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Border pilgrimage puts immigration questions in focus

Border Pilgrimage

For the past six years, the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona has organized a pilgrimage to the U.S.-Mexico border. The intention of this trip is to give faith groups an opportunity to witness firsthand the local impact of illegal migration into our country and consider the consequences of our government’s response for the undocumented and the nation. Members of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity, including Fr. John Denaro and Colleen and Sven Heemeyer, participated in the border pilgrimage that took place May 6-8. Colleen Heemeyer offers these reflections of her experience on this journey. ~Fr. Denaro

In early May Sven and I had the opportunity to accompany Fr. Denaro on a three-day visit to the Arizona-Mexico border on a ―Witness Trip‖. Sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, the trip was designed to show participants what is taking place on both sides of the border. Regardless of anyone’s particular feelings on the issue of immigration, it’s a big one, and as we become an increasingly mobile and aware world, it will become more and more difficult to pretend that our current system works well.

In our two-and-a-half days we met people who were working to assist those recently released from immigration detention centers (including over 1,000 children). We visited a coffee-roasting facility in Agua Prieta, in the Mexican state of Sonora, an example of grassroots economic development. We saw a health center for residents of Naco, also in Sonora, that was built through the efforts of Americans passionate about helping their neighbors. We met an American man who worked to keep a series of water tanks filled, on the Mexican side of the border, in order to limit some of the danger faced by those who make the desert crossing.

It was interesting to contrast these small, but effective, efforts with that of our federal government. The presence of Homeland Security in Southern Arizona looms large: the enormous security buildup along the border, border patrol members quartered at our hotel, the miles of steel pillars intended to keep people out, and the checkpoint about 50 miles north of the border. It is impossible to ignore how much money we as a nation are spending on this enforcement.

Is the enforcement really working? As the saying goes, if you have to ask, then you aren’t paying attention. Our group visited briefly with a group of four men at a shelter in Naco. Each had been recently deported from the United States, each left families and jobs behind, and each was contemplating reentering the United States illegally. Higher fences just mean higher ladders. To what extent is this enforcement encouraging the very underground economy and exploitation it purports to deter? And, to what extent do we, as citizens and legal residents of the United States, benefit from this situation? Statistics about how much undocumented immigrants contribute to our economy (in contrast to the amount they consume in public services) are readily available, so I will not repeat them here. Suffice it to say, we Americans come out ahead.

Sven and I had to leave early on Sunday to catch a flight back to New York. We missed the discussion with community members in Douglas who live daily with the effects of illegal immigration and undocumented migrants. To an extent, we do the same in Brooklyn, and I would have found the exchange of the experiences and opinions informative (and probably also infuriating!). Ultimately, I witnessed quite a lot, but I left Arizona with more questions than answers.

Colleen Heemeyer

Photo credit: Rev. John Denaro A coffee-roasting facility in Agua Prieta, in the Mexican state of Sonora operated by local Presbyterians

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