The United States' reception of these migrants was never warm. Today it is overwhelmingly hostile. Steel fences topped with electrified barbed wire, guard dogs, and soldiers carrying high-powered rifles drive them ever farther from the ford, with many dying of dehydration, hypothermia, and heat stroke in the desert, or drowning in fast-flowing water downriver.
Still they come, driven by the will to survive and to create a future for their children. They pile up at the Pass that has become a STOP, about 2 million in Ciudad Juárez, most of them in shacks, unemployed, or working at maquiladora wages that provide less than half the minimum for a family of four. Violence against young women is rampant. At least one has disappeared each week since 1993. Only 250 of the corpses have been found and given Christian burial.
Some at all times have responded to the biblical imperative to welcome the alien, and one among these stands out. For over 25 years, Rubén García has personally welcomed 75,000 river crossers, given them food and shelter on their journeys. Today he runs three shelters in El Paso and two in Ciudad Juárez. He has never sought or received institutional support from either church or state. The money needed comes from the contributions of individuals who see the results. Some 500 long-term volunteers from many countries to the north and south have done the work. Last weekend Samuel Ruíz, bishop emeritus of San Cristobal, and other bishops of El Paso, Ciudad Juárez, and Las Cruces joined 1,500 people from many countries at a banquet where they were fed rice and beans. Present were 85 of the more than 400 volunteers who through the years, cooked the food, washed the linen, repaired the roofs, swept the floors, and cleaned and bound the wounds of desperate young men run over by trains or beaten up by robbers.
Many more would have come if they could. You need a pass to cross the bridge, and the Immigration Service gives passes only to people who can convince it they won't stay beyond their assigned time.
García started modestly, in every sense of the word. One of a very large family that had been in El Paso for several generations, he was the first to graduate from college. The family was understandably proud. Many members had sweat to enable him to achieve that goal. They looked forward to a career that would bring material benefit and prestige. And what did he choose?
"I came home," he says. "I wanted to be on the Border. It is an incredible place to see the world. It is where people rub up against each other, where cultures and economies meet. So I began to talk to a few of my friends, young people looking for a way of life with meaning."
After 18 months they reached an agreement. They wanted a place where they could live together in a house that could welcome the poor. So García went to the bishop of El Paso and asked him to give them the second floor of a diocesan building. "I want you to keep your hands off of it," he told the bishop. "In return, I won't ask you for any money."
The bishop bought it. Even then, García wouldn't take no for an answer. Five of them moved in February 3, 1978. Casa Anunciación was born.
How did the parents and extended family think of his throwing away the financial potential that had cost them so much to educate him? "My mother was at peace," he says. "My Dad, yes, I sensed disappointment."
El Paso had already two emergency shelters, but neither would accept undocumented migrants. Ruben and his friends did not agree. When someone knocked at the door, they asked no questions. But they listened to the stories, and they soon realized that the rules governing crossing were not only unfair in themselves but also in the way they were applied. Politics determined the decisions of la migra, the immigration services.
Shortly after Dictator Somoza of Nicaragua was overthrown in 1979, a party of 36 crossed the river, twelve men and 24 women and children. They were among the first we took in," García said. "Eleven of the men were colonels or generals, the twelfth a high-ranking intelligence agent. Within hours they were granted residence status. When Salvadorans fleeing death squads came, they were loaded on planes to return them to El Salvador. They were never allowed to even apply for asylum under the U.N. Convention to which the United States is a signatory."
That experience helped to clarify further their objective. While they rejected no comer, they would focus on those whose cry for help was ignored.
Opening it, García believes, can only solve conflict at the Border. The North American Free Trade Agreement provides for a free flow of goods and services between its members, but unlike the European Community, it does not allow free movement of people.
Opening the Border can be done in an orderly manner, he insists. "Many in the United States do not understand how critically related are the two countries. If the Border could be sealed, it would be disastrous for both parties. California's agriculture would collapse. Without the money the braceros send to their families, many more Mexican women and children would go to bed hungry.
"What is needed is to provide visas for the Mexicans needed in the fields and in the restaurant kitchens. They would not have to risk their lives to cross. They could form unions and demand just wages. Unscrupulous employers could no longer exploit them."
Many members of La Migra treat the migrants well, but many abuse them. Thanks to the constant monitoring by non-governmental organizations and other advocates, the situation is better than it was 20 years ago, García believes, but pressure must always be maintained. Lawsuits brought by pro bono lawyers are essential to help people who are incarcerated simply because they lack entry documents, to ensure that they are advised of their rights, that they have access to phones, that there are facilities for minors. Applicants for political asylum should not be incarcerated while in a process that can take a year or more to be decided.
Nothing less than a radical transformation of Mexico's economy can end the human flow northward, he says. "Of the 75,000 people we have welcomed, 70,000 have said they don't want to be here. People in the United States have to understand that history, geography, and economic reality tie us together.
The number of the undocumented in the United States has grown in a decade from under 3 million to 7 million, according to the INS. García and his volunteers need not fear being downsized.
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