[Episcopal News Service – Nogales, Mexico] On a hillside in the Colonia Buena Vista section of Nogales, Mexico, asylum-seekers, many forced to flee violence and persecution in Mexico, Central America, Haiti and Cuba, find much-needed safety and rest at La Casa de Misericordia y de Todas Las Naciones, The House of Mercy for All The Nations.
Click here for more information on how to support Cruzando Fronteras or to arrange a visit or volunteer at La Casa de Misericordia y de Todas Las Naciones.
“La Casa, in addition to being a place of respite and restoration, is also a place of story, a sacred and holy space shaped by the stories migrants share,” the Rev. David Chavez, the Diocese of Arizona’s canon for border ministries, told Episcopal News Service.
“Most stories detail the dizzying experiences of leaving ‘mi tierra natal, the land of my birth,’ fleeing physical, emotional and psychological threats and violence; leaving to be with loved ones; fleeing as the result of the devastation brought about by climate change.”
All of it takes its toll, and unfortunately, the violence, the threats and the terror don’t end when migrants flee their home country. It continues along the journey.
“Many migrants experience kidnappings, theft, rape and physical assaults at the hands of criminal gangs,” he added. “And, at times, migrants are met by communities of welcome.”
La Casa is one such place where single mothers with children, families and some single men spend about a month or two while their initial asylum applications are processed. Chavez routinely visits the shelter, which is just across the border from Nogales, Arizona. He also serves on the steering committee Cruzando Fronteras, or Crossing Borders, an ecumenical coalition among the Diocese of Arizona, the Grand Canyon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Southwestern Conference of the United Church of Christ.
The shelter is run by Angelica “Lika” Macias, a former Roman Catholic nun. She began serving migrants out of her home back in 1998 when she heard a group was living in a nearby cemetery. From there, her ministry later moved to an apartment complex and, in 2020, to its current location.
On Jan. 11, 10 Province VIII bishops visited the shelter as part of their annual January retreat, held this year in Tucson, to learn about the migrants and the lawyers, teachers, psychologists and others who offer them support during a critical part of their journey.
“I was grateful that the bishops of Province VIII could visit La Casa, because we want to tell the story of what’s happening here unfiltered through news media. … You can come here and see for yourself what’s going on with the border crisis, what’s going on with immigrants, what is going on with people seeking shelter and safety,” said the Rt. Rev. Jennifer Reddall, bishop of the Diocese of Arizona.
The shelter consists of seven buildings – dormitories, a kitchen and cafeteria, classrooms and indoor and outdoor recreational spaces, including a basketball court and children’s playground. It has a 180-person capacity, though throughout the pandemic Sonora’s health department limited it to 120 individuals. Cruzando Fronteras raises about $160,000 annually through its faith communities and writing grants in support of the shelter’s operational costs. Primary and secondary education is provided for children, and vocational training — to become plumbers, electricians, estheticians and elder care workers — is provided for adults. The state of Sonora provides teachers, whose salaries are paid by Save the Children. The international Jewish humanitarian aid society HIAS provides an immigration attorney and a psychologist.
“We are the public face, but we don’t do this on our own. There’s support from many behind the scenes,” Macias explained in Spanish through an interpreter. “Every person that crosses is a person headed toward safety.”
Earlier in the week, La Casa celebrated as a group of 20 Venezuelan men and one Guatemalan woman were able to cross the border and continue the asylum process. They were sent to Casa Alitas and other shelters in Tucson, where they stay until they work out the logistics of the next stage of their journey. At the same time, Macias explained, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol expels between 200 and 300 migrants a day at the port of entry in Nogales.
“This is a crucial time in our shelter, especially with the new rules,” Macias said. “Right now every individual on campus needs to be registered in the asylum process by today.”
In the 2022 fiscal year, Border Patrol encountered 1.7 million migrants trying illegally to enter the United States, the highest number since at least 1960, though just higher than the 1.6 million encountered in 2000, according to government data. Of the people trying to cross, 64% are single adults, though the number of unaccompanied children, 147,000, and families, 479,000, remains high.
On Jan. 5, the Biden administration announced a far-reaching strategy aimed at discouraging migrants from entering the United States, including limiting the number of asylum seekers from Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Haiti to 30,000 per country per month, depending on their financial means and their ability to navigate an online application system and pass background checks.
“Large numbers of migrants are arriving to the U.S. southern border every day, and while state and local governments and NGOs are stepping up, migrants are subject to a seemingly ever-changing policy landscape at the U.S. border that delays or outright denies their rightful opportunity to seek asylum,” Lindsey Warburton, a policy advisor in The Episcopal Church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations, wrote in an email to ENS.
