Immigrant Families Welcome Pope Francis at Border Fence

Immigrant families gather at the border fence in Sunland Park, New Mexico (Maria Esquinca)

Immigrant families gather at the border fence in Sunland Park, New Mexico (Maria Esquinca)

The loud, steady beat of a drum ricochets through the air, while matachines sway their bodies to the rhythm of its sound. In front of them, immigrant families stand within inches of each other at the border fence that separates the U.S. and Mexico. Their voices pierce through the music, through the gaps in the chain-link fence, as they say goodbye to each other.

Fernanda Gallegos, 10 years old, clings to the fence and holds the hands of her 16-year-old cousin Kevin Mojica for the first time in her life. Her other cousins push pesos through the fence, a memorabilia for her to keep until they meet again. They promise to get their visas, so they can see her. Then, they say goodbye and leave.

“Es doloroso,” Gallegos says. It’s painful.

Gallegos and her cousins aren’t alone. Hundreds of immigrant families from El Paso, Juárez and southern New Mexico gathered at the border fence in Sunland Park on Monday to welcome Pope Francis to the border. The pontiff will visit Juárez on Wednesday, the last stop of his Mexican tour.

The Border Network for Human Rights organized the event, which included a public reading in English and Spanish of a letter sent to Pope Francis on behalf of immigrant families in El Paso and southern New Mexico. The letter was sent to the Pope a few weeks ago and received by him the same day of the event, while he was in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas. Signed by hundreds of family members, the letter asks the Pope to talk about immigrant families in his speech, and to pray for immigrant families around the world.

“We ask that you direct your voice and message to the powers to be that enact powers that criminalize and oppresses us,” the letter states.

“Before he came came, we knew it was important that he listened to the voices of our families in the border,” says Fernando Garcia, the executive director of the BNHR.

After the letter is read out loud by representatives from the BNHR, hundreds of white and red balloons are released into the air. The white balloons symbolize dignity, happiness and hope, while the red balloons symbolize suffering, death, abuse and separation. “And now, we are going to release [the balloons] to send a message that immigrants in this border stand for a better life, and we are going to fight against abuse and death,” Garcia says.

The event also includes a prayer by Padre Francisco. People also speak out about the reasons they immigrated to the U.S., the abuses they’ve encountered by immigration officials, and how immigration policies have affected them.

Rosa Mejilla, a political asylum speaker discusses the violence in Mexico. In 2012 she applied for asylum after her brother and sister went missing. She says she started investigating and asking questions at the Municipal Court’s office in Mexico, after which someone attempted to murder her. Some of her family members stayed in Mexico.

(Maria Esquinca)

(Maria Esquinca)

The Journal for Migration and Human Security reports that in 2013 Mexico was the second highest aslym-producing country, yet the grant rate for Mexican asylum claims fell from 23 percent to nine percent between 2008 and 2013.

“There are times when I have nightmares,” Mejilla says. “It takes a physical and emotional toll thinking about what’s going to happen, what will happen in the future, what the immigration judge is going to decide, if he will deport you or not.”

Norma Alvarado was detained in an immigration detention center with her daughters and her husband.  “There were four of us, and we were in a very small cell. We couldn’t breath. It was really cold,” she says.

Marta Alonso speaks about her son who was deported seven years ago. He was detained because of a broken tail light and then deported. He was raised and lived in the U.S. for most of his life. “We can’t see them. We can’t hug them. We can’t bless them, like I used to every night before my son would go to sleep,” Alonso says.

Data by U.S Immigrations and Customs Enforcement reveals that the Obama administration deported a record 409,849 unauthorized immigrants in fiscal year 2012. Critics have dubbed him the “deporter in chief.” However, in 2015 deportations scaled down to 235,413. More people have been deported under President Obama’s administration than were under George W. Bush.

“There needs to be a real solution to the immigrant situation. There needs to be a new law that recongnizes the millions of people that are here,” Galindo says.

After the event ends, few people are left. The white and green trucks of U.S. Customs and Border Protection linger on the U.S. side of the border, while the sleek, black Mexican police cars are parked on Anapra, a poor colony in Juárez, on the Mexican side of the border.

Albania Rivas, 19 years old, and her aunt Gloria Rivas, 53 years old, stand next to each other. They are one of the few people left standing on the Juárez side of the fence, after most of the crowd has dissipated. Albania came to see her brother and uncles who migrated to the U.S. to look for jobs.

“It feels ugly to be divided by the fence. One wishes you could stretch it and feel the love,” Gloria says.

One of Albania’s brothers migrated to the U.S. with a tourist visa, but it expired. She wanted to get a visa, too, but it costs 5,000 pesos, or almost $270. The current daily minimum wage in Mexico is 70.10 pesos, or $4.19. They say applying for a visa is risky because it can be rejected. But they hope to apply for one soon.

“Nosotros no somos delicuentes,” Albania says. We are not criminals.

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Maria Esquinca is a a social justice reporter. Through her writing she hopes to raise awareness about issues that affect her community while accurately capturing the complexity of la frontera. You can follow her @m_esquinca.

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