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Dr. San Juana Mendoza (left) speaks with Mercy associate Barbara Quinlan-Geihl, Sister of Mercy Kathleen Erickson and Clara Lombardi of the Sisters of Mercy communications office at Clínica Cristo Rey in Juarez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso, Texas. Mendoza founded the clinic to provide low- and no-cost primary health care to residents of the Anapra neighborhood of Juarez.

Mercy sister leads border immersion tour

Recent experience builds understanding of immigrants’ struggles
Sister of Mercy Kathleen Erickson, who for more than two decades has been involved with educating people about immigration issues and ministering to immigrants detained on the U.S.-Mexican border, said controversy surrounding the topic is fostered by fear, a lack of knowledge, inequality among corporations and a struggle to know what to do.
 
And although President Donald Trump said he intends to deport more people living here illegally, build a wall to separate Mexico and the United States, and build more detention centers on the border, Sister Kathleen remains hopeful that with time and greater awareness, the issue of immigration won’t be so divisive.
 
That’s because she has seen firsthand the impact that border immersion experiences, particularly those co-sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and the Missionary Society of St. Columban, have had on people who have spent time on the border in El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. 
 
Retired and living in Omaha, 76-year-old Sister Kathleen has led those immersion experiences – most recently in November for about a dozen people, including Sisters of Mercy, their associates and students.
 
Participants visit a nonprofit in El Paso that provides services for immigrants and for people experiencing poverty, observe proceedings in immigration court, speak with border patrol agents and tour the border, visit with a diocesan migrant and refugee service or Las Americas legal services, and speak with people living on both sides of the border. 
 
“At this particular time in our history, when there is a real movement toward folding in on ourselves because we have our own problems in this country – economic problems and we are so polarized politically – I think it helps us realize how connected we all are,” Sister Kathleen said. “When people go to the border and see the kind of poverty that people are in and that it’s connected with some of our country’s policies … when they see and meet people who are trying to support their families and are just trying to survive, they realize that it’s so connected with how we live.”
 
VIOLENCE AND POVERTY
 
Brunella Bowditch, a biology professor at Georgian Court University, a Catholic university founded by the Sisters of Mercy in Lakewood Township, N.J., said the November border immersion experience helped her better understand the personal situations of people fleeing Mexico.
 
Life in Mexico, just across the border, is extremely dangerous and violent because of the demand for drugs, she said. Therefore, many mothers are trying to cross the border for safety and to keep their children out of gangs, Bowditch said. And many Mexican citizens working for American industries just inside the Mexican border are paid meager wages for the same work they would be doing in America, she said.
 
The experience “opened my eyes to the immigrant issue, and once sensitized to it, I also was able to be much more aware of those students who are currently suffering from political decisions that are being made in D.C.,” said Bowditch, who works with several students who were brought to the United States illegally as children and have since built their lives here.
 
BROKEN SYSTEM
 
Sister Kathleen first learned about U.S. involvement in Latin American countries when she joined a Witness for Peace trip to Nicaragua in 1985. That trip, she said, made her aware of the effect some U.S. policies have on other countries. 
 
In 1990, she went to Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala to study Spanish, and a year later moved to the U.S.-Mexican border near El Paso to work with immigrants and provide spiritual counseling to detained immigrant women. She returned to Omaha after 18 years, but in the spring of 2015, served as temporary chaplain for two months at the newly-constructed South Texas Family Residential Center, a detention center built for 2,300 women and children.
 
She said many of the detained mothers she has met over the years had small children at home, had been working, raising families, paying taxes and trying to do their best to be good citizens. Detained fathers shed tears as they talked about the children they loved and missed and might never see again, she said. And several immigrants had been held in detention for months, even years, she said. 
 
“I believe they are kept there because our immigration system is broken and back-logged, but also because the Department of Homeland Security has a huge budget and pays for-profit prison corporations a lot of money to hold immigrants,” Sister Kathleen said. “Most people don’t know that Congress approved a 32,000-bed quota, meaning our tax dollars pay for-profit prisons to hold that many immigrants in detention each day. There is no incentive to move them through the court system and either release or deport them.”
 
Sister Kathleen said other immigration issues include the United States’ history of recruiting workers from other countries when needed and wanting to deport them when their help is no longer needed; human rights; detention conditions; dealing with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder but are jailed instead of helped; the possible deportation of young people who were brought here as children, known as Dreamers; and people who were given protected status due to natural disasters or violence in their home countries.  
 
POLITICAL, SPIRITUAL SOLUTIONS
 
Alternatives to detention centers and deportation are possible, Sister Kathleen said. For example, people recruited and hired by U.S. companies should be protected, allowed to work and given at least residency, she said. And people who are seeking asylum according to international agreement should be given the opportunity to share their stories and explain why they are fleeing for their lives, she said.
 
“They should be helped, not detained or deported,” Sister Kathleen said.
 
On a whole different level, though, Sister Kathleen believes immigration is a spiritual issue for the human race.
 
Jesus’ message about inclusion, loving your neighbor – whether he is next door or in another country – is getting lost, she said. 
 
“We are called as humans to bring out the best in everyone. God’s love has no borders,” she said. “This immersion experience invites us to really try to open ourselves to being more empathetic and seeing how we are connected.” 

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