It is truly amazing to see the road traveled and how much ground we’ve covered as an organization and ministry. From our humble origins, with the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist serving burritos from their vans along the border to deportees as far back as 2007, to our now two-year anniversary of being in our Migrant Outreach Center; we are so blessed to have an outpouring of support from patrons like you who have sustained our mission to providing life-affirming aid to migrants for more than a decade. And the need only keeps growing as conditions of poverty, corruption and violence escalate throughout the region.
This month as we celebrate Joanna Williams‘ one-year anniversary of being the Kino Border Initiative’s Executive Director, we want to remember the legacy of those who helped pave the way and take an opportunity to look back to see how far we’ve come.
The Early Days
Back in 2006, there was a growing need to serve the migrant population being deported back after crossing the desert, during the Bush era. Madre Engracia along with the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist collaborated binationally with Tucson-based organizations like Borderlinks and No More Deaths and groups in Nogales,Sonora such as Grupos Beta, HEPAC, local parishes, and local residents to prepare and provide meals to migrants underneath the Mariposa bridge, close to where we are currently located. Back then, Nogales had become a central point for deportation along the U.S.-Mexico border, second only to Tijuana; yet, there barely existed infrastructure to support this population. This meal service was one of the few efforts that existed. These are the early days of the comedor.
During that time, a number of Jesuit organizations visited Nogales to assess the on-the-ground need of the community. Some of their findings included: Nogales as a key deportation location, migrants deported back to Nogales were not from there, women and children were especially vulnerable to trafficking, border services were under-equipped and under-capacity, there was an urgent need for awareness and advocacy about this regional crisis, and any and all efforts would have to be bi-national. Through this process of discernment, collaboration, and building off the work and legacy of the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist-the Kino Border Initiative was thus officially born in 2009.
The Comedor, or the dining hall, is the heart of KBI’s ministry. For many migrants, who have suffered detention, deportation, or days in the desert- a kind face serving them a warm meal reminds them that they are safe, supported and most importantly, of their humanity. The meal service evolved from the back of vans to a small building near the Mariposa port of entry. In its early stages, the building lacked all four walls and could only squeeze 90 people at a time. Yet, the Missionary Sisters, the Jesuits, and lay staff and volunteers made it work. They had 2 meal services a day and expanded services to include: first aid, clothing, “Know Your Rights” training, and more.
KBI’s food service has grown substantially since those early days. Back in 2013, we served 48,788 meals. In 2021 alone we served 199,420 meals. From serving 90 people at a time with 2 meal services, we can now accommodate up to 160 people at once in the dining room at our Migrant Outreach Center. Due to the pandemic, we have been serving to-go meals to the majority of the hundreds of migrants who have sought that support, but as our shelter fills up we are welcoming more people into the dining area itself.
Migrants who are deported back to Mexico are returned with little to no personal belongings. Immigration officials confiscate and discard most of their items and what is left is deposited in a plastic bag, resembling a trash bag.
Kino Border Initiative expanded their services to include clothes distribution to deportees. This is our Roperia. A large part of the work that volunteers provide is washing, organizing, and distributing clothes to migrants. The Green Valley Samaritans played a pivotal role in developing this program in general. In 2021 alone we distributed more than 10,000 items of clothing to migrants in need. All these clothes were either donated directly by individuals and parishes in the region and across the country, or purchased with donated funds.
The roperia has even inspired long-time volunteers, such as Alma Schlor, to create clothing drive ministries at their parishes. Alma in particular was moved by her experience to create and design beautiful handmade drawstring bags to give to migrants to do away with the plastic bags formerly used to give migrants their clothes, as a way to not perpetuate the use of plastic bags to dehumanize migrants as they do in detention centers. The ministry she founded is called “Bolsas de Dignidad” or “Dignity Bags”.
Towards Holistic Accompaniment
As Joanna Williams said in her interview with former Director of Communications, Sarah Ritchie, upon becoming KBI’s new Executive Director in 2021, “What I think people sometimes miss or is simply hard to see from a distance is our extraordinary creativity and our sense of openness to responding in new and different ways. I think all of our staff is pushing the envelope a little bit in thinking about what we can do differently that would be more humane and more just.”
It is incredible the amount of good work and services we were able to offer in our old KBI space. Medical, legal and pastoral service would oftentimes take place in corners of the old comedor simultaneously. Yet the limited space meant that we couldn’t provide privacy and truly offer a safe space for migrants who have experienced varying degrees of trauma due to migration, detention, and deportation.
Our new Migrant Outreach Center offers private spaces for legal consultations, social services, pastoral accompaniment, and medical treatment. Additionally, we have an administrative office, a chapel for prayer, a children’s activity space and a multi-use classroom where on any given day there are discussions with immersion groups, legal orientations, or migrant meetings with visiting government officials. Along with expanding our space, we have adapted to the changing needs of the migrant population.
In the early days, we almost exclusively served a population of recently deported individuals. Surface level medical conditions such as blisters, cuts and dehydration comprised the vast majority of cases, but we also found many people deported from detention who suffered from more complex issues such as high blood pressure, diabetes and other more complex medical issues. Since then, the migrant population has shifted to mostly those seeking asylum. This past summer, we saw many families, including single mothers with their children who lost their husbands due to violence inflicted by organized crime. In response, we expanded our offerings and began providing prenatal care for numerous pregnant migrants, accompanying them in their deliveries.
We also treated many migrants for Covid-19. Our Migrant Services program adapted to include preventative care and public health and safety measures to stop propagation within our Center. Just last week we began a partnership with SEAHEC where they provide health education spaces for migrants. Thanks in large part to the generous donation from the Mexican Consulate in Tucson we received many rapid tests at our Center. We administered 1,020 Covid-19 tests this past year.
