Henry, my husband, first started getting directly involved in border ministry when we lived in Silver City, New Mexico. Then, and now, we live just a 90-minute drive from the border with Mexico. Henry has begun to volunteer his time, going down to Nogales (both the Arizona and Sonora sides) about once a week. He translates for a monthly medical clinic, takes down donations of clothing, toiletries and other goods from Tucson churches, and generally supports the ecumenical work of Cruzando Fronteras with whatever is needed.
A few weeks ago, Henry was near the border entry on the Sonoran side when a twentysomething Venezuelan woman came up to him (probably because he was wearing his clergy collar) and asked if this was the place to apply for asylum. He explained that it was, but there was a long waiting list, and helped her get on that list. Then he offered to escort her to the Cruzando Fronteras safe house, where she could find refuge while she waited.
As they walked, the young woman told him her story. Venezuela is a country in chaos, where the inflation rate could hit one million percent, fertile fields lie empty, and the capitol, Caracas, has the highest murder rate in the world. The president has embraced a state of emergency and used his super powers to brutally squash dissent. This woman’s family has spoken up, with the result that her brother is a refugee living here in America, in the Carolinas. She has her own story of being beaten and tortured. Fearing for her life, she left home and traveled over 3,000 miles, in hopes of joining her brother in Estados Unidos.
By the time she and Henry reached the safe house, she was shaking. Turning to Henry, she asked if she could have a hug. He held her while she shook, and shook some more. Then they entered the house.
A dozen years ago, people came to America’s southern border as migrants, seeking temporary work in our fields and factories, sending money home to impoverished families and often eventually returning home themselves. Today, just about everyone who shows up at the border is a refugee, not a migrant. They are fleeing life-threatening situations at home. If they are forced to return, they will most likely die.
Henry and his colleagues talked more with this woman as she waited her turn at the border. Because her government had tortured her, she is naturally very fearful of being handed over to the government—but the US wants to imprison asylum-seekers while it investigates their claims. Henry and I talked, and we agreed that, if the government would allow it, we would be willing to host her during this process. Unfortunately, when she crossed the border, she immediately disappeared into the government system. For days, we did not know where she was. We now know she is being held in the detention center in Eloy, Arizona, where I held vigil just a few weeks ago. Evidently, because her brother is also an asylee, she must be seen by a judge, who will determine if she will be released to join him or deported, and no one knows how long that process will take.
We here in America have this illusion that our lives are in our control. They aren’t. Just twenty years ago, Venezuela was a thriving, oil-rich nation. But mismanagement of oil reserves and the economy have destroyed everything, while the president and oligarchy focus on hanging onto power and dismantling the democratic process.
And yes, I do see similar things beginning to happen here. It’s very frightening—and it’s out of my control. I must accept that. I also must do my part. Christ calls me to do this. Henry and I are doing what we can, through the US system, to see if this woman can be released into our care, despite the fact that she has already been locked up. If not, perhaps there is someone else we can help, in some other way. Through a second pair of jeans and a fresh pair of shoes, through a hug and a smile and a prayer and the Eucharist, we will do what we can to love our beaten, broken, battered, beleaguered neighbors.
In these dimly lit Advent days, I cannot help wondering what ancient Egyptian family might have hugged and hosted a frightened young family of refugees that showed up at their border: a man named Joseph, a woman named Mary, and a baby named Jesus.
I cannot control so much in my life—and in the future, I may get to control much less. I can always control how I love.
Where must you let go of control? How are you called to love?
Is this the Children’s Clinic at St. Andrews Church where he volunteers?
Yes it is! Thanks for your interest, Barbara.
I volunteered there for years and that used to be my home parish when we lived in Tubac. I knew the priest well that was responsible for bringing it to Saint Andrews. It is a miracle and so glad that Henry found it.
Oh, lovely! Thank you for your part…and for your prayers in supporting Henry and those who volunteer there now….
Thank you Shirin, for both you and your husband’s efforts and your story. This has been my sense of it too, in Northern New Mexico. That what America is facing these past few years is a Refugee crisis and not the traditional immigration flow, illegal though it was. That the recent onslaught of refugees has been misunderstood and not handled well. I’ve worked with illegal immigrants up in Oregon in my teen years. That agricultural-based movement has a stability and seasonal flow. (Though I recognize other kinds of jobs are also being worked across the border.) And you’re right about the money flowing home. But this does not. Refugees are unable to plan and process their escape or request for asylum. And, they have no interest or ability to return.
I’m glad she ran into your husband. I’m glad he was able to help her in that moment. I hope this crisis can be looked at soon with more perspective. I think stories and efforts like yours will help us see our way to what happens next.
Thank you, Tina, for your thoughtful reply and your support. I do hope that stories of real people and their real, challenging circumstances will help to counteract some of the inaccurate stereotypes….