In January 2022, I was invited by my friend Bev Abma to join a trip to the Southwest Border to learn more about immigration with an organization called ABARA. Having been to the southwest border as a volunteer with Children’s Disaster Relief, Bev was asked to coordinate the trip by a few members of her faith community, Friendship Christian Reformed Church in Byron Center, Mich.
Since a loved one of ours was deported to Guatemala in 2007, I was more than interested in the topic of immigration. When plans for a 2023 ABARA Border Encounters trip were forming, I was invited, along with my husband Gary, our daughter Lynne, a Middle School Spanish teacher, and Roman, her 17-year-old son and our grandson.
The term ABARA means “to ford” or “to cross over” in a variety of semitic languages. This new name was chosen by the founders of this non-profit organization in 2019 to better describe expanding services.
It was originally founded to provide neighborhood-based services more than 15 years earlier in conjunction with Ciudad Nueva, a faith-based charity, in a beautiful multiethnic neighborhood of El Paso, TX close to the US-Mexico border. Ciudad Juárez is a sister city to El Paso with the Rio Grande River flowing between the two. The actual border is in the middle of the river. The Franklin Mountains, at the foot of the Rockies surround these sister cities. At one time in history, people moved freely between the two cities. Now the international bridge separates the two; and El Paso is one of 328 Port of Entries along the SW US Border.
As more people and families began arriving at this border crossing point, the ABARA founders witnessed many challenges and needs in each city. ABARA began a second initiative to provide a safe place where different people with different ideas could come together to listen, learn, and understand one another respectfully and with compassion, while addressing and discussing the pressing issues that result when people migrate and seek asylum in the US.
ABARA has three focuses. BORDER ENCOUNTERS (BE), which we experienced. BORDER RESPONSE, work with organizations and shelters on both sides of the border to meet physical needs of people. The third, ABARA HOUSE, will be a future renovation of a historic Hacienda as a central place of gathering that will incorporate education, local arts and culture, and the elements of food, hospitality, gardens and sacred space for rest and reflection.
A Border Encounter includes a 4-night stay with three intense days of learning to immerse guests like our group with local residents. Learning covers all things concerning immigration: history, laws, why people migrate and from where, along with visits and opportunities to volunteer at shelters. But mostly, a BE is an opportunity to listen to the stories about the realities of people’s lives who live at or who cross the border.
This essay is about some of what I saw, heard, and learned.
Immigration and Border Realities; Highs and Lows of My Experience
The lack of comprehensive immigration reform in our country has been a problem for decades. Immigration worldwide will continue into the future as long as there are civil wars, gang violence, climate crises, political unrest, hunger and economic hardships that affect humans. Immigration is a complex issue. There are no simple solutions.
But, as James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” A fact was shared that the US only receives 15% of the world’s migrating population at our Southern Border. Humans have the international right to seek asylum in another country and most people will migrate to the country closest to theirs. The bottleneck at our border has been exacerbated by the implementation of Title 42, the Mexico policy implemented by the Trump administration and continued by the Biden administration. People are left in Mexico with no shelter, food or protection from the powerful Cartels which prey on innocent people. This order may be lifted sometime in May, but no one knows for sure when. However, one fact is known; ending Title 42 will likely cause a huge influx of people at the border and the needs will be even more demanding.
A Low: The Power of the Cartels
Our first “field trip” was at a small city park in El Paso, with a border fence in clear view, behind 2 Border Patrol Agents, who spoke to us about their role at the border. The first thing they each shared was that the people they encounter are human beings who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Title 42 has prevented them from doing their job, which is to apprehend people who enter illegally (not at the port of entry) and release them back to their country of origin if they do not have legitimate claims to seek asylum because Title 42 prevents them from entering to make a claim. They spoke strongly that the real issue at the border was NOT El Paso’s or Juarez’ problem but a problem with the Transnational Community that allows and succumbs to the power and control of the worldwide Cartels exploiting innocent people who are only seeking better lives and safety for their families. On my trip in 2022, Cartels were mentioned only briefly. This trip, everyone who spoke to us mentioned the Cartels and their evil business of corruption, exploitation, disrespect and degradation of human lives by using vulnerable people for their gain. The agents also talked about the creation of mental health care teams, not required but voluntary for agents within the El Paso Border station, who are suffering from trauma and PTSD from the things they witness. Three agents died by suicide in 2023. This was not talked about on our 2022 trip. For me, hearing the reality of the power of the Cartels was a crucifixion moment and one of the most depressing parts of my Border Encounter.
A High to Counter the Low
I heard testimonies of and saw people on both sides of the border who are seeing the dire needs of human beings and who are working together to protect and provide for the physical (and spiritual) needs of these innocent people, to help protect them from the clutches of the Cartels.There are volunteers from over 30 different churches, on both sides of the border, working cooperatively with civil organizations to provide food, clothing and shelter to people on the streets. Residents in these twin cities realized that it was not only a crisis for refugees and immigrants at the border but that residents at the border needed to hear and listen to the stories of their “neighbors” coming across and that listening to these stories put a human face to the problem that often was based on stereotypes and prejudices. Rather, listening and helping created bonds, compassion and relationships of kinship between “helpers and victims.” This cooperation and coordination between local volunteers and local, state, and federal agencies was a hope-filled “resurrection” type high of my B.E.
Our second field trip was to cross the border into Juárez to visit a shelter supported by ABARA. It can house 81 guests, men, women, and children of all ages, from various countries, hoping to be allowed into the US to request asylum.
This shelter is a space where the dangers of the cartels and anxiety about unknown futures are temporarily forgotten.
