Joanne Castner

On June 27, we learned of the horrific deaths of 53 migrants whose bodies were discovered near Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. They died without water, without air conditioning, trapped inside a semi-trailer on a day when the outside temperature was over 100 degrees.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Chris Magnus declared, “This speaks to the desperation of migrants who would put their lives in the hands of callous human smugglers who show no regard for human life.”

I recently returned from a one-week immersion trip to El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. I wanted to see for myself what conditions were like at our southern border.

I’d seen the pictures and heard the news reports of caravans with hordes of migrants coming to invade our country; criminals constantly attempting to sneak past border police; and tent cities spreading out along the Rio Grande.

These people were dangerous, I’d been told, and we needed to control their entry into the United States in order to protect our country.

Was this really the truth? I wanted to know.

These are some of the things I learned during my time at the border:

Prior to 1996, Mexicans and Americans flowed freely back and forth over our southern border. Crossing the border to visit family, work or shop was like crossing the street. It was essentially viewed as one region, not two separate countries.

Then U.S. law changed. Documentation was required to cross the border. A first violation of crossing without the necessary papers is a misdemeanor; the second is a felony charge (hence our ability to call migrants “criminals”). Families found themselves separated by that invisible dividing line between the two countries.

The advocacy group Border Network for Human Rights in El Paso decided that it needed to do something to help separated families. In 2016, it held the first #HugsNotWalls event. Families from both sides of the border were invited to register for the event, which was arranged in conjunction with the U.S. and Mexican governments, as well as with the border police.

On a designated day, hundreds of families gathered on either bank of the Rio Grande, and 15 families at a time were permitted to clamber down into the dry riverbed to hug their loved ones — for three minutes. Then their time was up, and the next 15 families took their turn. We watched a Netflix documentary called “A 3 Minute Hug.” It is well worth 28 minutes of your time.

We learned from Anna Hey, an immigration attorney in El Paso, that our immigration system has been broken for years. The backlog for immigrants attempting to enter our country legally is now measured not in years, but in decades. According to the U.S. Department of State, some Mexican migrants whose cases were finally approved in May had filed their paperwork in January 2000.

Part of the problem is a shortage of federal judges to hear the cases. And part of it seems to be that our will to clear the backlog is just not there.

There has also been the use of Title 42 during the COVID-19 pandemic to deny migrants entry into the U.S. The Biden administration, citing the availability of vaccines, boosters and testing, attempted to end Title 42 in May. The matter is now in the courts.

This leads me to a disturbing image I beheld as we crossed from Juarez back into El Paso over the International Bridge. Halfway across the bridge, flags from the two countries wave proudly. However, 10 feet from where U.S. territory begins, there is a massive tangle of razor wire blocking pedestrians from setting foot on U.S. soil, and an armed guard stands beside it.

Although by law people from other countries are permitted to seek asylum when they step onto American soil, U.S. policy has been to deny individuals the ability to reach that soil.

The most powerful experience for me during this trip was our excursion to the border wall. We drove to a barren stretch of desert in New Mexico. The temperature was close to 100 degrees. We climbed out of the van and there before us stood the wall — a rust-colored, 30-foot-high behemoth stretching from one end of the horizon to the other, overpowering the landscape.

As we approached, children on the other side came running and stretched their hands through the slats of the wall, reaching for us. Some of our group spoke Spanish and began talking with the children.

I was overcome with feelings of guilt and complicity. As an American, I share responsibility for the presence of this wall that separates us, keeping those who seek only a better life for themselves and their families trapped on the other side.

On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Biden administration can end “Remain in Mexico,” a Trump-era policy that required asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for hearings in U.S. immigration courts.

This is welcome news to those who work with immigrants and asylum-seekers at the southern border; but there is more to be done. These individuals and families will need a safe and humane welcome. There must be an end to the detention and criminalization of those seeking asylum.

I saw much suffering and pain at the border; but also met many individuals whose unwavering commitment to helping others was deeply moving. I am committed to sharing my experiences with anyone who is willing to listen. If you know of a local group that might be interested in the PowerPoint I’ve put together, please contact me at joannecastner@gmail.com.

Joanne Castner journeyed to the southern border with the Sisters of Mercy Justice team. She is a retired school counselor who is currently training to be a spiritual director. She lives in Manheim Township.

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