Compassion and Common Sense in El Paso
I went to El Paso and learned that the world has not, in fact, gone mad. Compassion and common sense seem to rule in at least parts of this border community. Where the rest of the country seems to see terrorists and drug runners, the people of El Paso see migrants and refugees, women and children, and families that need to be together.
El Paso is a bi-national community, separated by a border – now separated by an imposing double wall. In spite of the wall, the bi-national character of the community persists.
There are shelters in El Paso, such as Annunciation House, that take in poor travelers. Sometimes, people are just passing through. Sometimes they are fleeing violence, abuse, or human trafficking. When people in El Paso began to see more children and mothers with babies coming across the border, they opened more shelters.
A total of eight shelters, operated by various faith groups in El Paso and Las Cruces, offered “deep hospitality” to hundreds of children and families. ICE agents in the area have cooperated with the shelters, bringing them people who need their services. These volunteer shelters, connected with support and advocacy services, assist people to enter the country legally as refugees, asylees, or family members, where possible.
In contrast, the large profit-oriented private prisons opened to “house” children and families offer no such hospitality, no connections to community, no way to resolve complex situations, and no way out.
On Saturday evening, I participated in a fundraising dinner for Annunciation House, an event called “Voice of the Voiceless.” About 500 dinner guests were invited to experience a “migration path” with ten stations along the way. At each station, people from a community group or parish presented information on some of the hazards of migration: the reasons for migration, “La Bestia” (“the beast”) – the train that many young people try to board, human trafficking, crossing the desert. At each station, participants’ informational booklets – “passports” – were stamped, and at random times, a border agent would show up demanding to see papers. For English speakers in the group, the border agent spoke Spanish – for Spanish speakers, he spoke English. Congressman Beto O’Rourke went through the path of migration a little ahead of me, conversing with his constituents at each station.
The dinner program featured mariposas- Monarch butterflies – as symbols of migration. Mariposa dancers accompanied “La Bestia” on its journey, until they were apprehended and jailed. The work of friends and advocates freed the mariposas to continue on their journey.
There were three awards that night. One was for Father Alejandro Solalinde, founder of a shelter for Central Americans migrating through Oaxaca, Mexico. He accompanies migrants and protests Mexican government policies that affect migrants and the poor. He speaks out about the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers college in Mexico, who disappeared when they were on their way to a protest in September 2014. Father Solalinde had intended to participate in the “Voice of the Voiceless” event, but he was detained along with the migrants he was accompanying and was released too late to make the trip.
The second award recognized a group of women, “Las Patronas,” who have been distributing food to riders on passing trains carrying migrants north. For more than 20 years, these women – 15 volunteers in all – have prepared hundreds of servings of rice, beans and water every day, tossing them on to “La Bestia” as it rushes through their town.
The third award was for Representative Beto O’Rourke, who has been talking sense about migration since he arrived in Congress in 2013. Reflecting the compassion and common sense he has seen in El Paso, O’Rourke has challenged fellow members of Congress to consider what is it we fear from our neighbors to the south? In the last Congress he co-sponsored two bi-partisan bills with Rep. Stevan Pearce of New Mexico: H.R. 3431, called the “American Families United Act,” which offered several common-sense tweaks to immigration law to allow immigrant families to stay together, and H.R. 4303, the “Border Enforcement Accountability, Oversight and Community Engagement Act of 2014” to provide better standards and oversight for border enforcement. We look forward to their reintroduction in the 114th Congress, and to continued rational and compassionate leadership from Representative O’Rourke.
My journey to El Paso renewed my faith in fellow human beings who see suffering and act to ease the pain, who see practical needs, and move to meet them. National policy can be built on these human responses. It is not in our nature to ignore children fleeing violence or to draw hard lines of exclusion; we can figure out how to make this work.