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Doing mercy: what we have, what we give

| Wednesday, October 30, 2019

We went to the U.S.-Mexico border again today with food and drink and some other supplies. There are more than 2,000 families living in pup tents in the refugee camp in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, Mexico. These are all people who have not been allowed to cross into the United States.   

I met a priest from the Diocese of Matamoros, who is in charge of the pastoral care of migrants. While he did not scold us, he did tell us that as long as we (and other agencies) provide food and drink and supplies for the people, the refugees will stay there. Without intending to, they have disrupted life in Matamoros, which does not have the capacity to absorb the refugees. 

What to do? If we don’t provide food and drink and supplies, they could die. Or they could go back to where they travelled from — Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico. At this point, they will not go back. It took them a month or more to travel by foot or by bus or some combination of the two to get to the US..-Mexico border. There’s no way that they are going back after all that it took to get here. They are hopeful that they will be granted asylum by the United States. 

The situation is in a holding pattern. Will the “Remain in Mexico” policy be struck down? If so, will that happen in one month, or two years? Or will it not be struck down? At this point, no one knows quite what to do.

I don’t know what to do. What I do know is that I see more than 2,000 refugees living in squalor. And this is just one of many cities where this is happening all along the border. 

On Friday, I went to Matamoros to meet up with a group of medical professionals from New York. They would be spending the day treating people from the camp. They did not speak Spanish. Several of us went to translate.

What a sad day, listening to story after story. Rashes from living outside for weeks and months, bug bites, illnesses probably picked up from washing in the Rio Grande, where there is a dead horse floating around, anxiety and depression over not knowing the future.

I met so many people whose spouses had crossed over in July with one or two children. Now the other spouse and the remaining children were following with the same plan. Cross the border without papers, get arrested, ask for asylum, make contact with a family member somewhere in the United States, be taken to the Humanitarian Respite Center, get a bus ticket and be off to reunite with their spouse and other children. 

But all this has changed with the “Remain in Mexico” policy, which took effect three months ago. They will not be allowed to cross until this policy is struck down or changed. With all the attention in Congress on a possible impeachment, it seems that not much attention is given to anything else. So the refugees wait and wait and wait. The lot of the poor — wait, wait, wait. 

Many people who came to see the doctor spoke of having headaches. After some time it became clear to me that they are depressed and anxious. One man had just come from his court appearance in the tent room with the judge on television who hears the case. He was told to come back for another appointment in June, 2020. Can you imagine? This man walked to the U.S.-Mexico border from Honduras, has been here two months hoping to cross the border and meet up with his wife, and now he is told to come back for another appointment eight months from now. What will he do for eight months?

Had he been at the border three months earlier he would have crossed and still received a court date for June, 2020. He would have shown up in court in on that date and he would have been given another court date months after that. It would not have mattered so much, however, because he would have been with his family. He most likely would have landed a job. His kids would be in school. And the family would be together. Not now.

This is so terribly sad because, as I have said before, it does not have to be. The Church teaches us that people have the right to migrate when they are fleeing violence or poverty and looking for a better life for their family and children. The Church also teaches that nations have a right to control their borders. Somewhere between we have to find a solution. 

We live in a very wealthy country. We can take in many, many more people. President Trump has determined that the US will accept 18,000 immigrants this year. That is a ridiculously low number. At one point when the United States was much less prosperous, there were probably more than 18,000 Polish immigrants just in South Bend. This situation raises important questions about the relationship between generosity and wealth. Could it be that the more wealthy we are, the less generous we are? No wonder Jesus cautioned so often against piled up wealth. 

While working at the Respite Center, I met a family from Honduras. The mom gave birth to a boy three days before. And they were taking the bus from McAllen, Texas, to Los Angeles, where they would meet up with some family members. No doubt that family was allowed to enter the U.S. because the woman was nine months pregnant. The family was traveling without a penny in their pockets. Just the food and drink that the Respite Center gave them. 

A group of 13 students and Christian Santa Maria from Campus Ministry arrived Saturday night for a weeklong border immersion program sponsored by Campus Ministry and the Center for Social Concerns. On Sunday, we went to Brownsville and prayed outside the tent where refugees plead their case to the judge on the screen. Think “Judge Judy” or “The Wizard of Oz”!

I am embarrassed by the easy life that I have. I cannot imagine myself in the circumstances of one of these refugees. The privilege that I have in life is huge. May God grant me the grace to use this privilege to be completely at the service of the People of God.

Fr. Joe Corpora is spending one month of his fall sabbatical living and working at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Fr. Joe Corpora

Pastoral care coordinator, University of Notre Dame

Oct. 26

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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