Responding to the ever-changing needs at the border - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
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Lent 2023 newsletter


Debbie Northern, U.S.-Mexico Border

Border fence near El Paso

I returned to El Paso at the beginning of the year, at the same time migrants were flooding the city, hoping for an end to Title 42 so they could apply for asylum. With legal access denied, migrants, who had spent months or years trying to get to the U.S. to escape dangerous situations, came into the country by other means. However, without the documentation given to migrants that permits them to travel in the U.S., these particular migrants were stuck.

The focal point of where the migrants gathered was the church I attend downtown, Sacred Heart. Hundreds of migrants, mostly from Venezuela, were staying outside on the church property and inside at night in the gym. Churches and nonprofit organizations again stepped up to provide for their needs.

Even though the number of migrants has dropped more recently, the plight of people fleeing in order to survive is unchanged. What is needed is a comprehensive immigration reform that takes into account the current realities of where people are coming from and why they are leaving their country of origin. Unfortunately, migrants are used as political pawns and not treated as human beings who have the right to ask for asylum and to seek a means to survive. A new initiative that lets migrants apply for asylum on an app may help speed up the process, but there are still problems since the app is in English and many of the applicants do not know English.

As part of the Encuentro Project immersion programs, we have a local historian explain how racism has fed into the immigration narrative here at the border for centuries. Mexican workers were said to be bringing disease into the country and for decades were “deloused” by requiring them to take disinfectant baths and spraying them with DDT and other noxious chemicals. The rhetoric against immigrants who are brown and black is based on this same stigma today.

One of El Paso’s newer shelters is at Holy Family Parish, where the Encuentro Groups prepare an evening meal and get to engage with the migrants. This is the shelter that I recently began to help out whenever I can. It is a smaller shelter that can house about 50 people for a short-term stay in what was the parish hall.

We continue to have a good number of the Encuentro Project immersion trips coming to El Paso. The groups get a good look at the situation here from a variety of perspectives and return to their schools, parishes and communities with information that they can share to combat the often-false narratives that are expressed in different media.

With Fr. Richard Rohr, fellow missioners Heidi Cerneka and Deirdre Griffin, and returned missioner Carol Zuccarino

Shortly after the holidays, the popular spirituality author Father Richard Rohr came to El Paso. Father Richard is a friend of Father Rafael Garcia, the pastor of Sacred Heart Church and administrator of the Encuentro Project. He visited here to see first-hand the outreach to migrants at the parish. Father Rafael invited a number of us to spend time speaking with Father Richard, which was a real treat!

On Feb. 15, there was another shooting at the mall where the Walmart is located, which was the site of the horrific mass shooting three and a half years ago. This event did not get the national coverage because it was an altercation and not a deliberate attempt to kill migrants. But the shooting shook the community, which still hasn’t healed from the earlier event, and it once again raises the question of our obsession with guns.

I continue to thank each of you for your prayers and financial support. The situation here at the border changes quickly, so we often do not know what to expect. We will continue to help the migrants, especially through advocacy, to make sure they are treated fairly and that their stories are heard.

Please consider joining our circle of COMPANIONS IN MISSION. Companions in Mission are generous donors, like you, who give financial gifts on a regular (usually monthly) basis. For more information visit  Become a Companion in MissionThank you so much for your generosity!

Debbie Northern
Based in El Paso, Texas, Debbie Northern leads border immersion experiences with the Encuentro Project and assists migrants at shelters in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.