By Sister Rosemary Vaske
(Editor’s note: Sister Rosemary Vaske, a member of St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant, accompanied other Franciscans to El Paso, Texas, earlier this year on a U.S./Mexico border immersion experience.)
We arrived in El Paso late Sunday afternoon in time for a lively Hispanic Mass and then drove over to Casa Alexia. Sister Fran Hicks, our guide and planner, told us that Casa Alexia is part of a joint ministry of the Latin American and U.S. provinces of the School Sisters of St. Francis that helps to realize their vision of a world transformed through peace, justice and love. Seven Sisters and their partners in mission are serving on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.
On Monday morning, Sr. Fran drove us to a “colonia,” an unincorporated piece of land where people can take up residency. This land has no structure in place. People may start with cardboard or a small building for shelter. Colonias start out with no water, electricity or telephone available, and no paved streets.
Non-potable water is delivered by trucks at a cost of $45 a load which is placed in a holding tank on the property. One family of four needed two truckloads a month plus water they could drink. The total water bill could be more than $100 a month.
As the people are able to work, they improve their dwelling place. They need to be careful because if their home looks too rich on the outside, their taxes will increase. Little by little, some streets are hard-topped or paved; electricity, phones and running water are added. People do what they can to improve the lives of their families. The Sisters, including Sr. Fran, have a trailer in one of the colonias where we shared a delicious meal. Several ladies were invited to share food with us and tell their stories, which were informative and heart-breaking.
We visited the Immigration Advocacy Center where Louie Gilot told us it is not easy, quick or cheap to become a U.S. citizen. The Mexican people would like to stay in their homeland, but crime, drugs and lack of work opportunities make it almost impossible to do so, we were told.
We also visited Centro Santa Catalins, a faith-based community founded in 1996 by the Dominican sisters for the spiritual education and economic empowerment of economically poor women of Mexico. The women take part in a four-year program that addresses values, faith, and personal and spiritual growth and development. Graduates of this program are now paid teachers.
At Annunciation House, a shelter for undocumented people, Ruben Garcia told us about the building’s history and outlined the history of migration in the U.S. At the Villa Maria House, operated by the Loretto Sisters, we learned about the home where single women in crisis dwell. They receive guidance and caring that help them work their way from crisis to self-sufficiency.
In Chaparral, N.M., we visited the Sisters of the Assumption in the largest colonia of 20,000 people. The five Sisters here provide educational and recreational programs for children and youth, advocate for immigrant rights, teach English as a Second Language at the community college, support families through parenting programs and work in prison ministry.
At the University of Texas, Professor Tony Payan talked about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and how it benefits the wealthy. He said Mexico spends more on education than any other developed country, but not all students receive a good education. Seven million people do not go to school or have job opportunities. Mexico has a regressive tax system and an inequitable distribution of wealth, he said. Those without job opportunities become involved in security issues, drug trafficking and gangs.
One of the last places we visited was the Southwest Key program, a privately operated detention center for immigrant children and youth. Families are held in separate centers, but do have visiting rights and every effort is made to reunite families. The center is a place of refuge and hope for these young people. Individual and group therapy is offered, in their native language if possible, to the many youngsters who have been physically or sexually abused as they journeyed here. Counseling is available for post-traumatic stress disorders and life skills are taught.
As I journeyed home, I wondered what I could do to make a difference for those brothers and sisters who are suffering because of our lack of a reformed immigration system!