Arizona-Mexico Border

I found hope at the U.S.-Mexico border

My time on the MCC borderlands learning tour in October 2018 has transformed the way I think about the border and about human migration.

If you’ve been following media coverage of the United States’ southern border lately, you might be feeling helpless, perplexed, or even angry. I often feel the same way until I think of all of the individuals and aid organizations that I met and befriended in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. My time on the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) borderlands learning tour in October 2018 has transformed the way I think about the border and about human migration.

Going into the five-day learning tour, I knew I would be challenged, frustrated, confused and uncomfortable. I knew it would be hard to hear the firsthand stories of people who have been uprooted from their homes and are seeking a more secure future. I, along with 11 other learning tour participants, were indeed challenged and uncomfortable during our tour to the sister cities of Douglas, Ariz. and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico. Together we learned about increasing migrant deaths, family separations, militarization of the border and environmental and habitat degradation. We also learned how these issues affect sister communities along the borderlands.

 In my experience as East Coast communications and event associate for MCC, I’ve interviewed many immigrant individuals whom MCC and our partners have accompanied along legal pathways to remain in the U.S. I’m humbled by their deep faith, profound strength and willingness to share the rawest and most difficult parts of their lives with me. They trust me to carry on their stories. As MCC partners and friends opened their doors and homes to us in Douglas and Agua Prieta, my eyes too were opened in an indescribable way to the nuances of human migration and the factors that push and pull people to leave their homes.

“You are now baptized with memory and by these voices. You cannot leave the same.”

-  Friar Tomás González Castillo, migrant advocate and founder and director of La 72, a sanctuary near the Mexico-Guatemala border established to protect migrants on their journey.

 

Laura Pauls-Thomas, communications and event associate for MCC's East Coast region, participated in the MCC borderlands learning tour to Douglas, Ariz. and Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico on October 3-8, 2018. She, along with 11 other participants, embraced the opportunity to learn about the realities of life on the U.S.-Mexico border. The group wrapped up the week-long tour with a hike at Gates Pass in the Tucson Mountains in Tucson, Ariz. Photo courtesy of Bob Smucker

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”
--Matthew 25:35 (NRSV)

I expected to encounter fear, desperation, and struggle, and I did see those things. But what I didn’t anticipate was that I also found abundant hope, faith, connection and love. Through touring the borderlands with MCC partner organization Frontera de Cristo (“Border of Christ”) I saw tangible demonstrations of love and compassion for the “strangers” among us, as Leviticus 19 and Matthew 25 command.

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
--Leviticus 19:34 (NRSV)

I’ve come away from this experience with the certainty that human migration is incredibly complex. Like much of life, the situation on our southern border is intricate, messy, and full of both fear and hope. I heard stories of great sadness, but also of great resilience and strength. Let me introduce you to just a few of our sisters and brothers on the U.S.-Mexico border that are making a positive difference in the lives of uprooted people.

This is the Frontera de Cristo (Border of Christ) van, which took us from Douglas to Agua Prieta and beyond. To me, the van is a visible sign of peace. The side of the van says, “Cultivando Relaciones y Entendimiento Tras Fronteras” and “Building Relationships and Understanding Across Borders.” To me, the van is a visible sign of peace. MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

Frontera de Cristo (Border of Christ)
MCC partner Frontera de Cristo (Border of Christ), a Presbyterian border ministry based out of the sister cities of Douglas, Ariz. and Agua Prieta, Mexico, host learning tour groups like ours. Mark Adams, U.S. coordinator, and Joca Gallegos, Mexico coordinator, share their wisdom, expertise, and their relationships with individuals and their partner organizations on the border. Adams encouraged our group by saying, “We’re not called to dwell on the injustices of it all. As Christians, we’re called to put flesh on the Good News.”

Joca Gallegos (left), Mexico coordinator for Frontera de Cristo and Mark Adams (right), U.S. coordinator for Frontera de Cristo, led our group throughout our five days together and facilitated times for group reflection. MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

"We’re not called to dwell on the injustices of it all. As Christians, we’re called to put flesh on the Good News.”

- Mark Adams, U.S. coordinator, Frontera de Cristo

Café Justo Coffee Cooperative
Café Justo (Just Coffee) is a Mexican coffee grower cooperative established in 1998 with support from Frontera de Cristo and Presbyterian churches in the U.S. Farmers in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico sell their coffee to Café Justo for two to three times the commercial rate, and Café Justo roasts the coffee and sells it from their coffee shop and roasting facility in Agua Prieta, Café Justo y Más (Just Coffee and More). The co-op provides incentives for people in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico to stay on their family land and not have to migrate to the U.S. in search of economic opportunities.

