senate Judiciary Committee was in the process of “marking up” and approving the Senate “Gang of Eight’s” immigration bill.
Pentecost came to life for me when I went to the undocumented children’s detention center later that day. There we met youth who were from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, and El Salvador. They represented the diverse face of the Catholic Church and although they spoke different languages or with different accents, for a few hours we shared in laughter, song, and play.
The youth detention centers were better than I expected. They were able to receive education, go on field trips, play sports, and receive important counseling to process their experiences along their migrant journey to where they are today. Yet they still lack their freedom, they are still separated from their families, and their future in the United States is still very uncertain.
We met with a judge who handles cases of unaccompanied migrant youth in El Paso who said that only about ten percent of the youth are reunited with family members in the United States or put into foster care until they turn 18. Some youth when they turn 18 are given the choice of going into an adult detention facility or staying in a shelter for the undocumented. The length of time they stay in detention varies. Some are there for a few months, but others are there for more than a year perhaps waiting for an airplane with undocumented people from their country to be full enough for them to travel to their home country.
We visited an adult detention center where Columban missionaries in El Paso have responded to the needs of migrants by visiting them and offering pastoral services. We met Sister Rita, the center’s chaplain who talked about her ministry of providing pastoral care by visiting people by their request, helping arrange religious services, and caring for the religious items people bring with them. At the detention center, there are people from around the world such as Central America and Mexico, India, and Africa. Each religious tradition is given at least one day and time for a worship experience during the week.
I was glad for the ways in which staff in both the children and adults centers tried to create a more humanizing experience for the men, women, and children in detention centers even amidst the very dehumanizing experience of being detained especially since the majority of migrants in these detention centers are not criminals.
One of our last days in El Paso, we drove to the border wall in New Mexico just across the fence from the Columban parish in Anapra, Mexico. Columban Father Bob Mosher had us spend time in the desert where we spoke to some children through the fence. Border Patrol swiftly came over to learn what we were doing. We explained that we were a church group and we were on this border immersion experience and planned to do a small mass in the desert.
While in the middle of our service, Border Patrol returned to ask how long we would be there. They drove around and around us in circles. A train passed by and its whistle blew. Amidst all these distractions I felt the Holy Spirit present among us.
Last week, the House of Representatives nearly overturned a current mandate for Immigration and Customs Enforcement to fill more than 34,000 beds in detention centers. This is the only policy we have that mandates that a specific number of beds be filled by people for a specific action. This mandate is a cause for concern from both a human rights and cost perspective.
My time in El Paso, TX and Anapra, Mexico was a Pentecost experience. As we said goodbye to the children at the fence, it was hard to believe that while so close, we could not be One Body fully with the community separated by the wall and the brokenness of our immigration system. Now back at the CCAO, we continue to call for policies that welcome the stranger and bring migrants out of the shadow and into the light of the Spirit.