For eight days, the Rev. Moira Ahearne, of Merrick’s Community Presbyterian Church, saw for herself the trials and tribulations that asylum-seekers face daily at the U.S.-Mexico border. She ate homemade tortillas alongside migrants at a resource center in Agua Prieta, Mexico, toured overcrowded tent cities rife with misery and felt the eerie, omnipresent eyes of the drug cartels that control the area watching her.
Ahearne’s trip was one of several that Frontera de Cristo, a Presbyterian border ministry, sponsors each year to build relationships and understanding among religious and secular organizations on both sides of the border.
“Our focus area is how to respond in faith to the realities of migration and drug culture, and not fear,” said Mark Adams, a mission coordinator with Frontera de Cristo. “It’s always [about] the reality that we’re one humanity.”
Ahearne, 59, traveled with a delegation from the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Manhattan Oct. 12 to 19. Their itinerary included meals with families seeking asylum, a border infrastructure tour, a walk in the Sonoran Desert, service projects and daily biblical reflections.
“We [read] parts of scripture that talk about how foreigners are to be treated,” Ahearne said, “and we were reflecting on them as we were meeting migrants — as we were understanding the complexity of the situation at the border. There aren’t really easy answers.”
Endemic poverty, gang violence and cartel shakedowns force tens of thousands of Mexicans and Central and South Americans to flee their homes each year for the relative safety of the United States. In Agua Prieta, a port of entry on the border, families and individuals seeking asylum are given numbers, Ahearne explained. “They’re only allowed to enter the United States when their number comes up,” she said, “which could be anywhere from six months to two years.”
Once a migrant’s number enters the top 20 applicants, he or she is moved to a tent city. Twenty people are “crammed” into each tent, Ahearne said, adding that there is no heat, nowhere to go to the bathroom and no place to shower.
For recourse, migrants can go to a nearby Migrant Resource Center. In one of the centers, Ahearne met a family from Southern Mexico who fled to escape gang violence. The mother showed Ahearne pictures of their neighborhood, with scenes of houses that had been shot out and cars that were bombed. The migrant also told Ahearne that some children were kidnapped.
Ahearne also met Ada, another migrant from southern Mexico. Ada had worked as a maid cleaning houses for 20 pesos, or $1.05, a month. She now works at a factory in Northern Mexico, earning 20 pesos a week. Her husband, Roberto, worked undocumented in the United States so the family could build a proper house when he returned.
“If people stepped inside a home from someone in this community, they would never complain about their own housing again,” Ahearne said. “Our houses are like palaces in comparison.”
Ada was a fixture of the trip. She cooked the delegation breakfast in the kitchen of Lirio de los Valles, a Presbyterian church, and taught the visitors how to make tortillas from scratch. “We were exposed to their humanity,” Ahearne said, “their hopes and dreams as ordinary people.”
“Covering the border — getting beyond the bluster, a panel discussion,” hosted by the Press Club of Long Island, examined the proposition that most Americans don’t understand the history behind the chaos and the deep-seated economic issues south of the U.S. border, which trap people in marginalized lives. The panel emphasized that conservative thinkers believe that individuals from Central and South America and Mexico should get in line with everyone else coming to the United States legally, rather than crossing the border as undocumented immigrants. But saving money for a visa can be a life- or-death situation for migrants who face the possibility of murder or rape by members of narco-gangs. So they flee for a better life in America, living in the shadows in an underground economy in which they are often subject to abuse.
Adams said she hopes is that the rhetoric of fear surrounding migrants and the border can be curbed through the kind of cultural exchange facilitated by Frontera’s delegation program. “To have these folks come and be open to sharing life and ministry gives a very different message to the people on this side of the border,” Adams said. “They’re going out of their comfort zone to learn and enter into relationships with folks that they’ve been told are dangerous.”
“It has opened my eyes to understanding that the migrant’s journey is a hazardous one,” Ahearne said, “and nobody makes that kind of sacrifice unless they’re in real danger or in real need of something.”
In speaking with asylum-seekers about their impressions of America, Ahearne heard one sentiment expressed “over and over,” she said. “They still believe that this is a land of immigrants. There was this belief that ‘once someone understands and hears what I’ve been through and lived through, they’re gonna accept me.’ And we should understand their story.”
Ahearne said she believed the cartel system was a bigger issue than individual migrants, and that framing the conversation in a more compassionate, open and respectful way could lead to progress.
“We need to understand that poor people have a right to try to make something of their lives,” she said. “I would wish for our country that we can move to a place where we can dialogue with compassion for all the parties involved. And if we can do that, maybe we can find there are other solutions than building a 30-foot wall.”
For more information about Ahearne’s trip and Frontera’s mission, visit www.fronteradecristo.org.
Scott Brinton contributed to this story.