They come in search of a better life, but hundreds perish in the rugged desert near the U.S.-Mexico border every year.
Tom McCabe wants people to see the human face behind the numbers.
“I was a staunch SB 1070 supporter,” McCabe said, referring to the controversial bill dealing with immigration that was passed in 2010 by Arizona’s legislature. “I didn’t understand all the reasons as to why someone would want to migrate, the economics behind it.”
That was before he participated in the Just Faith class at his parish and saw a film that portrayed some of the reasons why people are willing to risk death crossing the desert with little more than a pair of gym shoes and a gallon of water.
Mass for Migrants – Feb. 20
5 p.m. blessing of Memorial Crosses, 400 E. Monroe St., Phoenix
5:30 p.m. procession to Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, 909 E. Washington St., Phoenix
6 p.m. Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church
7:30 p.m. educational session and Q&A
“It breaks your heart to see people moving away from their families,” McCabe said. “These folks are just trying to get a better life for themselves. There was no one there to hold their hands or pray with them as they lay dying.”
McCabe is hoping a Feb. 20 “Mass for Migrants” will draw attention to the migrants who have died in the desert, searching for a way out of poverty and an escape from the violence that plagues Mexico and Central America.
Ignacio Rodriguez, associate director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries for the Diocese of Phoenix, said that students at four local Catholic schools are decorating commemorative crosses by inscribing the names of migrants whose bodies have been identified during the past year. Some of the crosses simply say Hermano Desconocido, Spanish for “unknown brother. The crosses will be hung from trees in the plaza between St. Mary’s Basilica and the Diocesan Pastoral Center in downtown Phoenix.
At 5 p.m. on Feb. 20, Bishop Nevares will bless the students’ crosses as well as another 200 that will be carried in procession to Immaculate Heart of Mary Church a half mile away. Following the Mass, there’s an education session that features an immigration attorney and migrant who tells her story.
According to the Pima County Medical Examiner, there have been 2,333 deaths in the Arizona borderland since 2001. For the calendar year 2014, there were 131 deaths.
“Some are never found,” Rodriguez said. “Their bodies decay in the desert and are eaten by wild animals.”
Cristofer Pereyra, director of the Hispanic mission office for the Diocese of Phoenix, said that some border-area residents have at times taken matters into their own hands, creating makeshift cemeteries in their backyards.
“They don’t know the names of these people — they just bury them and put up crosses,” Pereyra said.
As to those who say that the migrants are violating the law, Pereyra said that while the Catholic Church doesn’t condone breaking laws, the faithful ought to prayerfully consider the immigration issue.
“If there’s anything that we need to put in front of Christ and ask Him to show us what His view is, it would be this,” Pereyra said.
“Our faith compels us to pray for those who have died,” Rodriguez said. “The Mass is a way to honor those who died: family members, men, women and children.”
Fr. Sean Carroll, S.., executive director of the Kino Border Initiative in Nogales, a group that renders humanitarian aid to border crossers, said migrants die in the desert because “we don’t have legal ways for people to come to work in areas of the United States.” Often, he said, they have family members — spouses or children, for example — and wish to rejoin them. With no legal way to come, they risk their lives.
“We see people in our work with severely blistered feet, flu-like symptoms, women who have been raped and assaulted. These are violations of their human dignity,” Fr. Carroll said. “They are human beings made in God’s image and likeness. Our call is to recognize their God-given dignity.”