Border Immersion Trip Gives Lutheran Clergy a Peek into the Journey of Migrants

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A migrant family at Annunciation House.
A migrant family at Annunciation House.

Pastor Brian L. Erickson from Faith Lutheran Church in Virginia has been a compassionate supporter of the most vulnerable for years. He started a scholarship program for students in Lomas de Poleo, Mexico, eight years ago and recently went on a “Border Immersion Experience,” where he and other Lutherans visited critical sites in Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico that are affected by migration.

Pastor Erickson shares his experience in this guest post:

Our Border Immersion Experience to El Paso, Texas; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Juarez, Mexico included ten people this year, eight of them clergy from Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, along with a Lutheran Volunteer Corp staff person from the Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod office, and a professional photo-journalist.

Our immersion covered a vast array of experiences.  We visited the Border Patrol at the border fence, an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) Detention Facility, and the federal courthouse in Las Cruces, where we witnessed the deportation hearing, called Operation Streamline, of 27 persons, who were ushered into the room in handcuffs and shackles.

We heard the personal stories of several people who are members of Cristo Rey Lutheran Church in El Paso, Texas, or live in the El Paso area.

We visited several sites in Mexico, including the families of the women’s cooperative in Lomas de Poleo, Mexico, where I have been taking groups for over a decade. This women’s cooperative is comprised of a group of women in a squatter’s settlement who work on projects to improve their community, such as ecological toilets, planting trees, reusing water, and providing a library and reading classes for children and adults. Their library was recently established through donations from the United States.  We met with their children, who are students in the scholarship program I established eight years ago.

We also visited Dr. San Juana Mendoza, a doctor who runs two clinics in Juarez, staffed by volunteers. Dr. Mendoza charges folks just a small fee or offers free medical and dental services. Cristo Rey Lutheran in El Paso helps support and fund her ministry. We also were able to meet several students in her scholarship program who volunteer at the clinic.

We also visited with members of the Santa Catalina Women’s Cooperative in  Juarez, Mexico, and were able to purchase beautiful cloth products they make to support their cooperative.

Back in Texas, we toured two colonias outside El Paso. Colonias are semi-rural areas that are often unincorporated and lack a basic physical infrastructure, such as potable water, sewer systems, good roads, schools, and clinics.  They tend to be near the Mexican border and most of the people who live there are Latino.

Afterwards, we visited the Annunciation House, a half-way house for migrants and the poor staffed by volunteers just across the border from Mexico in El Paso. While there, we heard a presentation on immigration regulations at the Catholic-sponsored Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services office, and also from a local immigration attorney, Danny Razo.

In Las Cruces we visited at the American Civil Liberties Union Regional Center for Border Rights, with the presentation given by my son, Brian J. Erickson, Policy Analyst for the Center.  We also heard a presentation at New Mexico State University by Molly Molloy on the violence that has been so much a part of life in Juarez the past decade.

Finally, we had many activities at Cristo Rey, where we stayed, including worship, participating in the after-school program, attending a birthday party for Pastor Rose Mary’s youngest daughter, and hearing the story of Pastor Juan De Dios Lopez, who is preparing for parish ministry and is supported in his seminary training by Faith Lutheran financially and spiritually.

Prior to the trip, I had described the goals of our immersion in these words: “On our border immersions we hear the stories of people living on the border, many of them in families where some members are undocumented.  We visit the Border Patrol and an ICE Detention Center.  We talk with folks working directly with immigrants and with organizations working to change policy, many of them NGO’s.  Our goal is for participants to connect emotionally and to learn how to think critically about our policies and laws.”

I believe our immersion achieved those purposes.  We heard many very emotionally moving stories of families being separated because of present border policies.  We heard the fear U.S. citizen children experience at the prospect that a parent could be deported.  We witnessed the grief of a congregation that has already lost many members to deportation.

We learned how complicated our present immigration regulations are, and how difficult it is for most folks to achieve legal status.  We heard from folks involved in immigration enforcement, who are doing the best job they can to enforce present laws, but also are restricted from doing what they often think is the most compassionate and community-building action because those laws have become so narrow and punitive.

We also learned how out-of-touch many of our political policies are from the realities on the ground.  There are already extreme levels of enforcement, and more enforcement will likely make life even more miserable and militarized in the border areas, leading to even more unnecessary killings along that border.  Already there is little transparency by the Border Patrol, and many murders along the border, including youth, U.S. citizens, and persons being shot on the Mexican side of the border, are not being adequately investigated.  One of the main tasks of the ACLU is to push for those kinds of investigations and they are finally achieving limited success.

It was truly moving to witness the compassionate ministry of Cristo Rey, with its many programs to bring Christ’s love to those in need:  after-school tutoring, youth programs, healthcare education, ESL classes, and social work in various areas to support members and neighbors.  We were also greatly moved by the leadership, pastoral care, and compassionate ministry of the pastor of Cristo Rey these past 17 years, Rose Mary Sanchez-Guzman.

As we heard the Word of God proclaimed, and participated in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we experienced what it means to be the Body of Christ, learning of each other’s struggles and pain, and committing ourselves to a world of greater welcome, inclusion, justice, peace, love and hope.

I strongly encourage groups interested in this kind of immersion experience to contact the Border Immersion program at Cristo Rey Lutheran Church.

This the second part of a two-post series from Pastor Erickson. Click here to read his first post, where he writes about how he first became interested in migration and how it relates to his faith. 

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