In the spirit of the Holy Week, activists and organizations on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border honor the legacy of the Sanctuary Movement by continuing to organize in solidarity with undocumented immigrants.
In the 1980s, the Sanctuary Movement created a network of churches and safe houses throughout North America to aid those seeking political asylum from U.S. backed military coups in Latin America.
“We gather this afternoon, much like all the past years, to form solidarity with our migrant brothers and sisters, who fight our fight,” said Father Prisciliano Peraza, as he began an annual mass in Altar, Sonora on March 12.
The rebirth of the New Sanctuary Movement, the provision of humanitarian aid in the desert, and vigils and walks along the border wall, are examples of faith-based organizations — mostly from a liberation theology tradition — maintaining a prominent role in organizing with undocumented communities.
On the U.S. side of Nogales — a town bisected by the border wall, half in Arizona and half in Sonora, Mexico — is a public charter school called the Mexicayotl Academy that focuses on ethnic studies and specifically Mexican identity, an especially decolonial endeavor in a state committed to banning ethnic studies. According to Baltazar “Balty” Garcia, a co-founder of Mexicayotl, “the border was once a place to come together and build community, not a place of separation.”
It is without doubt that the border wall, along with the policies that construct and sustain it, has separated thousands from family and freedom — as well as life and liberty — since 9/11 when militarization of the border increased tremendously. However, as is the case in both Israel-Palestine and the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, the grave injustices perpetuated by border walls incite bold action and those who answer that call to gather in solidarity with frontline communities.
Preaching from a mobile wooden altar in the desert of Altar, Father Prisciliano proclaimed, “It’s a farce to talk about globalization … laws that give free transit to objects, but that marginalize people.” He continued to describe how capitalism, and in particular the North American Free Trade Agreement, have destroyed Mexico, and therefore represent the root cause of migration north. Behind him, a crescent of white crosses towered above, reading “women migrants,” “disintegrated families,” and “Migrant pilgrim of faith and hope.”
This is not an everyday occurrence in Altar, but rather an annual ceremony in which faith and humanitarian organizations, along with their allies, march to honor the thousands of people who have died in the weaponized terrain of the Sonoran desert while attempting to cross into the United States. “Death as deterrence,” as Tucson-based activist and journalist Gabe Schivone called it, is indicative of failed immigration policies.
As the dead were honored, the living were blessed. Many among the crowd would soon depart from Altar and continue their migration north across the desert.
Located 60 miles south of the border, the town of Altar has become a sanctuary. By the time migrants reach here, many have already endured the long journey from Central America. As documented in Juan Gonzalez’s book “Harvest of Empire,” economic hardships and violence created by a legacy of U.S. imperialism coerced their migration north. This is certainly the case with present-day Honduras, which is where a dramatic influx of women and children have fled. Many are currently detained in inhumane and overcrowded make-shift detention camps and private prisons in Texas and Arizona.
Altar is a prominent launching point for migration across the Sonoran desert. The town has experienced a significant amount of economic growth because as a result, with numerous shops carrying equipment for the trek.
The events of that day began with a more formal mass in cathedral-style church in the center of Altar. Hundreds gathered as Father Prisiliano and women of the church led in a prayer: “Save our migrant brothers and sisters, that live the new modern slavery.”
Each person then picked up a cross to carry with the name of someone who had died in the desert. Two men on their migration north picked up a larger white cross reading “A church without borders.” In a Christ-like image, they led the march carrying the cross on their shoulders and back.
The first stop was Centro Comunitario De Atencion al Migrante y Necesitado, or CCAMYN, a faith-based humanitarian organization that provides food and shelter to migrants passing through Altar. The center has served over 38,500 migrants since 2001. Songs, prayers and water were shared at the center before continuing.
After several miles the march ended at a crescent of large white crosses. The cross carried on this march was erected next to them. On one side of the crescent stood a barbed wire fence with a sign that read “Dangerous, Extreme Temperatures.” Following the condemnation of conditions that force migration, a blessing was offered to 20 men seeking sanctuary in Altar. Before departing north the next day, they returned to CCAMYN where hot meals and beds were provided. If successful, they would soon arrive safely in a U.S. border town.
This Good Friday, dozens of people gathered at the border wall separating Douglas, Ariz., from its sister town Agua Prieta in Sonora. They simultaneously honored the death of Christ and the thousands who have died trying to cross the border. Members and volunteers of organizations from both sides were present: Frontera De Cristo, including the Agua Prieta Ministries and the Migrant Resource Center, No More Deaths, Just Faith, Youth Adult Volunteers, Borderlinks, Primavera, and more. They encompassed Quakers, Presbyterians, Catholics, other denominations and people of goodwill practicing no particular faith. Like those who migrate across this border, they too came from different parts of the Americas. Once again the border became a place of gathering and community building.
The original Stations of the Cross ceremony retraces the journey of Jesus from detainment to crucifixion. In the tradition of liberation theology, The Border Stations of the Cross compares Jesus’ plight to that of undocumented immigrants crossing through the treacherous desert and beyond.
Starting at 4:00 a.m., participants symbolically walked through the darkness with the hope of finding light. It was noted that the first light participants once saw was the sunrise, but now they walk under the stadium-style lighting that illuminates the border wall.
Switching between English and Spanish, participants took turns reading Bible verses, liberation theology passage, and prayers at each of the 14 stations. “We reflect along the border … a world between worlds, across which many come to risk a fate similar to that of Jesus,” a woman read aloud. “We walk because they walk.”
Station five compared the unjust laws enforced to persecute Jesus to those persecuting migrants today: “Borders like this one test the long-term viability of concepts like modern statehood” read a young woman. “Neither policing bodies nor fences can patch up the holes in these concepts.” In prayer, participants asked God to aid them in their pursuit of maintaining their religious beliefs and moral convictions while also being expected to uphold immoral laws enforced by the state.
Station 10 highlighted the inhumanity of detention and deportation by noting how Jesus was also “stripped of everything: contact with his family, identity, personal belongings, and his dignity,” as an elderly man read.
The walk concluded with the reading of the names on each cross, followed by the group collectively calling out “presente!” This was a symbolic way of recognizing the names of those who are too often just numbers, in an attempt to contribute to their humanization.
In the same spirit of the Holy Week, a group of 78 women in detention almost 1,000 miles east in Karnes City, Texas launched a hunger strike on Tuesday morning. A letter petitioning President Obama declared that they would cease working at and accepting the services of the Center for Detention in Karnes City until they secured their freedom and the freedom of their children. “We know that any mother would do what we are doing for their children,” the letter stated.
Leading up to and during this Holy Week many are taking action to honor the death of Christ, as well as the lives and deaths of undocumented immigrants who find themselves in a comparable situation. These actions call upon all people of faith and goodwill to use this Easter Sunday to reflect upon and resurrect some of the social teachings that represent the principles of many faiths and consciousness: respect the human person, promote the family, work for the common good, and respect for work and the worker. More importantly, they exemplify how the theory of these values can be put into practice through actions that gather to build community in the borderlands and beyond.
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