PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — When I Was A Stranger, You Welcomed Me

What would you do if, all of a sudden,  your city was overwhelmed with desperate people? They gave everything they had to get to your city  to legally claim asylum, fleeing violence and government oppression and starvation due to climate change. But after claiming asylum and being held in the “ice box” detention center for up to to 30 days before being released, they were dropped off on the street with no guidance or direction, traumatized by the violence of their trip and their treatment when they entered the U.S. They have relatives and family here but no way to move on to the next step in the journey.

Suddenly, your city is overwhelmed with people who gave everything they had to get here, fleeing violence and government oppression and starvation due to climate change, and they have no place to go as they wait.

If you are the city of El Paso, you respond with love, decency and compassion.

On the third day of our visit to the border, we had a chance to meet Bishop Mark Seitz, the Catholic bishop of El Paso, a humble, kind and faithful man of God.

He began his conversation with us by remarking about the difference between the border community he serves in El Paso and the border community served by our group leader, Bishop Terry Brandt, of the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the ELCA. His diocese borders Mexico, where there is a drive to build a huge wall, and Bishop Brandt’s synod borders Canada, where there is no call for a wall. Bishop Seitz said that the difference between these locations reveals so much  about the borders and barriers in our minds that we need to break down — the fear of the other and those who don’t look like us.

Bishop Seitz has served as bishop for six years, and he shared the changes that occurred during his tenure. When he started, he said most of the undocumented people were young males who came across the border under the radar and worked in the U.S. with the goal of sending money home to help support their families.

Things changed in 2014, when the violence in Central America increased. In the years prior to that, there was actually negative migration, with more people returning to Mexico than crossing to the U.S.

The struggles in Central America center on the gangs, which are more powerful than the government. But Bishop Seitz said that the focus of the U.S. in dealing with the issues in the past few years has been completely off-base. Rather than focus on solving the problem at their root, and supporting the Central Amercan countries economic development, we have poured U.S. dollars into stopping people from crossing the border and providing a military presence at the border. By neglecting to attend to the root issues, the border crisis grows broader and deeper, as more people flee untenable violence.

Bishop Mark Seitz, the Catholic bishop of El Paso, iterally opened up his home to asylum seekers.
Bishop Mark Seitz, the Catholic bishop of El Paso, iterally opened up his home to asylum seekers.

The crisis truly ballooned in November 2018, when the number of people crossing the border rose to 800 people a day. The bishop said that in a matter of days the church had to figure out what to do about this humanitarian crisis, as people were literally being dropped off in El Paso with nothing.

The church responded with an act of faith. It turned a classroom retreat center in a shelter at the pastoral center, which housed the bishop’s office. Bishop Seitz literally opened up his home to asylum seekers. The bishop said that he trusted that El Paso was a place of welcome and that is what they were.

The people of El Paso saw the need, heard the call and showed up. They felt that God was asking them to take care of asylum seekers, so they provided them with food, clothing and lodging. Volunteers came forward and helped do what they could to be the hands and feel of Christ to these people who literally had nothing.

Things have changed since June. Numbers have dropped from 1, 000 to 1,200 a day to perhaps 200 a day. Now the U.S. meters how many people can come across in a day. The numbers are often related to how many detention beds are needed to fill for the for-profit corporations that contract with the U.S. government to house asylum seekers or to detain unaccompanied minors.

When the quota of beds is filled, the numbers allowed to enter the U.S. are cut off.

The bishop said they were overwhelmed by the number of migrants, but added that when things changed, the people were sad because they wanted to help people who were seeking asylum to get a better life. He now said his main concern is the 20,000 people being forced to stay in Juarez until they had their asylum hearing. He described Juarez as one of the most dangerous places in the world. His hope is to work with nuns to find more people to go to Juarez to live and support those seeking asylum.

Bishop Seitz went on to talk about about the dangers of the rhetoric that buys into the primal fear of “the other.” He said that the Aug. 3 massacre clarified for anyone with eyes to see that the anti-immigrant sentiment is racism. People who claim “we are for legal immigration” are really racist and use that statement as a shield. It is a cover for their racist sentiments.

He told us that after the massacre it was apparent to everyone that the  simple truth is the system is designed to keep brown-skinned people out of the U.S. What has transpired in the U.S. in the past few years is that people have been given licence to act with cruelty because of the anti-immigtation political screeds. The man who shot those people in Walmart had his hatred justified by people who made hate acceptable.

But Bishop Seitz assured us El Paso won’t let the acts of Aug. 3 define the good people of El Paso. Instead, they will be defined by their response to strangers in their midst and their willingness to reach out and care. El Paso is a town who shows up to care and no one can take that identity away from them.

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