NOGALES, Mexico – For years, Catholic-led, U.S.-based nonprofits have been at the forefront of efforts to support migrants and asylum seekers along the Mexican border. Tough new border policies, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, have drastically changed their work, much of which now takes place in Mexico.
The once heavy flow of undocumented border-crossers has dwindled as the Trump administration enforces a new virus-related ban on top of its Migration Protection Protocols that already had forced thousands of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico.
The virus outbreak has prompted one migrant support agency, the Kino Border Initiative, to temporarily close its office in Nogales, Arizona. But it is committed to maintaining operations across the border, where it aids asylum seekers congregating in Nogales, Mexico, after being barred from the U.S.
“There is some resistance to this ministry of migrants and refugees,” said Jesuit priest Sean Carroll, who heads the agency. “But our sense of the common good doesn’t stop at the border. We’re all human beings.”
Earlier this year, before the coronavirus gained global attention, Carroll’s agency opened a spacious new migrant outreach center just inside the Mexican border. Carroll – who works full time in Mexico – hoped to expand a twice-daily meal service that had been offered to hundreds of asylum seekers at a deteriorating cafeteria across the street from the center.
Now, amid worries about COVID-19, neither venue is being used as a dining hall. Instead, migrants line up outside the two buildings and approach the doors one at a time to get a meal served into a cup and bowl.
Carroll also has canceled the Masses that formerly were held in the cafeteria and has asked his long-term volunteers to stop reporting for duty, leaving only a small permanent staff in place. He recently appealed for donors to send hospital masks, rubber gloves, anti-bacterial gel and other medical supplies.
“We are serving with great courage and diligence in the face of very difficult circumstances,” he wrote in that appeal.
There are some similar circumstances for the Hope Border Institute, based in El Paso, Texas, and run by Catholic activist Dylan Corbett.
Across the border in Juárez, Mexico, thousands of asylum-seekers have been living in shelters and squalid camps, waiting for a chance to enter the U.S.
Corbett says his agency is trying to find the best ways of supporting those migrants, including some being denied accommodation at shelters now quarantined because of COVID-19.
“The burden of need has shifted dramatically over to Juárez, yet for a lot of people it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “There’s so much suffering on the other side, but when the eyes of the nation are no longer on the border, it’s incredibly difficult.”
The Trump administration has justified the new border policy as necessary to minimize the risk of coronavirus exposure in dealings between undocumented migrants and U.S. government personnel.
“We’re trying to limit the amount of contact we have with these individuals,” said Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security.
One of the most prominent Catholic migrant-rights activists along the border is Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs a respite center for beleaguered migrants in McAllen, Texas.
At a time when many Roman Catholic dioceses were distracted by financial problems, school closures and ripple effects of the clergy sex-abuse crisis, she became widely known for her passionate advocacy and often traveled to far-flung speaking engagements.
The respite center, which she operates on behalf of Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Brownsville, is far less busy than it used to be,
“Most of the problem has been swept under the rug,” said Pimentel, interviewed in the near-empty reception room. “It hasn’t been solved – just pushed to the other side of the border.”
While Pimentel and Carroll are supported by some high-ranking Catholics, they’re frustrated that some people in the church give a higher priority to anti-abortion activism than to the migrants’ plight.
“We talk about being pro-life, and we’re OK returning families to places where they could be killed?” Pimentel said. “We need to hold our fellow Catholics more accountable.”
Perhaps the most outspoken bishop along the border has been Mark Seitz of El Paso. Last year, he ventured into Juárez, prayed for migrants’ well-being, then accompanied a family of Honduran asylum seekers to the U.S. entry point.
“Standing here at the U.S.-Mexico border, how do we begin to diagnose the soul of our country?” Seitz said at the time. “A government and society which view fleeing children and families as threats. A government which treats children in U.S. custody worse than animals.”
Many Hispanic Catholics in the U.S. are deeply invested in the immigration debate because they belong to mixed-status families – some relatives have legal immigration status while others do not.
Even in heavily Hispanic dioceses, views on immigration are not monolithic. Some priests and bishops rarely evoke the migrants’ plight; some parishioners resent the resources directed toward them by the church.
“We know our house of faith is divided,” said Gerald Kicanas, the bishop emeritus of Tucson, Arizona. “The vast majority who are struggling with this issue are just frightened. They feel they’re being overwhelmed.”
In Brownsville, Texas, a few parishes are issuing photo ID cards to undocumented immigrants verifying their parish membership. Local law enforcement agencies have agreed to recognize the IDs, potentially sparing some immigrants from being jailed and deported.
St. Eugene de Mazenod Church, which serves a parish of low- to moderate-income Hispanics, is spearheading the ID program. But its Spanish-speaking Anglo pastor, Kevin Collins, says most Brownsville parishes aren’t interested.
“They don’t want anything to do with that kind of social justice,” he said.
In Nogales, Sean Carroll is determined to speak out – he recently assailed the Trump administration’s move to immediately send asylum-seekers and other undocumented migrants back to Mexico.
“The administration has been continually focused on ways to stoke fear of migrants,” Carroll wrote. “The latest announcement uses the pandemic as a pretext to advance its dangerous goals.”