By Caitlin-Marie Ward
Senior Advisor on Migration, Jesuit Conference Office of Justice and Ecology
April 16, 2019 — Shortly after Thanksgiving last year, the Office of Justice and Ecology (OJE) visited the Kino Border Initiative (KBI) in Nogales, Arizona/Nogales, Mexico. A work of the Society of Jesus, KBI combines direct humanitarian assistance with advocacy and education to promote just immigration policies on both sides of the border. Among its many ministries, KBI serves meals twice a day to hungry migrants and recent deportees in its soup kitchen, known as the comedor. This is also where migrants who are about to present themselves at the port of entry on the U.S./Mexico border receive a brief orientation on the U.S. asylum process and how to prepare themselves for what lies ahead.
One morning last November in the border town of Nogales, Mexico, I listened to Joanna Williams, director of education and advocacy at the Society of Jesus’ Kino Border Initiative, give a presentation to two Nicaraguan men who were planning to cross into the United States in the next few days.
As she described the freezing cold conditions of the heleras (a term used to describe the border patrol holding cells along the border), the jail-like conditions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers, and the overall difficulty of proving their asylum cases, the men’s faces fell. They tried to remain optimistic by telling each other that God would watch over them and see them through to the end. Perhaps they would be granted parole and released from detention, they mused, or maybe their cases would be resolved relatively quickly. Still, it was apparent that their journey was far from over. In some ways, the most difficult part was just beginning.
As the men gathered their bags and headed out the door, I wondered to myself, had they known in Nicaragua what they knew now would they still have migrated to the U.S.? Or would they have instead fled as refugees to Costa Rica? Gone into hiding in Nicaragua? Applied for asylum in another country? Further discussions with KBI staff made it clear there was an unmet need in migrants’ home communities not only in Nicaragua, but throughout Central America.
To address this need, what if we could educate people about the process of seeking asylum from their home countries rather than wait until they reached the U.S.-Mexico border? This way they could make an informed decision about how, when and whether to migrate. As a network of Jesuit-affiliated universities, parishes and organizations dedicated to investigating, educating, advocating and promoting the rights of migrants, the Jesuit Migration Network of Canada and the United States (commonly known by its Spanish acronym, RJM-Canada/USA) seemed uniquely positioned to begin to address this need.
One of the core strengths of RJM-Canada/USA is its partnerships with Jesuit institutions in Central America and Mexico that have direct knowledge about conditions on the ground. One such partner is Radio Progreso/ERIC, the Jesuit-run, independent radio station and human rights organization located in El Progreso, Honduras. As a local organization with strong ties to the community, Radio Progreso/ERIC was able to provide a space and gather community leaders, representatives of international organizations and local townspeople for a workshop on U.S. asylum/refugee laws.
The workshop was an opportunity for representatives from various Jesuit universities to work together and hear about each other’s work and research related to refugees and asylum-seekers. The delegation included two students from Boston College Law School; one professor from Gonzaga School of Law; and two professors/attorneys from the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at the University of San Francisco School of Law. It was an especially valuable opportunity for the students to learn about immigration law through hands-on experience and close collaboration with attorneys who handle asylum cases every day.
“I feel it’s not a stretch to say this was one of the most worthwhile endeavors in my life and I am so motivated to be able to contribute in even more extensive and meaningful ways when similar opportunities arise in the future,” said Julia Novak (BC Law ‘21), one of the law students in the delegation. “I just feel such gratitude for having been immersed in a group of smart, thoughtful and experienced individuals and for having met such incredible humans in Honduras.”
Most importantly, it was a chance to meet a need in the community. After giving a brief overview of the asylum process, the group of students, lawyers and professors answered questions from the participants for over an hour. Questions from audience members included whether someone who entered the United States on a tourist visa could apply for asylum, if there were limits on the number of asylum-seekers the United States accepts in any fiscal year, and how someone could access a list of pro-bono attorneys from detention. This was then followed by a series of consultations with the attorneys at ERIC who were managing cases of migrants who left in the various caravans over the last several months. The number and variety of questions really showcased how complex immigration law in the United States is, especially for someone unfamiliar with the U.S. legal system and with limited English skills.
Professors, students, advocates and participants alike all came away from the workshop feeling like it was a worthwhile endeavor and inspired to organize future initiatives through RJM-Canada/USA, including additional asylum/refugee law workshops in other parts of Central America. It was a true testament to the value of working within the Jesuit network and its ability to bring people with different areas of expertise from around the world together to live out the Jesuit mission of “contemplatives in action.”