NEW YORK – On a recent trip to El Paso, Texas, Sister Mary Jude Lazarus met a 20-year-old El Salvadoran woman with a broken leg after an unsuccessful attempt to scale the US-Mexico border wall. Knowing the woman’s physical challenges, Lazarus instead asked her how she felt emotionally.
“She broke down in tears and said, ‘What I need now is the patience to know that I’m going to have a better life than the one I left behind,'” Lazarus said. The essence.
On another leg of the trip to a migrant shelter in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, the father of a Honduran family—himself, his wife, their two-month-old baby, and their six-year-old child—explained to Lazarus that border officials from a country during his trip led them to what they were told was a shelter, but which was actually part of a human trafficking scheme, forcing them to flee in the middle of the night.
Other migrants also spoke about the challenges at various borders and the uncertainty of who to trust.
“You feel very vulnerable and you’re running for your life, and they go to the United States and then come back,” Lazarus said. “It’s amazing their resilience and the strength to keep going and to know and hope that things really do work out.”
Lazarus and the five others who made the trip south came from the Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut, a smaller diocese of about 230,000 Catholics that is not known for immigration like other dioceses in the Northeast, or in the general interior of the US.
However, the group acknowledged that, like many parts of the country, their existing immigrant population has grown. Led by Lazarus, they decided it would be valuable to hear from migrants at the US-Mexico border about their journey, situation and needs so they could better understand how to help migrants at home.
Lazarus, the diocesan director of Hispanic ministry, said the trip highlighted the need to raise awareness.
“A great need in our diocese in this area of Connecticut is to raise awareness of the presence and needs of immigrants,” she said. “There’s a big gap between what we believe and how we behave.”
Kathleen Tonry, a University of Connecticut professor and part of the nonprofit Neighbor Fund that provides legal support for asylum cases in two counties that are part of the Diocese of Norwich, added that awareness is important because the diocese is so far from the border and people’s “Attitude the biggest one on immigration becomes about news from afar and kind of policy questions,” as opposed to the moral and humanitarian issues that are present in the South.
“Understanding immigration broadly is something that I think the interior and other parts of the border are not really doing,” Tonry said.
The group’s trip came at a time when record migration continues at the US-Mexico border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection intercepted about 207,000 immigrants at the Southwest land border in June, according to agency data. The number is down from the roughly 240,000 migrants encountered in May and 235,000 in April, but marks four consecutive months of more than 200,000 encounters.
Most migrants are still deported upon entry under Title 42.
Lazarus said she was surprised that “thousands” of immigrants pass through El Paso every day. She and Tonry said they met Honduran, El Salvadorian, Haitian, Russian and Turkish immigrants — among other countries — who “should make us aware that the U.S. is a destination from around the world.”
“They know the laws are stricter, yet they are taking the risk and it speaks to the brokenness but also the desperation of these people … to think there are thousands every day, I just can’t understand that,” said. Lazarus, who has worked in Hispanic ministry in the Diocese of Norwich since the late 1990s.
The migrant population in Norwich includes pockets of Guatemalans, Ecuadorians, El Salvadorians, Hondurans and Dominicans. Lazarus said the two biggest needs immigrants have in the diocese are finding work and getting legal help with their immigration cases.
She also acknowledged that complicating challenges is the lack of people in the diocese advocating for migrants or working in the migration space, which brings her back to the need for awareness. She said one way she will do that is by doubling the Mass for World Migrants and Refugees Day on the last day of September as an educational opportunity for people throughout the diocese.
“There are individuals who might agree with that, but it’s not happening at all because of a lack of awareness,” Lazarus said. “It is ignorance on the part of many of our people.”
Tonry said the state of Connecticut could also help immigrants with a public defender program that would lower the cost of representation in immigration cases, “saying that’s something people can really get behind because it has simply do with representing people in court and letting their voices be heard.”
On the larger issue of comprehensive immigration reform, Lazarus has looked back and forth in Congress for years to no avail. She said people should treat immigration as a moral issue and not just focus on politics.
“The bottom line in all of this is that the political deadlock over immigration needs to be eased and there needs to be really good legislation,” Lazarus said. “The church is saying respect the rights of [country’s borders] and that there should be guidelines, but we cannot forget the dignity of the person.”
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