Columbus, Ga. — It was a moment that got people's attention. Maryknoll Sr. Jean Fallon told a group of her fellow Maryknollers at the annual SOA Watch gathering to cease and desist using the word migrant to describe the masses of Latin Americans who have fled their countries in search of a better -- and safer -- life in the United States.
"The majority are now refugees," said Fallon, who worked at the United Nations as part of the Maryknoll Office for* Global Concerns. "There might be a few migrants among them, but the majority now are refugees, and the United Nations said they are refugees."
Fallon was among the approximately 2,000 people who came to southwest Georgia Nov. 20-22 for the 26th* annual gathering of SOA Watch at the gates of Ft. Benning, where the U.S. Army operates the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). Formerly called the School of the Americas, WHINSEC is a military training school for Latin American soldiers, some of whom have been implicated in human rights abuses and murders in their native countries.
The first SOA Watch gathering was held at Ft. Benning in November of 1990 to commemorate the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and a mother and her daughter at the University of Central America in El Salvador. El Salvadoran soldiers trained at the SOA were implicated in those murders.
On Saturday morning, the SOA Watch group also marched on the gates of the Stewart Detention Center, a for-profit prison in Lumpkin, Ga. The prison holds up to 1,800 immigrants, many of whom have been charged with minor crimes often related to their immigration status. Because of their undocumented status, the Stewart prisoners have no due process rights, similar to the status of U.S. prisoners at Guantanamo, Cuba. Eleven people were detained and released after crossing onto detention center property.
In an expected announcement, SOA Watch founder Fr. Roy Bourgeois said the group was planning to change its focus from Ft. Benning to the U.S.-Mexican border to address the plight of Latin Americans refugees who are fleeing increasingly dangerous conditions, especially those escaping violence in the "northern triangle" of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Bourgeois quoted from a story published in USA Today, which said Central American immigrants, most fleeing violence in their native countries, now outnumbered Mexicans who are crossing the border into the United States. Hundreds of thousands, including last year's estimated 700,000 unaccompanied minors, are leaving increasingly violent nations behind causing a backlog of immigrants seeking asylum. The USA Today report confirmed what Fallon said, that most Latin American immigrants were in fact refugees.
In speeches throughout the weekend, Bourgeois stated the "urgent need" to take SOA Watch to the border. In a speech Sunday during the large rally and memorial funeral procession outside the Ft. Benning gate, Bourgeois said SOA Watch "will move to the border to organize alongside partner organizations who also actively oppose the militarization off the border."
Bourgeois said SOA Watch had spent the last year in discernment about the move, seeking feedback from scores of supporters. When he asked El Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren what SOA Watch could do "to better express our solidarity with the people of El Salvador," Bourgeois said Ceren said: "I would like for you to make the plight of the migrants (and) immigration a top priority in your work, in your movement."
Bourgeois also credited Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump with "helping our cause" because his frequent anti-immigrant comments have opened doors to discussing the plight of undocumented people living in the United States.
Bourgeois said the U.S. Army had also started a new program to train U.S. Border Patrol agents at WHINSEC, which Bourgeois said SOA Watch would continue to monitor. "We will follow you to the border and we will watch you," he said.
"We're not going to abandon our work here or at the Stewart Detention Center, but we've got to go to the border," Bourgeois said. "There's an urgency here. We cannot wait for another year. There is an urgency about this connection to immigration and the plight of the migrants."
In recent weeks, SOA Watch field organizer María Luisa Rosal spent time on a "listening tour" at the border to see where the needs are for SOA Watch to join with other groups. Plans are still in the works, but Bourgeois said "El Paso, Texas, was a possibility" for next year's gathering. Another possibility is Nogales, Ariz., near Tucson*.
Bourgeois told NCR he felt affirmed by the feedback he had received during the weekend in support of the move to the border. He noted that Veterans for Peace, a major supporter of SOA Watch, addressed the move in a meeting of more than 50 members Saturday in Columbus, Ga., and reached consensus to support the decision.
Bourgeois said SOA Watch does not have the resources or staff to coordinate two major events. The Ft. Benning gathering will still happen, but with less resources to support it.
"It's going to be a big gathering on the border, and here a more simple gatheringa, a smaller gathering," he said. "We feel we have to be here. This is a sacred place here ... where the martyrs have brought us and where we will continue to remember them. We'll keep their memories alive."
While plans are still in the works, Bourgeois said next year's gathering at the border would likely happen in October, just before the 2016 presidential election. The Ft. Benning gathering would still happen the weekend before Thanksgiving.
"The details have to be worked out. Stay tuned," he said.
*An earlier version of this story misspelled Tucson, incorrectly cited this year's gathering as the 25th gathering, and included an inaccurate title for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.
[Patrick O’Neill is a longtime NCR contributor.]