As the needs of the migrant population grew in complexity, we recognized the need to hire a full-time physician. Kino Border Initiative proudly welcomed Dr. Obed Ruiz this January to the team.
Since 2017, Kino Border Initiative has collaborated with the Florence Immigration and Refugee Rights Project to provide pro-bono legal services to the migrant population here in Nogales, Sonora. The program has grown from one attorney to two attorneys, a program coordinator, three legal assistants and many interns. Together with KBI, FIRRP has navigated several tumultuous eras of devastating immigration policy such as the Remain in Mexico (MPP) policy and Title 42 (both of which still remain in effect). The Florence Project Border Action Team hosts daily workshops open to the migrant community to address any questions or concerns about the various policies and their unique cases. They also provide individual consultations with many individuals and families.
Social and Psychological accompaniment
For most people, migration, detention, deportation, family separation, and persecution are life-altering and traumatic experiences. It is within our organizational values to respond to each migrant’s unique lived experience with respect and humility to their physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological needs. To responsibly and ethically accompany our migrant brothers and sisters we needed to expand our existing team with additional trained professionals who are also deeply committed to immigrant rights and justice work. In 2020 and early 2021, we onboarded Alma Reynosa, a licensed psychologist trained in the University of Sonora, and Bernie Eguía, an experienced social worker who graduated from ITESO – The Jesuit University of Guadalajara.
Alma is committed to creating spaces to address mental health, which is often overlooked in migrant populations. She told KBI back in 2020 that she hopes to be able to “provide migrants with tools and mechanisms that foster emotional stability and health among their communities”.
Similarly, Bernie feels motivated to “strengthen the social fabric” in Nogales and to “contribute to making our community a better and more hospitable place for migrants regardless where they come from.” This is crucial considering that many migrants face harsh discrimination in Nogales in terms of housing discrimination, labor exploitation, lack of access to education for their children, lack of access to health care, and are targeted by local organized crime simply for being migrants.
Bernie and Alma’s work is to accompany migrants in their journey to healing and to find ways to navigate a temporary life in Nogales using their own resources, faculties and self-empowerment.
Sister Anastacia “Tachita” Monjarez joined our team later in 2021 to support the Migrant Services program “Livelihood project”. This project’s aim is to provide opportunities for migrants excluded from the local labor force in Nogales due to lack of proper documentation (e.g. migrants of other nationalities who don’t have visas to work in Mexico) or lack of training for the work that exists on the ground. Sister Tachita believes that everyone has gifts, skills and abilities to contribute to society and in return earn a living to subsist even while in temporary or liminal place and/or space.
Collectively, these three powerful professionals and advocates have improved the lives of so many migrants that are striving to create better living conditions for themselves and their families on the border.
Looking ahead: Challenges, opportunities and remembering with gratitude
The Kino Border Initiative has experienced many challenges and has grown significantly since our transition from the old comedor to the new Migrant Outreach Center. We doubled our staff from 14 in 2016 to 28 at the start of 2022. Only six of those staff members have been with the organization for more than five years. The grand majority of our current staff joined KBI as of June 2020. A key element of this new staff integration is understanding our origins and our history as an organization. Imparting this institutional knowledge and organizational culture is important in order to pave a way for the future.
Thankfully, our future is in large part being envisioned by our new executive director, Joanna Williams, who has been with KBI for more than a decade. She has seen Kino Border Initiative evolve over the years and was closely mentored by its founding executive director, Father Sean Carroll, S.J.. Joanna recalls her time with Father Sean and says, “Over the course of six years, Sean put a lot of energy into mentoring me and helping me grow. I am really thankful for his openness to allowing me to take risks and be creative in my role. I felt a lot of freedom and support at the same time. It wasn’t like he abandoned me, but he wanted to let me drive the agenda and decide, for example: “what is education and advocacy?”; “what are we doing strategically?”; and “how can we work through problems when we come across them?”. In many ways, I feel like he was pouring into me, mentoring me, and helping me grow with the sense that I could rise to other leadership.”
Staff members like Joanna, Madre Engracia, Father Pete all who have been with KBI since its inception have seen waves of migration demographics change as a result of changing push and pull factors, including (but limited to) detrimental U.S. immigration policy and a global pandemic. We’ve survived these changes by being flexible and adapting. Just like our services had to expand to accommodate changing needs, our team had to increase to broaden capacity. Our advocacy strategies had to shift to tackle the urgent immigration reform needed and our education program had to modify to highlight the reality on-the-ground. We eventually outgrew our original facility to welcome more migrants than ever before.
But we must never forget how we got here. Our deepest gratitude goes out to the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist for planting the seed for our current mission. To various Jesuit and Catholic organizations who saw a need in Nogales and built the infrastructure to support the migrant population in crisis. Special thanks to Jesuits West; the Mexican Province Society of Jesus; the Jesuit Refugee Service/USA; the Diocese of Tucson; and the Diocese of Nogales, Sonora. To our founding leader, Father Sean Caroll, for his vision and commitment to the Kino Border Initiative for many years. To the countless staff members who have come and gone, all leaving their mark on the organization. To the countless volunteers who generously devoted their time and energy to serving the migrant community. To the many partner organizations who serve in alliance with us such as the Tucson Samaritans, No More Deaths, the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, Ignatian Solidarity Network, NETWORK and many more. And of course, our supporters like you who generously give financial and material support, and who keep our mission alive and the migrants present in their thoughts and prayers.