Working for human rights and human dignity at the border - Maryknoll Lay Missioners
Home » U.S.-Mexico Border » Working for human rights and human dignity at the border

Heidi Cerneka on the El Paso side of the Paso del Norte Bridge, one of the busiest ports of entry from Mexico to the U.S.

I was recently asked, “How do you see your work as responding to fundamental human dignity and the need to protect human rights?”

Christianity demands justice. Christianity demands our attention and direct action on behalf of any who are denied life in abundance. Concretely, Jesus tells us to love our neighbor, and the Good Samaritan is a clear metaphor reminding us that our neighbor is not only the person we know and love. We are to welcome the stranger (migrant), visit the sick, and free the imprisoned.

I take that literally. Working with migrants in immigration jail, locked up simply because they are asking for protection from the U.S. through asylum, demands that I defend their safety and their rights as guaranteed by U.S. law and U.S. legal obligations to international law. But the call to human rights and human dignity demands that we work for infinitely more than minimum conditions or survival. Human dignity refers to respect, access to justice, and life in abundance (Jn 10:10).

I am an asylum and immigration attorney at the El Paso border with the Mexican city of Juárez. My ministry here is not only to defend asylum seekers and give them a less unfair chance in immigration court, but to really see them as (often) vulnerable, traumatized people who left behind everything they know — their home, family, language, culture — to ask for protection from the United States. I want them to know that I hear and see them and that I defend each person individually.

At the same time, I speak to churches, schools, community groups (and anyone who will listen) to inform and invite people to also really see the realities of Elizabeth and Yussif and Ruben. Pope Francis says, “This need for justice and solidarity has a special significance for us Christians, because the Gospel itself invites us to turn our gaze to the least of our brothers and sisters, to be moved to compassion and to concretely commit ourselves to alleviate their suffering.” I couldn’t agree more.

Heidi Cerneka
Heidi Cerneka, a Maryknoll lay missioner since 1996, is an immigration attorney. She currently works on a Migration, Women and Human Trafficking Project at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas; and at the Instituto Terra, Trabalho e Cidadania (ITTC) in São Paulo, Brazil