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New accompaniment program at the border helps keep migrants safe


Accompaniers are called to be ‘a presence of peace’

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Barbara Clawson is a Presbyterian Peace Fellowship volunteer serving in a new accompaniment program to support migrants and human rights in Agua Prieta, Mexico. (Photo by Phyllis Stutzman)

LOUISVILLE — Sitting in our comfortable homes in the U.S., it’s difficult to comprehend the importance of a ministry of accompaniment in countries where violence is commonplace.

Just last month, a military convoy arrived at CAME (Centro de Atención al Migrante Exodus) in Agua Prieta, Mexico, demanding entrance to the migrant shelter. There was a two-hour standoff in front of the facility, during which the Mexican National Guard interrogated CAME leaders about the group’s purpose and funding and the identity of those inside.

Barbara Clawson and Phyllis Stutzman arrived in the midst of this encounter. They are volunteers serving with Presbyterian Peace Fellowship’s (PPF) new accompaniment program to support migrants and human rights in Agua Prieta. Partners in the program include Presbyterian World Mission, mission co-workers the Rev. Mark Adams and Miriam Maldonado, the bi-national ministry Frontera de Cristo, Christian Peacemaker Teams reservists, Mennonite Central Committee, Sisters of Notre Dame, and others.

Initially, PPF called upon people who have already trained as accompaniers through PPF’s Colombia Accompaniment Program to serve in Agua Prieta through the end of July, but there has already been a request to extend the program another six months.

As in Colombia, the visible presence of accompaniers from the U.S. serves as protection from the cartel which tries to intimidate migrants and extort money from them. Already, the local cartel has begun to view CAME is as a potential threat. In the last three months, the intimidation has increased exponentially, to the point of indirect threats of violence.

The increasing numbers of people needing shelter at CAME is due in part to shifting flows of migration and primarily because U.S. government policies are forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, sometimes for a month or more, before making their petition of asylum at the port of entry.

In a report to Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, Clawson and Stuzman wrote about their experience.

“There is no way to measure the impact of seeing and being seen. There is certainly no way to know if the presence of two U.S. women made any difference in the actions/non-actions of the National Guard. But we do know that those who live and work at CAME are exceedingly grateful for our presence as accompaniers. This experience has deeply personalized the immigration issue for us. Gifts we have received from the migrants include examples of the courage it takes to do what you think is best for your family, the ability to keep moving forward in spite of great uncertainty, gratitude for help received and the ability to smile and laugh in the midst of all of this.”

“The Cave” is a makeshift shelter six feet from the  Port of Entry. Families wait here for five to seven days before being allowed to petition for asylum. (Contributed photo)

Accompaniers walk the line several times a day to escort those waiting to use the Migrant Resource Center, where they can use the bathroom, take a shower, cool off or do laundry. The line is the space to the east of the Port of Entry in Agua Prieta where people sit waiting for their numbers to be called so they can cross into the U.S. and present themselves to U.S. Customs and Border Protection to petition for asylum.

In an accompanier report from Ruth Noel and Faith Garlington, they describe “the line”:

“It is really a long cave made of blankets and tarps right against the way at the entrance to the border crossing. It is appalling. There are about 15 people in this cave at one time. They usually stay 3-4 days. They have already waited in a local shelter for 30 days before they advance to the cave.”

The center is a partnership of several organizations working together toward the common goal of helping migrants. Migrants, especially those who have been recently deported, lack some basic humanitarian needs — a fresh pair of socks or medical attention for dehydration and blisters. The center also helps migrants understand their options, including helping them get reduced-price bus tickets so that they can return home.

Adams and Maldonado are mission co-workers with the Presbyterian Border Ministry in Agua Prieta, where Adams has served since 1998. In his role as U.S. coordinator of the Frontera de Cristo ministry, he works with partners to coordinate the six ministry areas of Frontera de Cristo: church development, health, family counseling, the New Hope Community Center, mission education, and the Just Trade Center.

In June, Adams, along with Frontera de Cristo’s partners, had to decide whether to host visiting church groups that planned to visit the border this summer. Just days earlier, a shootout killed five persons and there was a targeted killing in broad daylight a block from two homes of staff of Frontera de Cristo.

“While the overt violence of last month was unsettling it helped us clarify and reaffirm our call and to recognize that while overt violence is fleeting, the children, youth, and adults with whom we are in ministry live with the reality of systematic psychological, physical and emotional violence every day,” he said. “We came to the consensus: As one of our staff said, we are called to be a presence of peace.”

If you are interested in serving as a PPF accompanier in Agua Prieta or in learning more, please fill out this interest form.

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