As 2017 came to an end, it seemed like just about every organization in the country was busy publishing their top ten lists for the year. Now that things have calmed down a bit and we are well into the new year, I thought I would share my list of the words that have dominated the lives of those who lived here at the Casa del Migrante during the past year.
Despite all the rhetoric and President Trump’s promise to pursue mass deportations, in 2017, the number of deportees at the Casa fell 30 percent in comparison to 2016. This trend is holding steady in 2018. However, we are seeing a definite increase of deportees in two specific categories: those with serious mental problems and persons over 65 years of age. We also recently learned that the United States is in talks with Mexico about deporting to Mexico all those who entered the United States through Mexico. We hope and pray this never comes to light because it would be a real disaster for life here at the border.
Violence in Mexico and particularly along its northern border climbed at an alarming rate in 2017. The numbers are astounding: at least 29,000 were victims of homicide in Mexico in this past year, and Tijuana emerged as one of the most violent cities with an average of over 100 murders per month.
This harsh reality has made life difficult for all, but in a unique way, it terrorizes migrants who often have little or no safety nets beyond the Casa del Migrante. In times like this, we would like to turn to the police for protection, but their reputation for corruption and violence towards immigrants precedes them and very few people trust them.
There is no doubt that President Trump has been the most polarizing figure for those living at the border. On March 12th, he came to visit the border and what was a hopeless situation became ever more depressing. To his way of thinking, immigrants are “bad hombres” at the root of all that is wrong with the United States, and they constitute a major roadblock to “making America great again.” As a candidate who claimed he was all about family values, Trump as president has been a one man wrecking crew bent on separating and uprooting good families all over the United States. This is bad enough, but the damage caused by the borders and walls he has constructed in people’s hearts will take generations to change.
We are now into the second year of the Trump administration and of course there is no big, beautiful wall. However, we do have a bunch of prototypes staring us in the face as we traverse the Otay Mesa border crossing. It is shameful and painfully embarrassing that the land of the free and the home of the brave has stooped to this level. We can do much better than wasting so much money on a structure that will do very little to stem the tide of people crossing the border without the proper documentation. I thought that was as low as we could go, but then, on February 22, 2018, I read that US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has decided to remove from its mission statement the phrase that the United States is a “nation of immigrants.” Once again, we can see that not all the walls being built are physical structures, but many will leave deep moral scars for years to come in the hearts of many people.
This past year the Casa del Migrante commemorated 30 years of service to over 250,000 migrants here at the border. When we started back in 1987 we were the only one doing this kind of radical hospitality. Today I am happy to say that there are probably over 200 Casas for migrants in Mexico alone. On our thirtieth anniversary, we published a book called Vida en Vilo (“Lives in Limbo”) for two basic reasons: 1) to pay homage to those who contributed to the Casa’s journey over these 30 years; and, 2) to give a voice to the migrants who often have no voice. The heart of the book is 130 pages of testimony from migrants and refugees. Their words will inspire us to keep our doors open for as long as it takes.
If you hang around the Casa for any length of time, you will soon realize that volunteerism is alive and well. Volunteers – both resident (internal) and external – keep the Casa going 365 days a year. During our 30-year history, we have had over 400 internal volunteers from about 30 countries who gave between three months and a year of service to their migrant brothers. Without their commitment, the Casa could not go on day after day. No one who comes to serve at the Casa walks away the same as they entered. Being a volunteer here changes you forever and for the better.
At times, I think that the word “generosity” is a forgotten ideal. Jesus taught his disciples a large lesson about generosity when he astonished them with the miracle of the loaves and fishes. He wanted to remind them that in the journey of life we must all share what we have with others who have less. The reality of shared generosity is something we have experienced in a big way during this past year. The miracle of the loaves and fishes regularly recurs. It seems we always have more than enough to eat. The generosity of people never ceases to amaze me. People will often ask me: Father, how does the Casa survive day to day? I always respond the same way: In the past 30-years we have developed a great system of support for the Casa but when all is said and done we survive because it is the poor taking care of the poor. The generosity we have experienced at the Casa is truly inspirational.
I often refer to the Casa del Migrante as a mission of mercy that is driven by missionaries of mercy. In 2017, we were privileged to share Gods mercy with over 7,000 people from ten different countries. It is not always easy to be missionaries of mercy, but it has become clear to me that we thrive because we have been blessed with a great staff and wonderful volunteers who are truly committed to being agents of God’s mercy. On a regular basis, we are inspired by the words of Pope Francis who recently said: Mercy requires not only an end to suffering but an ongoing commitment to human dignity. At the Casa del Migrante the merciful promotion of human dignity is what we do best. It is the heart of our mission.
One evening during the 2017 celebration of the Posadas, a visitor remarked to me: The migrants certainly have great spirit here at the Casa. When migrants walk through the doors of the Casa they are often sad and depressed about how life has treated them. However, after a couple of days their spirits are lifted and they begin to see life with new eyes. We strive to promote a spirit of joy in all we do and say. It often becomes contagious: you see people laughing and living life with a new spirit of positivism that keeps them going down the path of light rather than being consumed by the path of darkness.
At the core of the Christian faith is the word “hope.” It is what the Casa has been about during its entire existence and it is a virtue we try to instill in people’s lives every day. People arrive depressed and desperate, and we offer them the hope of a new life and a fresh start. In a recent conversation a fellow volunteer put it best when she said: The Casa del Migrante is place for second opportunities.
The Casa del Migrante has been a wonderful place for the last 30 years. Its light of hope shines from the top of the hill in a place called Colonial Postal. I take pause to thank all those who have shared in our story and ask God’s blessing as we continue to be a beacon of hope to all those who cross the threshold of our door every day.