Often, the most ardent advocacy arises from empathy. At KBI, we press so hard for a just and workable migration system because we see the consequences of the systems we have now. Every day, we meet people in the comedor who have suffered needlessly due to unjust and cruel policies.
At the same time, we know that most people in the U.S. and Mexico won’t meet our migrant friends. Perhaps even fewer will flee their homes to seek safety, even if it means a dangerous journey. In this landscape, it can be hard for others to understand the challenges migrants face. Highly charged and politicized rhetoric can further obscure the effects that policies have on living, breathing individuals. Our migrant siblings are too often reduced to statistics and talking points. This will not do.
We want to see a world where migration with dignity is possible, and so we invite others into accompanying our migrant siblings. Our team on both sides of the border offers many opportunities, but one of the most powerful is through our immersion experiences.
Today, we invite you to come along and to witness one of these immersion experiences.
Summer in Nogales: Magnificence and Menace in the Desert
The summer months are often a time of mourning at KBI. The summer heat in the Sonoran desert is punishing to all of us, but it is particularly dangerous for our siblings in migration. Between 1998 and 2019, at least 3800 migrants have died while crossing the border in Arizona alone. Every year, we lament these precious individuals who perish in the desert.
While most of us will agree that each of these deaths is a tragedy, what many do not realize is that these deaths are needless. Since 1993, US “Prevention Through Deterrence” strategies have intentionally pushed migrants deeper into the desert as they cross the border. With each constriction of access to the border or safe crossing points, migrants who undertake the journey northward face increasing danger. Many migrants are willing to take the chance. For many of the people we encounter at the comedor, not migrating meant risking death or grave harm, too.
It can be difficult to grasp the vastness of the Sonoran desert, to conceive of what crossing it would actually entail. That’s where an immersion experience can be powerful.
Students in the Desert: A Pilgrimage of Solidarity
This past March, our education team guided a group of students from St. Ignatius High School on an immersive walk through the desert. It was already 92 degrees in Arivaca, about 9 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border when they arrived.
Before setting out, Sister Tracey Horan and Fr. Max Landman, nS.J. explained that this was no mere hike, but a pilgrimage. They encouraged the students to tune into their senses and allow themselves to be immersed as they walked. The group walked along the same paths that migrants walked every day. Each observation would serve as an invitation into the practice of Ignatian imagination. They were drawing physically near to where migrants had been. Imagining the realities of what that journey was like for migrants offered a chance to draw spiritually and emotionally near, too.
The desert itself augments the experience. In its quiet beauty and overwhelming scale, one cannot help but think of the many biblical journeys and encounters in the desert. The students were quiet as they began to walk. Soon, they began to notice the items scattered across the desert.
Sister Tracey and Fr. Max explained. These were “relics,” items that migrants used and ultimately had to leave behind during their journeys. Like the desert itself, these relics bore quiet witness to the many individuals who had passed through, seeking safety. Leaders encouraged the students to observe these sacred objects and meditate on what they must have meant for the people who carried them.
The Education team had brought several relics that they had found over the years, too. The group paused, and Sister Tracey pulled out one such item, a Spanish Bible. “Imagine the person who carried this Bible,” said Sister Tracey, “They were a person of faith. Imagine yourself in their place. What verses might have sustained them? If you were here in the desert walking for days on end, what verses would sustain you?” The group paused in quiet reflection.
They traveled onward and encountered an implicit sign of the desert’s peril: jugs of water. Each one was painted black. Unlike white bottles, the dark hue would not reflect light. The color of the bottles was designed to help migrants go undetected. Sister Tracey and Fr. Max noted that just to barely stay hydrated, migrants would have to carry four gallons of water for each day of the journey. Each gallon of water weighs more than eight pounds.
The teens took turns carrying one gallon of water each to feel what it was like. They often switched with each other. The weight tired them quickly.
One participant, Brendan Colgan commented, “That was the first time I had really understood the level of exhaustion and pain that migrants experience during their journey.”
As the heat of the sun bore down on the group, Sister Tracey paused once more so the group could meditate on an even more sobering relic she had brought. It was a cluster of papers and photos. Drawing closer, the participants studied the documents, a Mexican ID, a birth certificate, and several family photos.
Sister Tracey passed the documents around for the students to see and touch gingerly. The KBI team had tried to turn in the documents to the Mexican Consulate so that the migrant or their family could retrieve them. In this case, the Mexican Consulate was not able to assist. They simply didn’t have the capacity to coordinate outreach to all of the individuals.
Sister Tracey highlighted how precious photos and documents like these are. “These are proof of identity,” she breathed, “It would help them when they arrive in the U.S., but it is also a way that migrants try to make sure that they can be identified if they were to die in the journey.” The group paused to consider what it must have been like to be the migrant whose family this was. They imagined what it would be like to carry their own birth certificates, hoping that their families could at least learn what happened to them if they weren’t able to complete the journey.
“Understanding the decisions they had to make to finish their journey, when they already had so little to begin with… that was really hard to fully digest,” Brendan said after the experience.
On other immersion experiences, we meditate on the tragedy of migrant deaths in the desert and that many are not able to be identified. In these experiences, we visit a cemetery that hosts the remains of migrants whose identities are not known. We say a special prayer service for these souls. While we may not know their names, God does. Through prayer, we can honor them and accompany them, even in the spiritual realms.
From Accompaniment to Action
We believe in the innate value of accompanying migrants, including by participating in immersive experiences like this one. By walking where migrants walk and engaging the practices of St. Ignatius, we can draw nearer to our siblings in migration. We can begin to get a taste of what they have faced. We begin to understand how dangerous or unlivable home must be for so many people to choose the desert.
These expressions of empathy and accompaniment are the beginning. They offer a glimpse of what migrants face and remind us of the human toll of immigration policy. These pilgrimages serve as an invitation to go deeper, to demand a more just and humane path. Once we begin to accompany migrants from afar, we cannot help but take further action.
If you are ready to take action today, we offer you three steps:
- Re-read the portion of this article that recalls the relics students encountered. Allow yourself to envision the desert and these relics. Immerse yourself in the scene. Begin to imagine what the migrants who carried these items experienced and what the significance of each relic may have held for them. Alternatively, you can use this prayer exercise to accompany migrants in the spiritual realms.
- Invite others to consider these realities and the actions we can take to protect our siblings in migration. The Education team is launching Community Conversations all about what it looks like to emulate Jesus’ example of welcome and love. We will equip you with the tools to create an environment that can foster transformation toward solidarity with migrants. Click here to learn more.
- Call your representatives to demand an end to Title 42, which has exacerbated the heinous effects of deterrence policies. Title 42 has effectively ended access to asylum at ports of entry, pushing even more migrants deeper into the dangerous and on treacherous paths. Click here for a guide on how to do so.
Migrant deaths are a year round tragedy, and we feel the pain of these deaths particularly acutely in the summer months. Each loss of a migrant is senseless, and policy change can prevent more lives being lost. Everyone has a role in creating a just, workable, and humane migration system. We are committed to helping others encounter the hardship migrants face and the dignity that each one carries, including through prayer and immersion experiences like the one you’ve just read about.
Together, we draw on our faith and press forward to a day where these pilgrimages aren’t necessary. We push eagerly for the day when policies and people demonstrate the love of Jesus to our siblings in migration.