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We gathered on March 21 in the courtyard and the street at Kino Border Initiative (KBI) offices in Nogales, Sonora. A few dozen of us were supporters who had walked over from the US side. The other participants in our Lenten procession, about 150 in all, are fleeing from violence at home in southern Mexico and Central America.
Leading us out into the city was a large cross with the message, “End Title 42.” The cross-bearers and nearly all of those walking behind have been turned away when they sought to apply for asylum in the United States, a right guaranteed to them under international law. Two years ago in March 2020, citing an obscure provision of a 1944 public health regulation, the Trump administration slammed the border gates shut. And they are still shut.
Refugees living in Nogales planned a procession of penitence and protest to mark the second anniversary of Title 42. They chose the route, with pauses at the fourteen traditional stations of the cross, and they invited staff and volunteers from KBI and from Mexican and US churches to join them in prayer and protest. For each of the stations marking events of Jesus’s last day, the planners chose a Scripture reading, followed by a prayer and a brief meditation. Together we sang a penitential song, “Perdona a tu pueblo, Señor” (“Forgive your people, Lord”), then walked on to the next station.
First station: Jesus is sentenced to death. Scripture reading from Matthew 25. Reflection: “Many migrants experience death sentences outside their own homes. Sometimes the threats take the form of words, sometimes they take the form of shoot-outs. . . ” (Translations provided by KBI staff.)
The purported rationale for Title 42 was to protect public health, even though pandemic rates then were the same on both sides of the border. Border patrol officers have turned away nearly every would-be refugee from Mexico and Central America. Tens of thousands of men, women and children have languished near the border, unable to apply for asylum and unable to return home safely. Avaricious landlords and drug cartel thugs prey on them.
The presidential transition of January 2021 brought a dramatic change in both the rhetoric and the respect for international law evident at the White House. Nevertheless – to the shock and surprise of many – Title 42 remains in place. In eleven months that span the two administrations (October 2020 to August 2021), 938,405 migrants were turned away under this supposed public health mandate.
Today vaccination rates are the same on both sides of the border, and the daily rate of new cases is much higher on the US side, but asylum seekers from Mexico and its southern neighbors are still turned away. Some who come from farther away – from Cuba, Venezuela, Brazil, Eritrea, and now Ukraine – are allowed to submit an application if they have a church or family sponsor in the US, then admitted pending a hearing. At the temporary shelter in Tucson where I volunteer, numbers of refugees in transit have increased dramatically – 240 new arrivals in just one recent day, for example. But Mexicans and Central Americans seeking asylum are still blocked from crossing the border or submitting an application.
Second station: Jesus carries the cross. Scripture reading from Exodus 23. Reflection: “People who migrate for safety carry many crosses: the pain and sadness of what they wanted or had envisioned for their family, the safety of the life they once knew. . . ”
Responding to public pressure, the Biden administration has recently promised several changes in the asylum process. Hearing officers will be given the authority to grant or deny asylum, rather than keep applicants waiting for years for a court date. Even more important, the Centers for Disease Control agreed with the administration that Title 42 expulsions will end in late May.
These changes – announced just days after our Lenten procession – give reason for hope that the United States will at last honor its obligation to receive refugees from violence. But experience advises a measure of skepticism. By the time Title 42 is set aside, some asylum-seekers told a Washington Post reporter, new obstacles are sure to block the way.
Fifth station: Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross. Scripture reading from Proverbs 31. Reflection: “Some migrants find people or organizations along the way that help them carry the cross. At Kino, they get support in the form of food and services provided by volunteers, by people who listen. . . None of us is carrying this cross alone.”
KBI was created in 2009 by the Jesuit orders in California and Mexico, together with the Catholic dioceses of Tucson in the US and Nogales in Mexico, to offer humanitarian assistance and lobby for justice in immigration policy. Today it works closely with other nonprofit groups on both sides of the border. When Arizona’s two senators recently asked President Biden to keep Title 42 in place because systems are not yet in place to handle more asylum seekers, KBI issued a joint statement with the ACLU and four other organizations calling for immediate revocation. We have developed systems of assistance that can handle any influx, they stated.
Eleventh station: Jesus is nailed to the cross. Scripture reading from Amos 5. Reflection: “Many people carry in their hand the nails with which to crucify migrant people. Criminal organizations and their own government harass them; corrupt Mexican officials extort from them; American authorities continue to kick them out, forcing them to wait without any supplies and in danger; landlords charge them double for rent; people of the United States and Mexico wash their hands of the matter. It’s time to let go of the nails, lend a hand, and come together in a cry for justice.”
“Thank you for walking alongside us!” said participants in the procession and the KBI staff members to the supporters who had joined the penitential procession. When you are here with us, they said, we no longer feel invisible. And we hope you can persuade your government to rescind the policy that has caused so much suffering.