“Right now, we are anticipating the impact of President Biden’s recently announced asylum and enforcement measures, as well as the Supreme Court’s consideration of the legality Title 42 public health policy. Through all of these policy changes, the Office of Government Relations continues to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform that will protect vulnerable asylum seekers and manage our border. We commend the ministries and communities around our church and elsewhere who are caring for migrants.”
La Casa serves migrants who are attempting to enter the U.S. through the asylum process. Since April, staff and volunteers helped 1,500 migrants to navigate the process and enter the country, where they are mostly reunited with family members living across the nation.
A map of the United States with pushpins indicating where migrants are headed hangs on the wall of the shelter’s administrative office. The pins indicate the majority reunite with families in states on the Pacific, Gulf and Atlantic coasts, along with northern cities like Chicago and clusters in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and West Virginia.
The crisis at the border is not confined to border states; it’s a nationwide issue, Reddall said.
“It’s not just the states that are on the border that are going to be necessary to address it and fix it; it’s going to take representatives of all 50 states, it’s going to take citizens and all 50 states speaking out about what is going on here and, hopefully, eventually, coming to some sort of comprehensive immigration policy that will make this process easier for asylum seekers and for others,” she said.
And, Reddall said, it’s going to take continued support for shelters like La Casa that provide comprehensive services to migrants.
A 30-foot wall of vertical steel slats defines much of the 1,954-mile U.S.-Mexico border, though there are gaps in the wall where migrants are known to cross. The region extends beyond the wall, 60 miles north into the United States, where border agents make random stops at checkpoints along interstates and highways and where volunteers patrol the desert in search of lost migrants, leaving water for those who may be lost or stranded.
“Coming to the borderlands in the Diocese of Arizona is a way of cultivating listening first,” Chavez said. “It’s an invitation for people to listen first, to listen to the stories of migrants and the people working and volunteering in the shelter to help them on their journey.
“It can shape their awareness of migrants living in their home communities and ways they can accompany and advocate for their wellbeing and the wellbeing of their families.”
San Joaquin Bishop David Rice wanted to visit the shelter to inform further the work he and others in his diocese are doing to raise awareness about and empower immigrants in his Fresno, California-based diocese. One of the first things he did when he became bishop a decade ago was to establish SJRAISE, an immigration commission.
“We’ve been working for nine years in this commission … becoming familiar with some of the most marginalized people in my diocese, and also beginning to respond to needs as they’re expressed to us,” Rice said. “We’re in the paddocks, in the fields, in the pastures with farmworkers every week, many of whom I’m presuming, came through places like this, which is just one of the reasons I wanted to see it.”
California’s Central Valley is considered one of the world’s “breadbaskets,” Rice said. Its population along with that of the High Sierra region is 45-65% Latino. “Many of those people have come from Central and South America and have left families behind for a myriad of reasons.”
Just over two hours west of Fresno, in the Salinas-based Diocese of El Camino Real, the situation is similar.
“We have a lot of people who live in California, work seasonally in California, in our parishes … who come from here … and have made this border crossing; they’re the ones who have successfully followed the asylum process and been able to do that,” El Camino Real Bishop Lucinda Beth Ashby said.
What struck her, she said, is how many people are working to help asylum seekers navigate the application process and to prepare them for life and work in the United States, and yet some still do not make it.
“That is the most striking part; the heartbreak of that is incredible. And yet at the same time, this place sends people forth with hope that it can, and that’s what I find here, the hope that it can, that it can happen,” Ashby said. “Although I have worked with immigrant populations before people … this is the first time I’ve stood in this place where it’s right on the edge, and so I think that what it helps me to realize is that there is always hope and it comes in the unexpected places. And that as a church we have a role in maintaining that hope, and trying again, and trying again, with people who live in hope,”
“In our diocese, we give a lot of support to shelter in Mexicali, which is just south of Calexico,” San Diego Bishop Susan Snook told ENS. “We do that in conjunction with a group of Roman Catholic Sisters. It’s not as big a facility and it doesn’t have the kind of legal support the kind of organization on both sides of the border. So, I’m inspired to think about how we could support people in that way on both sides. We’re also looking to expand our ministries to support migrants in Tijuana, which is just south of San Diego.”
Other bishops who made the journey included Oregon Bishop Diana Akiyama, Eastern Oregon Bishop Patrick W. Bell, Nevada Bishop Elizabeth Bonforte Gardner, Northern California Bishop Megan Traquair, Idaho Bishop Joseph “Jos” Tharakan and Utah Bishop Phyllis Spiegel.
“This all started in someone’s house because they saw a need [and] they are asking us to share their story,” Spiegel said, following the visit.
She will share the shelter’s story, she said, but it also begs the diocese to ask: “Where are we seeing the need? What is required of us but to do justice and love mercy? And what does that look like when we put our feet and our hearts in our hand and our money and our resources and our time to it?”
–Lynette Wilson is a reporter and managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.