Mass across the Border

By Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire | National Catholic Reporter, November 21, 2003 | Go to article overview

Mass across the Border

Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire, National Catholic Reporter

No natural demarcations appear in the stretch of desert south of here. No change in vegetation or terrain. No convenient cracks in the earth to let you know that you stand at the edge of two countries. To the eye of a New Englander, accustomed to crowded horizons, this is just another spot in a place of endless sky and boundless land.

Boundless, that is, except for the sturdy, 15-foot-high, chain-link fence marking the U.S.-Mexico border. Illuminated at night by stadium lights and monitored 24/7 by law enforcement agents, the fence was built to keep out illegal immigrants, many of them economic refugees coming up from the South in search of work. Diverted by barriers like these, some refugees have tried more treacherous methods of entry, and hundreds this year alone have died in the attempted crossover.

On Nov. 2, All Souls Day--the Day of the Dead in Hispanic communities--500 U.S. and Mexican Catholics gathered on either side of the fence for a Mass to remember the undocumented who have died. With their two tables pushed up against the barrier to form a single altar, the worshipers sang together, prayed a bilingual liturgy and stretched fingers through metal mesh to wish each other peace. But the fifth annual Border Mass for the Dead, concelebrated by one Mexican and four U.S. bishops, was more than a binational profession of unity in faith. The Catholics who gathered in Sunland are part of a growing movement of church-based, migrants-rights activists calling for reform of U.S. immigration policy. Its current strategy of exclusion, they say, ignores the economic interdependence between the United States and the South and has made the search for work a high-cost, lethal venture for the southern poor.

"This is an artificial wall," said El Paso Bishop Armando X. Ochoa, referring to the fence marking the U.S.-Mexican border. "The bishops on both sides recognize each individual has the right to stay in his or her indigenous country. But when people can no longer do that, in that case they have a moral right to better their lives by going to other countries," he said.

A changing border

The 2,000-mile long U.S.-Mexico border is the most trafficked in the world, with approximately 1 million people crossing it daily. Many enter legally. Many do not. Until a decade ago, immigrants who lacked documents could come into the United States fairly easily. The most common points of entry were the urban areas where the undocumented could quickly blend into city crowds. The number of persons entering illegally into the United States was particularly high in the El Paso area and the San Diego-Tijuana corridor.

In 1994, the Clinton administration, in an attempt to stem the flow of illegal immigrants, implemented an aggressive border policy. Beginning with Operation Hold the Line in El Paso, followed by Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego and Operation Safeguard in Arizona, the government constructed hundreds of miles of new fences and increased the number of border patrol agents, equipping them with sophisticated technology for detecting illegal immigrants. After the Sept. 11 attacks, border security intensified even more.

But the increased enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border, which costs more than $2.5 billion annually, did not decrease unauthorized immigration, according to a 2002 study by the Public Policy Institute of California. Instead, the study found that the number of unauthorized immigrants actually increased during the late '90s. There are now between 9 million and 11 million undocumented people living within the United States, according to the 2000 U.S. census.

The change in immigration strategy, however, has made the journey to the North more perilous. Migrants are now crossing through the deserts and mountains of the Southwest. The number of captures is down in El Paso and San Diego but border deaths are up. The California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation reports that since 1994, more than 2,000 undocumented immigrants have died while attempting entry into the United States.

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