Saulo Padilla, MCC U.S. immigration education coordinator, says, “When people ask me, ‘So how does [MCC] stop migration and help people stay in their communities?' I point at Café Justo and say, ‘MCC works in [57] countries around the world providing and supporting alternatives to migration like Café Justo.’ Café Justo gives an immediate answer and hope.”

Amsi Espinosa, Febe Maldonado and Erik Noriega (left to right) greet Café Justo y Más customers and serve coffee with cheerful smiles. Amsi says, “It’s not only a place to get coffee– it’s a place where we help othersMCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

 

Daniel Cifuentes (right), co-founder and production manager of Café Justo, shares the story of the coffee cooperative with MCC borderlands learning tour participants. He says, “When we looked at the migration issues [going on], we knew we had to look for a solution. So we determined the best way was to start a cooperative of farmers who can sell directly to buyers and cut out the middle man.” MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

 

Cifuentes demonstrates how they roast organic coffee beans in Agua Prieta that were grown by coffee co-op farmers in Chiapas, Mexico. A few of us learning tour participants even bought some of the freshly roasted beans to take home with us. Churches and individuals in the U.S. can support Café Justo farmers in southern Mexico by purchasing coffee online at JustCoffee.org. Cifuentes says, “The idea has always been to connect directly to the person that buys our coffee.” MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

C.A.M.E. Migrant Shelter
At Centro de Atención al Migrante “Exodus” (C.A.M.E.; Center for Attention to Migrants in Exodus) in Agua Prieta, individuals and families on the move can find food, safety and understanding. C.A.M.E. seeks to provide a safe place for migrants who have been recently deported from the U.S. or who are in transit. We visited the shelter and shared a meal with the migrants there, who were mainly women with small children and young men. Beto*, director of the shelter, shared with us why C.A.M.E. has been serving migrants for the past 18 years. He said, “They are human beings, just like you and me. If I were a migrant I’d want to be comforted.”

Our group visited C.A.M.E., a migrant shelter located in Agua Prieta. We had the opportunity to share a meal with migrants staying there and talk with them about their experiences. MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

 

A mural at C.A.M.E. depicts Jesus riding on top of “La bestia” (“the beast”) with migrants who ride the train to the north, hoping for a more secure future in the U.S. MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

“They are human beings, just like you and me. If I were a migrant I’d want to be comforted.” 

- Beto*, director of C.A.M.E. in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico.

CRREDA Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Center
Centro de Rehabilitación y Recuperación para Enfermos de Drogas y Alcohol (CRREDA; Center for the Rehabilitation and Recuperation of Drug and Alcohol Addicts) is an organization with more than seven sites throughout Mexico that helps migrants, often youth or young adults, overcome drug and alcohol addictions and teaches them useful job skills. Some individuals that have gone through CRREDA’s program at their eighth center in Agua Prieta are now employed at Café Justo y Más or CRREDA itself. The staff at CRREDA frequently venture into the Sonoran desert in northern Mexico to place water bottles, food and other relief supplies along paths and under trees that migrants typically travel by on their journey north.

Learning tour participants approach CRREDA in Agua Prieta, a non-governmental organization supported by Frontera de Cristo. The organization helps migrants overcome drug and alcohol addictions and teaches them useful job skills. MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

 

Jasmine*, 36 years old, is a staff member at CRREDA in Agua Prieta. Jasmine’s husband, a carpenter working in the U.S., sends money to Jasmine every month so that she can live comfortably in Agua Prieta. Because she was caught twice entering the U.S. without proper documentation, she is permanently barred from returning. As a result, Jasmine has not seen her husband in 14 years. MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

DouglaPrieta Trabajan Women’s Cooperative
DouglaPrieta Trabajan, or “DouglaPrieta Works,” is a grassroots women’s cooperative in Agua Prieta that encourages its members to work towards economic self-sufficiency. They teach sustainable food production techniques, including gardening and small livestock raising – skills women can do to support themselves and their families in Agua Prieta. Women can farm their own garden plot and learn skills like sewing and crocheting so that they can save money on groceries and earn extra income.

Jack and Linda Knox, a Mennonite retired couple who volunteers with Frontera de Cristo in Douglas, Ariz., have been teaching women carpentry, embroidery and English. In doing so, they’re helping people to stay where they are. Many migrant women come to Agua Prieta expecting to cross the border or after being deported from the U.S. and decide to stay because “living in poverty at the border is better than living in poverty somewhere else in south Mexico,” explains Saulo Padilla.

