MIAMI | Students from Belen Jesuit Preparatory School headed to the Mexican border in November on a veritable mission: to build a Christian bridge of understanding over the immigration wall of vitriol and division.
Six students crossed the Arizona border and their own ideological divides to literally walk alongside migrants in a prayer march and stand in solidarity for their human rights.
Belen’s Christian service coordinator, Teresita Gonzalez, led the Nov. 5-10 trip to the border of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Mexico, for the Jesuit affiliated Kino Border Initiative. The initiative is sponsored by five religious institutes including two Jesuit provinces and has dozens of partner Jesuit schools and parishes. The initiative advocates for just, humane migration between Mexico and the U.S., and currently for restored access to asylum.
In 2020, some Belen students first participated virtually in a Kino journey and afterwards established a school club, Just Humanity.
“The most important thing we do in this journey is our presence and to complicate the simplistic understanding of the border and its issues so that we can add a little more maturity to the conversation,” said Gonzalez. “Our role as people of faith is to really be people of dialogue and provide clarity and point in the direction of humanity and human rights.”
The group crossed the port of entry into Mexico and then walked 10 minutes to the Kino shelter for migrants, many of whom had fled domestic, gang and cartel violence. They trekked the Sonoran Desert through a hilly maze of thick, thorny brush in the penetrating sun on a trial migrant run. They prayerfully marched alongside and listened to migrants in Mexico protesting Title 42, that closes the border only for asylum seekers due to the pandemic.
Belen senior Antonio Bonadies recalled the poignant rally, where the majority were young people and children.
“It made me a lot more compassionate because I was hearing stories about people and I was like, ‘Wow, I’m their age.’ Some of their stories were horrific what they’d gone through,” he recalled. “One lady at 13 got married and had to break out years later from an abusive husband and she had her son help her here and her husband was following, and she was trying to run. But then she got denied at the border because she didn’t fit under one of the pillars of asylum.”
Classmate Sebastian Lopez-Irrizary said he loved spending time in the shelter, speaking to migrants and playing games like Duck, Duck Goose with the children. One man told him he fled with his family after his brother was murdered and the next morning he was threatened to join a gang.
“The kids were having a blast and it was nice to see them having fun and forgetting all the things they’re going through,” Sebastian said. “For these people (violence) is an everyday issue. A local gang might come and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to come and murder your family,’ and the choice that they have is to leave.”
Students also learned from U.S. Border Patrol agents about fighting drug cartels and their drug smuggling, largely through ports of entry, as well as their tunnel training. And ranchers described their constant fear of cartels, for whom “coyote” human smugglers often work. Some expressed support for wall construction and for more migrants to come legally as guest workers.
“They understand our country benefits from migrant workers and would like to see them be treated in a more humane way at the border. You heard from them a real acknowledgment of the pain these families and individuals are going through and then the complexity of their own issue dealing with a very real drug cartel,” Gonzalez said.
In her view, high schoolers can handle — better than adults these days — critical immigration issues.
“We’re not modeling dialogue real well as a country right now,” she said. “Our politics can’t be our religion. There is only one God and the closer we are to the vulnerable and the needs of our society and creating connection, that is what this was about. So I think it makes for healthier citizens when we can see things from the point of view of human rights and human dignity.”
Sister Tracey Horan, a Sister of Providence who serves as associate director of education and advocacy for the Kino Border Initiative, said she was impressed by the Belen students’ engagement. They also learned about the Remain in Mexico policy first enacted by the Trump administration that requires asylum applicants to return to Mexico after initial processing.
“Being able to sort through information, making connections across differences, and moving towards discerning our call to solidarity in the midst of it all is crucial for the development of young Catholics,” Sister Tracey said. “In their day to day life, they will encounter a variety of voices. They are called to both listen with compassion and judge what is morally right. So we start practicing in Nogales.”
The group processed their experiences in journal writing and daily reflections.
“They felt a lot of suffering but at the same time they were able to find hope in that suffering and to offer their presence as a sign of hope to those people,” Gonzalez said. “If you’re desperate enough, if you have nothing else, what do you do? You run. You run with your kids, with the clothes on your back. And that’s something I think our people right here in Miami can really understand.”
Antonio, whose father immigrated from Venezuela, returned to Miami eager to challenge peers who quickly dismiss “bad people” stranded at the border.
“Their stories are really sad and if you were in their shoes you’d do the same,” Antonio said. “People are doing things the right way and still getting denied. And even the right way to wait in line isn’t always feasible because some people one day are fine and the next day a cartel takes over and they’re threatened and they don’t wait in the line for 10 years for a visa, especially those who don’t have an education background.”
Sebastian, whose grandmother fled Cuba to Miami through the Pedro Pan airlift, said he now thinks more deeply about complex issues in light of Catholic social teaching. He plans to speak up for the humane treatment of migrants, whether by supporting a border nonprofit or writing to children in detention.
“This experience virtually and in person truly allowed me to understand what is going on and lit a fire inside me to advocate for something I believe in and think needs to be reformed, not only in the U.S. but globally,” Sebastian said, citing the Belarus migrant crisis.
He added that with asylum suspension, the port of entry closes for hours and this increases hostility against migrants. “It’s creating a greater backlog and more pressure on immigrants who now have to wait in Mexico even though they are vaccinated.”
Above all, he said, he found Christ in the downtrodden.
“It’s very important to reach out and try to understand what others go through… to be able to understand the sanctity and importance of life and how we are all in this together, how we all need to help each other out,” Sebastian said. “It truly allowed me to see God in the things around me and the people I met.”