When we say we value human dignity, we must make every effort to ensure that these aren’t empty words describing an abstract concept. While our actions cannot take away from a person’s inherent worth, they can either highlight or obscure it.
On the ground here in Ambos Nogales, we seek to uphold migrant dignity by recognizing that each individual transcends their experiences of migration. Each person has interests, hopes, dreams, and skills that sustained them for years before journeying northward. Just like our staff and volunteers have expertise that can bless others, migrants do, too.
We know that this array of skills can strengthen any community where migrants find themselves. One day, we hope that people in the comedor who want to go to the US might make it there and contribute their gifts in communities across the country. While we press towards that day when access to the border is restored, we must find ways that migrants can sustain themselves and bless Nogales, Sonora, too.
This liminal space, where migrants are left waiting in Nogales, is unjust. Equipping migrants to thrive here is no replacement for better policy. At the same time, upholding human dignity means making sure that migrants can sustain themselves, even flourish, while they wait.
The Livelihood Project was created to embrace this tension, helping migrants to live in limbo with dignity and contribute to Nogales at the same time.
Why the Livelihood Project
A social worker on our team, Sr. Anastacia “Tachita” Monjarez, M.E. describes the realities that the Livelihood Project seeks to address.
“Living in Nogales is Plan B for many people. Plan A was seeking asylum, but now they need a different plan since the border is closed. Time doesn’t stop while we’re waiting for the US policy to change. Migrants need to be able to create lives in Nogales while they’re here,” Tachita says.
Many migrants do try to find their footing in Nogales, but it can be difficult to create a strong foundation. “The truth is that life in Nogales is hard. The rent is incredibly high,” says Mari, who fled Guerrero with her three children. With the help of a friend, she was able to find work cleaning local businesses. The pay was still not enough to cover the costs.
Tachita says, “This is why the Livelihood Project has to exist. We aim for everyone to work and be able to generate an income that covers their costs. That means we have to assess migrants’ individual situations to see what will work for them. A migrant who has their permit to work in Mexico has different options than a single mother with young children who needs to stay with her kids, but they both need to cover their expenses.”
Human dignity means finding a way for each person to sustain themselves with a living wage without putting their family in danger.
The Livelihood Project’s Entrepreneurial Arm
One key component of the Livelihood Project is to promote entrepreneurial endeavors. Multiple times a week, migrants come to workshops that teach them how to create a product they can then sell. Right now, nearly four dozen migrants attend weekly workshops: two focused on sewing and embroidery, and a third focused on creating works of art. Other workshops have included beadwork, where migrants have created items like earrings and rosaries.
Tachita says, “We realized that there was a lot of capacity among migrants. We saw some people doing artisanal activities in the comedor. It dawned on us that migrants could monetize the skills they already had and their creative expressions. That’s when we started holding the workshops.”
As migrants have begun creating these products, they have had enormous success selling them to residents and visitors in Nogales. One KBI staff member chuckled and remarked that they’re always sold out. Some migrants have even received commissions for specialized works of art for groups in the USA. In the process of selling, migrants have talked about the ins and outs of business, from pricing a product to communicating with customers who want. These entrepreneurial conversations hone migrants’ business skills and offer spaces for connection, too.
Jose Luis Sotero, a painter and volunteer who leads the weekly painting workshop, notes how this process helps migrants bolster their own sense of ability, self-worth, and community. “They learn so much from each other,” he says. Jose Luis was once a migrant, too, and he recently served on KBI’s Strategic Planning steering committee. For him, the focus on human dignity was paramount. “It’s so important to remember that people don’t come to the border just as migrants. They come as full people with skills. It’s so apparent as they paint.”
Likewise, Tachita has seen migrants use the Livelihood Project workshops to create community among themselves. She says, “The majority are women. They get to know each other, and I’ve seen women then rent an apartment together and share the costs. It’s another way that this project has given migrants ways to cover their expenses – creating spaces where migrants can decide to support each other.”
In these ways, the Livelihood Project gives migrants space to reclaim their own strengths and leverage them while they are living in Nogales. This chance upholds human dignity, but the Livelihood Project supports migrants’ dignity in another way: making spaces for expression and healing.