This experience was both a high and a low, but fun. Yes, FUN! Our group of 16 divided into small groups at tables with 4-6 guests to play games. Although we had three Spanish speakers in our group and most of the guests knew little to no English, language was not a barrier. These games were non-threatening and non-competitive and our language was smiles, laughter, and cooperation.
The first game we all played was a matching memory game with pictures on the cards representing objects from each country represented by the guests at the shelter, including the US. Each time a card appeared with an item a player recognized from their home country, eyes lit up and smiles were wide with shouts of joy! Players proudly named their country or used gestures or words trying to convey what the picture meant. Some used their phones to show pictures of scenery in their home country or of loved ones still back in their home countries. Players even helped others of us with older brains who could not remember where a match card was, by pointing or making gestures. No competition to see who made the most matches, only helping others find matching cards!
The second game played at each table was JENGA, familiar to some Americans but not the guests. Small rectangle shaped pieces of wood are stacked in a tower and each player draws out one piece at a time, trying not to cause the tower to fall. Again, players helped other players with encouragement by smiling or shaking their heads if a piece chosen to pull was a good choice or not. And oh my, the excitement and laughter that erupted when the tower teetered or crashed to the table was wonderful! We concluded our time at the shelter by sharing fresh orange slices and candy and doing a group art project by putting our thumb prints in paint to make leaves on a large painting of a tree with deep roots and extending limbs to symbolize our roots as human beings and as shelter for one another.
Leaving these beautiful people in the shelter knowing we could cross into the US with our passports and back to our privileged lives was poignant and sobering; especially as we were hugged and thanked by many, some with tears streaming down their cheeks, for coming to visit and as the director of the shelter said, “to be in solidarity with and to share some joy together.” This was a high and low experience for me.
Another High and Low Experience
On our last day in El Paso, we divided into two groups to visit two different shelters operated by volunteers from Catholic parishes: Sacred Heart and Holy Family. Gary and I were at Sacred Heart and arrived at a side entrance in an alley. We saw evidence of people living and sleeping there: Red Cross blankets strewn about, pieces of cardboard boxes being used to sleep on or as shelters. One of our group members spoke Spanish and spoke to the people, who were friendly and talkative. They were hoping to be admitted into the shelter at night if room was available. Some had been there for two weeks, and the nights had been cold. No one asked for money or were aggressive or threatening. One asked if we had any work he could do. Eventually we were let into the shelter, and everyone waved goodbye as we entered.
Each shelter held between 80 and 100 people (all ages, singles and families) in a large space like a school gym. Some people there had been approved to have an immigration hearing to confirm, or not, their asylum claim and would only be there 2-3 days before being sent to their US sponsor contact. They were given cell phones by our government, rather than ankle monitors, to keep track of them while waiting for their hearings. Contrary to Fox News reports, migrants do not receive free cell phones with free Wi-Fi services. They are only immigration contact phones. Guests receive 3 meals a day, have available showers, clean donated clothing, blankets, mats and floor space for sleeping: no cots. One wall of the gym was lined with people who were sick or injured. First aid supplies and fresh water was also provided. There were no organized activities; just waiting, sleeping, calming young children or babies or people on their own personal phones. We did not have the opportunity to speak with any of the guests and were told not to take any pictures. Although we smiled at people as we moved to the area of the shelter where we did our volunteer work; it felt weird, like we were invading their privacy and they were on display for tourists. Once to our duty stations, some of us folded clean towels, others organized the clothing room and some filled soap dispensers in the showers, washed dishes or made sandwiches and packed lunch for those soon to leave. When we left to walk to our vehicle, we were greeted by the folks on the street who were waving, shouting joyfully, clapping and whistling. We waved back and I was not paying attention to where I was walking as I crossed the street. I almost ran into a large bundle leaning against a wall of a building across from the shelter. The bundle was huddled in a Red Cross blanket and two turquoise shoes were peeking out at the bottom of the blanket. The folks across the street were whistling and shouting and suddenly a head appeared out of the blanket; a middle-aged man who looked exhausted. I said “buenas tardes” and he went back into the huddle, and I kept walking.
A Holy Week I Shall Never Forget
This truly was the most significant Holy Week I have ever experienced. Being with and interacting with actual migrants, eating local food, feeling the warm Texas sunshine and seeing the blue sky, being awed by the mountains and people of both cities, meeting dedicated people at ABARA and the shelters and praying with and sharing “roses and thorns” with our group at the end of each day and especially sharing this B.E. with my family, was an Easter blessing that I will forever be grateful for. It allowed me to witness the Good Friday crucifixion in a very raw and real way, to contemplate the empty tomb and to rejoice in the good news of Easter resurrection that I witnessed happening every day at the Southern Border. I often found myself singing the Dominican Blessing under my breath. I also took with me, as a “spiritual guide” a small picture of Sister Jean Reimer, who served the people of God in Guatemala, CA, El Paso and Juarez. She helped me be aware of how I do and do not step out of my own boundaries of “othering” and to be aware of the walls and fences of separation that I put up towards others who do not look like me, think like me, or believe what I believe. It helped me to strive to love radically, fiercely, and humbly — and to see God in all, as did the one whose life we celebrate on Easter. It was the best Holy Week ever!
Gloria Switzer is an Associate of the Dominican Sisters ~ Grand Rapids (since 2006). Associates make a commitment to Associate Life, supporting one another and bringing Dominican values to their family, community, place of worship and workplace. The Associate Mission is to: Preach in all ways through Prayer, Justice, Community, Service, Joy, and Study. Touched by the Holy One, we journey in solidarity with the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids and with one another. Connecting and collaborating in Christian mission and spirituality, we embrace the Dominican charism ministering in joyful faith and compassionate love.