South Bend Civic Theatre hosts event discussing immigration
Claire Reid | Monday, March 28, 2022
The South Bend Civic Theatre hosted a Common Good Immigration event Thursday night featuring local immigration activists and speakers from Vote Common Good — an organization dedicated to encouraging and mobilizing Catholic and evangelical voters to support policies and candidates that they believe benefit the less fortunate. The organization also trains Democratic candidates to connect with these religious voters.
Doug Pagitt, a pastor and the executive director and co-founder of Vote Common Good, shared stories and footage from his upcoming documentary, We the People Ride. The documentary, slated for release this fall, will tell the story of Pagitt and his team’s 3,156 mile bike ride along the U.S.-Mexico border. The 67-day ride took place last fall, and the team rode from San Diego, California to St. Augustine, Florida, visiting activists, workers and everyday people in both the U.S. and Mexico who live, work and serve others along the border.
“Our primary effort is to take the stories that we learned along the border and share them with people around the United States, especially in places where political opinion about the border can really have an impact on who we are as a country and who represents us,” Pagitt said.
On the ride, Pagitt said he and his team met with everyone they could, including migrants, ranchers, border patrol officers and people who had nearly died trying to cross the border in the desert.
“We slept outside in tents, sometimes in hotels, sometimes in RV parks,” he said. “We were doing all we could to keep ourselves aware and attentive, knowing … that whatever kind of difficulty we were having, it was nowhere close to the experience of people who had to cross our borderlands and make their way through the desert.”
In September, Pagitt’s team rode through Sasabe, Mexico, a border town with a population of approximately 2,500. There, they met Dora Rodriguez, the executive director of Salvavision, an Arizona-based organization that operates the Casa de la Esperanza Center in Sasabe.
At the event Thursday, Rodriguez said that after migrants and asylum seekers are arrested and detained by U.S. border patrol in the process of attempting to cross the border, they are often deported to Sasabe even though the tiny town lacks the resources to accommodate them.
“I have witnessed 150 people being deported every single day to a town where there’s no medical help,” she said. “There are no resources, there is no transportation, even for the local people. There is no hospital, no shelters, nothing.”
Salvavision opened the Casa de la Esperanza Center last spring to meet the needs of migrants passing through Sasabe as they traverse through the Sonoran Desert either on their way to the United States or because they have been deported. Rodriguez said many people, including children and families, arrive at the center with their belongings in plastic bags, large blisters from deteriorated or absent shoes and thorns embedded in their skin.
“Now we have a center that provides their dignity back,” she said. “We provide showers, hot meals, change of clothes, a phone call to their loved ones. If they want to go back home, we provide them with the bus ticket to go back home because so many of them are ready to be done.”
After Rodriguez finished speaking, Alma Ruth — an immigrant from Mexico and the founder and director of the Practice Mercy Foundation, a Christian organization serving women and children along the Texas-Mexico border — took the stage. Pagitt’s team met Ruth at the Mexican side of the border near McAllen, Texas, where she helps run a refugee camp for migrant women and children.
Many people at the refugee camp are asylum seekers escaping violence and hope to seek refuge in the United States. Ruth said U.S. law states that asylum seekers cannot apply for asylum until they are on U.S. soil. However, the refugee camp is near an international bridge where U.S. border patrol agents are stationed. In order to cross the bridge, a person must have specific documentation that asylum seekers typically lack. Ruth’s organization helps many of these women navigate the immigration process and connect with immigration attorneys. Ruth condemned current border policies and said voting is the best way to change them.
“We created them, we can change them,” she said, addressing the audience. “You guys can vote. Please do something about it. I’m a recent immigrant. I have to wait [to vote] … you can help me make a difference.”
Ruth was followed by Jesusa Rivera, a local community organizer and case manager at Proteus Inc. where she advocates for migrant farm workers in Indiana to ensure they are safe in the fields and protected from mistreatment, abuse and exploitation. Rivera’s parents were migrant farm workers from Mexico, and she said she joined them working in the fields at only eight years old. Now a mother and grandmother, she said she still encounters young children working alongside their parents.
“This last summer … we came upon a group picking strawberries early in the morning,” she said. “As we walked into the field, there’s a group of children running back and forth … we began to talk to the families. I asked, and they said [this girl] was only seven years old picking strawberries. So enjoy that strawberry shortcake!”
Rivera also discussed her work with undocumented immigrants in South Bend. She was part of a social justice initiative that led to the creation of the South Bend Community Resident ID card, an identification document for use within the city limits for undocumented immigrants unable to obtain a U.S. identification card or driver’s license. La Casa de Amistad, South Bend’s Hispanic community center, has continued to develop the program.
Juan Constantino, executive director of La Casa de Amistad, spoke after Rivera and said his team helped expand the city ID program to five Indiana cities. He also described the many services and programs La Casa offers for South Bend’s Spanish-speaking residents including a bilingual preschool, summer camps, tutoring, resumé workshops and English and citizenship classes.
October will mark 49 years of La Casa serving the local community. It recently moved from an 8,000 square foot facility to a 41,000 square foot one. Constantino said in the old facility, his team served about 6,000 people every year. This January alone, he said they were able to serve 5,500 people because the additional space allowed for more programming. Due to La Casa’s rapid growth, Constantino said many people ask him how they can help the Hispanic and immigrant communities.
“Showing up isn’t enough. Wearing a pin isn’t enough,” he said. “Changing your filter on Facebook isn’t enough, but rather a life of advocacy, not just a moment … may get us to where we need to go to support our community because the work never stops.”