The Livelihood Project Offers Creative Expression and Healing
Currently, the livelihood project works with migrants to create artisanal goods that inherently activate creativity. During the painting workshops, Jose Luis encourages migrants to paint crosses akin to the ones that are scattered throughout the Sonoran desert, marking the place where a migrant passed away.
Jose Luis explains, “The first objective is always for migrants to create something that can help them gain an income, but the secondary is for them to have a place where they can let out everything they’re holding inside. The cross represents a lot – danger, hope, the desert. When people paint on top of a cross, they are able to channel everything they’ve been through.”
Mari echoes this sentiment. “It’s a place where I can vent,” she says, “It helps me process difficult moments. I bring my children to the painting workshops, and it helps them process, too.” She says it’s difficult to explain the jumble of emotions that come out of painting the crosses. While painting, Mari feels intense sadness, but also relief and pride as she creates a beautiful work of art.
Tachita says this mix is part of what makes the Livelihood Project so effective. “In the midst of feeling anguish, people experience that there are other feelings beyond the anguish, too. Few things are more gratifying than gaining a salary from the work of your own hands. I’ve seen how the space to process and take some control back over the situation has changed many migrants’ attitudes.”
Giving migrants spaces to process their pain and shift their mindset has been an immense boon. Even better is that the Livelihood Project has also created a way for participants to improve Nogales, too, which shifts local attitudes about migrants.
The Livelihood Project Supports Migrant Integration in Nogales
After working together for weeks in the Livelihood Project, we have seen migrants find new opportunities for business in Nogales, Sonora.
At a local Day of the Dead fair last year, migrants banded together to put together a stall. They worked together to secure the required health permits, and even found sponsors for two 3-meter locations at the fair. The group collaborated on a menu, and ultimately sold tamales and atole. It was a huge success!
The success at the fair inspired a group of women. “They saw how difficult it was for mothers to find work, and they came up with a business plan that would create opportunities for mothers to support themselves,” says Tachita. These created a plan: they would start a mobile business. Again, they worked together to seek the proper permits. Ultimately, they were approved for a business where fifteen people could participate.
Endeavors like these boost the local economy in Nogales and give locals the chance to see migrants as positive members of the community. These opportunities, which pave the way for migrants to integrate into the neighborhood, create both economic and social sustainability in Nogales. It’s a chance for people who may have negative impressions about migrants to recognize their human dignity, too.
While the Livelihood Project is no replacement for a humane and workable migration system, it is a way we can make waiting in Nogales more humane and workable. The project uplifts migrant dignity from multiple angles – connecting people to opportunities for a livable wage, giving migrants a space of self-expression, honing entrepreneurial skills, and creating opportunities to change the narrative about migrants in Nogales.
While this initiative is still young, we are thrilled to see the impact it is having. As we work for a world where people can migrate with dignity, scaling opportunities like the Livelihood Project will be essential in safeguarding migrants’ dignity. This is especially important as long as cruel policies keep access to asylum out of reach.
These results will advance our strategic priorities of holistic accompaniment and local hospitality. Our priority of holistic accompaniment expands on our history of providing for migrants’ access to basic needs like food, shelter, and clothing. This strategic priority focuses on creating spaces for migrant recreation, psychological well-being, and equipping migrants to be self-sufficient in Nogales, Sonora. Through its entrepreneurial arm and focus on local integration in Nogales, the Livelihood Project furthers these aims, which in turn express our value of human dignity. By bolstering self-sufficiency and creative expression, the Livelihood Project gives migrants space to reclaim their own strengths and leverage them in a way that allows them to integrate into Nogales, Sonora. In this way, we see the Livelihood Project as one way to help community members, politicians, and businesspeople better welcome migrants into Nogales, Sonora. It Reminds the city of all of the gifts and skills that migrants can add to the community.
Today, we invite you to learn more about the Livelihood Project and join us in scaling it. You can join us on October 6th to hear Tachita describe her work with the Livelihood Project and talk about our other initiatives in holistic accompaniment and local integration. You can click here to register.
Finally, every growing initiative needs the support of people willing to contribute their time, talent, and treasure. Your support will enable us to staff this project and grow it, meaning many more migrants can create a livelihood that can make them proud.
Together and through initiatives like the Livelihood Project, we are building a world where Migration with Dignity is possible.