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Catholics at the U.S.-Mexico border: ‘Too many people to help, but someone has to’

By Peter Pinedo/Catholic News Agency

As the political debate rages over how to manage a new surge of migrants, Catholics like Rosario Reynolds living along the U.S.-Mexico border face a more personal dilemma: how to respond to desperate new arrivals they encounter in their communities and churches every day.

Reynolds, a 64-year-old public school teacher for deaf students in El Paso, Texas, told CNA that she doesn’t know what the right response to the border crisis is on a government level.

But as Catholics, she firmly believes, “we have a responsibility to help.”

Reynolds and her husband, Michael, have done what they can. She taught a deaf migrant American Sign Language. He drove a young man across the state to reunite him with his brother and U.S. sponsor.

“The family reunion was so beautiful. It was just the right thing to do, what we did,” she said. “I feel like that was what God was calling us to do.”

Yet there is only so much Reynolds feels she can do in the face of such incredible need.

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Last year, 2.76 million migrants crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, according to U.S. government estimates — the most ever recorded in U.S. history.

Authorities expect the crisis to only worsen now because of last week’s expiration of Title 42, a health law that allowed migrants to be automatically turned back at the border.

In Washington, D.C., in a narrow 219-213 vote, the U.S. House of Representatives on May 11 passed the Secure the Border Act of 2023, which mandates the completion of a border wall and other measures aimed at ramping up border security.

The measure has very little chance of passing in the majority Democrat Senate and President Joe Biden has already vowed to veto it. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) strongly condemned the bill, calling it “extreme” and its passage “beyond justification.”

Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, both of whom are Catholic, have issued emergency orders and deployed troops to enforce border security.

On Friday, the U.S. bishops representing border dioceses from San Diego to Brownsville issued a statement emphasizing the need to respond to the crisis with “a humanitarian heart that beats with fraternal compassion for those in need.”

“Daily, we witness the human consequences of migration, both its blessings and its challenges,” the bishops said. “We are each bound by a universal call to serve one another and to protect the sanctity of human life in all its forms.”

But acting on that call is a daily challenge for border residents like Reynolds, who fears many of the migrants who will come will not be able to find the help and care they are hoping for.

“It’s going to impact the city greatly, and also those coming over,” she said. “I don’t think the city is prepared to receive them. Yes, there are shelters in place, there are different federal, local, and state help in place, but it’s not enough.”

Though many migrants come across genuinely looking for a better life, it is impossible to differentiate these from criminals and cartel members looking to take advantage of others’ generosity.

Raul Cruz, who has spent significant amounts of time at the border as a volunteer with national humanitarian aid group United Cajun Navy, told CNA that some residents who have offered a helping hand have been taken advantage of.

“I was talking to a gentleman a little while ago, he’s a property owner [in Reynosa], he’s trying to help out these immigrants by letting them stay on his property, but even he said, ‘You know what, I try to give them water, I try to do stuff for them, but if I don’t watch it, they’ll steal my broom, they’ll steal my sandals, they’ll steal anything that’s there,’” shared Cruz. “That’s just that one person, and he’s trying to help them out and they’re still stealing from him.”

In large part, these communities along the border are primarily Hispanic, majority Catholic, and though they have by in large responded with incredible generosity, they are by no means wealthy.

The median household income in El Paso, one of the largest cities on the southern border and one of those most heavily impacted by the migrant crisis, is about $51,000, well below the national average household income, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“This is one of the poorest sectors of the United States,” Father Raphael Garcia, an El Paso parish priest, told CNA.

Despite the region’s relative poverty, Garcia said, “I think it’s very much part of the people’s DNA, it’s part of the people’s consciousness that migration is a reality and that family separation is painful, and so I think the people here are very much aware and sensitive and very welcoming to people who are migrating and fleeing violence and injustice.”

Garcia told CNA that his parish, Sacred Heart in downtown El Paso, responded to the need by opening a migrant shelter last December.

Though it can house about 120, Sacred Heart made headlines last Monday, as a viral video showed hundreds of migrants camping out all around the church. The shelter has been regularly filled over capacity with around 1,200 arriving at its doors when the video was taken.

“When we’ve had these large numbers, we’ve focused on [sheltering] women and children, we just cannot help everybody,” Garcia said.

With the dramatic rise in border crossings has come an increase in human trafficking as well.

Steven Bansbach, a spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), told CNA that “over the past year [border authorities] coordinated the largest surge of resources and disruptive activities against human smuggling networks in recent memory.”

“CBP is targeting and disrupting transnational criminal organizations and smugglers who take advantage of and profit from vulnerable migrants,” Bansbach said. “Smuggling organizations are abandoning migrants in remote and dangerous areas, leading to a rise in the number of rescues CBP is asked to perform.”

“When migrants cross the border illegally, they put their lives in peril,” Bansbach added.

On both sides of the border, migrants continue to face squalid, inhumane, and unsafe living conditions.

On March 27, a migrant holding facility in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, caught fire, killing 39 migrants.

Neither is it safe once they’ve crossed into the United States. On May 7, eight migrants waiting for a bus were killed by a speeding SUV just outside the Bishop Enrique San Pedro Ozanam Center, a shelter affiliated with Catholic Charities.

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in the far-southern tip of the U.S.-Mexico border, told CNA that despite the surging numbers of migrants, her work is focused on “helping restore human dignity.”

Pimentel helps operate the McAllen Humanitarian Respite Center, which was founded by the Diocese of Brownsville in 2014 specifically to respond to the migrant crisis that even then was already growing.

“Our Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen can accommodate up to 1,000 people. We are working with local parishes and organizations to accommodate more people as needed,” Pimental said.

Yet, there are some, such as Ben Bergquam, an investigative journalist and founder of the conservative group Frontline America, who have criticized Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley and accused it of encouraging and incentivizing migrants to break the law by crossing illegally.

Bergquam has spent extensive time at the border speaking with migrants on the ground. According to Bergquam, the ones that profit most from an open border are the cartels.

“The cartel, a criminal organization obviously, is making billions of dollars because of our policies,” Bergquam told CNA. “You allow lawlessness and lawlessness is what you get.”

“There are people who support Catholic Charities who I don’t think realize what Catholic Charities is doing, they basically aid and abet the cartels by providing support for the idea of open borders,” Bergquam said.

The cartels, long a major source of chaos and violence in Mexico, have been seizing on the crisis to spread their influence and power at the expense of both migrants and border communities.

On Wednesday, a video surfaced online of shots ringing out in an apparent confrontation between Mexican authorities and cartel members on the Texas-Mexico border at the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge.

Last June, a semi-truck jam-packed with 51 dead migrants was discovered close to San Antonio during the height of the Texas summer heat. Though investigations were launched, there have still been no answers as to who was responsible for smuggling these immigrants with no regard for their safety or lives.

Tragically, that was no one-off occurrence. U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz revealed in a tweet May 9 that border authorities rescued 146 migrants from a similar fate in freight cars two weekends ago.

“These are people who are looking for a better opportunity in life,” Maria Teresa de Jesus, a resident of Edinburg, Texas, told CNA.

“We all are created by one God for the good of each other,” said De Jesus, 64, who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager herself. “As a believer and Christian Catholic, [I believe] our lives should overflow with everlasting mercy, love, and compassion for each other since we all are pilgrims in this world.”

Reynolds and her husband share the same convictions, but the scope of the crisis can be overwhelming at times.

“It’s too many people to help, but somebody has to help them somewhere,” she said.

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