Recently I was given a unique opportunity to taste some of the bitter hardships endured by fellow human beings fleeing drug-gang violence, oppressive poverty and economic injustice south of the U.S. border.
The day after a talk I gave at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Parish in Tucson, Arizona, I entered into a migrant immersion experience starting with a team of Tucson Samaritans.
These Samaritans are a faith-based group who regularly patrol very remote areas of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. They leave jugs of life-saving water along hot rugged terrain traveled by very poor migrant children, women and men seeking a safe, decent place to live in the U.S.
Because there are relatively few legal visas issued annually by the U.S. government for much needed low-skilled laborers, undocumented migrant workers are forced to dangerously trek through the desert hoping to reach a U.S. workplace.
My journey with the Samaritans took me close to the U.S.-Mexico border.
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Donning backpacks loaded with first-aid supplies, water and nutritional food bars, we hiked four hours up into the Las Guijas Mountains looking for unchartered migrant trails.
On top of a 4,000-foot steep desert mountaintop, we paused to try to determine where our overgrown trail continued.
As I looked out in all directions, I could easily imagine many of the dangers facing me if I were a migrant — running out of water, having heat stroke or hypothermia, being bitten by a rattlesnake, taking a debilitating fall, being disoriented and getting lost.
The next day at the federal courthouse in Tucson, I attend an immigration hearing of arrested migrants prosecuted under the federal program "Operation Streamline," which tries migrant cases quickly, in large groups, with only brief access to legal counsel.
That day, 14 migrants were given between 30- and 180-day prison sentences ending in deportation.
The third day, together with a few migrant ministry volunteers, I crossed the border into Nogales, Mexico, visiting the Catholic operated Kino Border Initiative which provides essential humanitarian assistance to deported children, women and men.
Before leaving Nogales I touched "the wall" — the approximately 25-foot-high steel barrier blocking people from crossing in either direction. It looks and feels unholy.
Over 2,500 migrants have died trying to walk around the wall and through the unforgiving Arizona Sonoran desert.
Finally, I participated in a desert cross planting.
About 20 of us traveled to Cochise, Arizona, where we planted a cross and prayed for Ramon Contreras Ramos, 36, who perished nearby trying to make his way through the desert. Ramon was a poor Mexican carpenter who had a wife and two small children.
Anyone or any group seeking to experience an eye-opening, enriching migrant immersion experience similar to mine, can contact Fr. Bill Remmel at email@example.com.
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Compassionate, just, comprehensive immigration reform legislation is desperately needed.
While journeying along a desert mountain migrant trail, a Tucson Samaritan volunteer handed me a little girl's broken hair barrette he found. It's now sitting on my desk. And as I write this column, every so often I pause to look at it and hold it.
I sure hope that little girl made it.
And I hope that we will commit to becoming a deeply welcoming society to all those in need; so that my new little friend, and all the needy migrants like her, will never again be forced to walk dangerous, unjust paths to a better life.
[Tony Magliano is an internationally syndicated social justice and peace columnist, who is available to speak at diocesan or parish gatherings about Catholic social teaching. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
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