At DouglaPrieta Trabajan, women learn sustainable food production techniques, including gardening and small livestock raising – skills women can do to support themselves and their families in Agua Prieta. Pictured is Trini Anguamea, director of the DouglaPrieta Trabajan women’s cooperative. MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

 

Learning tour participants (left to right) Aldo Siahaan, Mary Ward Bucher, Klaudia Smucker and Xamayta Graver (far right) learn about the DouglaPrieta Trabajan garden from Anguamea (second from right). Anguamea says, “It’s very beautiful and good for the community. The women here are proud of what they’ve accomplished.” MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

 

Anguamea holds up a hat that she learned to crochet thanks to the workshops at the co-op. Upon migrating to Agua Prieta 22 years ago from southern Sonora, she felt ashamed because she had only completed an elementary education.  Since becoming involved with DouglaPrieta Trabajan, she’s finished elementary and high school and serves as director of the cooperative. Anguamea says, “If not for DouglaPrieta Trabajan, I wouldn’t have learned all this because before that, I was already comfortable. Now I feel very happy.” MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

 

Ester Verdugo is one of the women we met at DouglaPrieta Trabajan. She told us that she became involved with the women’s cooperative because she was impressed with their tidy garden. She says, “This program has helped me learn a lot and save money on produce.” MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

MCC and immigration
MCC learning tours are a unique and wonderful way to explore complex issues in our nation and in our world. From my own experience on the October 2018 borderlands learning tour, I learned the incredible value of seeing and hearing the firsthand stories from people who are on the ground and are directly impacted by the issue. Learning tours humanize political issues, because once you look someone in the eyes and listen to their story, it becomes harder to pass judgment or hold resentment against them.

My colleague Curtis Book, East Coast peace and justice coordinator, says, “Through [borderlands] learning tours, participants’ views on immigration grow and stretch as they connect the dots between migration, security, fear, economics and hope for the future.” He continues, “Their views of immigration are much more nuanced in addressing the current immigration reality than before.”

Borderlands learning tour participants (left to right) Curtis Book (MCC East Coast peace and justice coordinator), Jennifer Lancaster and Jeannette Hunsberger peer through the border wall from the Mexican desert towards the U.S. MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

In addition to coordinating learning tours like the one I experienced in October 2018, MCC walks with migrants and uprooted people around the world in a variety of ways.

MCC addresses the root causes of migration and accompanies communities to create alternatives to migration. For example, in Honduras and much of Central America, MCC supports educational programs in rural and urban settings that often are combined with peacebuilding initiatives. Agricultural initiatives, vocational training and health and social services support families and communities where they are.

MCC supports refugees, migrants, and internally displaced people (IDPs) to journey safely and with dignity. One way that MCC and partners do this is through providing relief kits, which contain valuable hygiene supplies, to families whose lives have been disrupted by war or disaster. Last year, MCC shipped 24,530 relief kit buckets to Jordan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, People’s Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK; North Korea), Iraq, Ukraine, Syria, Lebanon, Haiti, Burkina Faso and Canada.

In the U.S., MCC educates churches and communities about migration issues, and MCC’s offices in Washington, D.C., New York City and Ottawa, Canada advocate for more just policies and values of hospitality toward all people on the move.

A section of border fencing in Agua Prieta reads, “Amor sin fronteras” or “Love without borders,” as of October 2018. MCC photo/Laura Pauls-Thomas

How to get involved
To participate in future MCC learning tours to the U.S.-Mexico border and beyond, visit mcc.org/events. If a group from your congregation or community is interested in coordinating a borderlands learning tour, please contact Curtis Book, East Coast peace and justice coordinator, at CurtisBook@mcc.org.

To learn more about MCC’s work alongside uprooted people around the world, visit mcc.org/migration. To support MCC’s work with migrants and returning migrants in Central America, visit donate.mcc.org/migrants. To support MCC’s work with immigrants in the U.S., please give a gift of welcome at donate.mcc.org/cause/welcome.

Consider giving MCC relief kits, which provide valuable supplies to families whose lives have been disrupted by war or disaster in countries like Haiti, Ukraine, DPRK (North Korea), Burkina Faso and beyond. For a list of relief kit contents and to find a drop-off location near you, visit mcc.org/kits.

Get immigration updates and advocate for just and humane immigration policies by connecting with the MCC Washington Office at washingtonmemo.org.


*Last names not used for security purposes.