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Why do people migrate? What can PC(USA) faith communities do to help?

Mujerista theologian Dr. Teresita Matos-Post concludes her two-part account

by Dr. Teresita Matos-Post | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Leaders from Mexico and Guatemala: Bridich Saragos, Delia Catú, Graciela Cedillo and Perla del Ángel. (Contributed photo)

Editor’s note: Read the first installment by Dr. Teresita Matos-Post, “Navigating ministry along the migration route,” by going here. Matos-Post, a Mujerista theologian, directs Beth-El Farmworker Ministry in central Florida.

Countries of origin: Why do people migrate?

When I asked the Mesoamerican leaders about how their experience in El Salvador influenced their understanding of migration, they all gave the same response. They expressed that they found similar conditions in communities in El Salvador that forced people to migrate north from their home countries.

Delia Catú strongly explained the reasons why people migrate, echoing the sentiments of others. Delia stated that people migrate due to a lack of decent job opportunities and essential services such as access to electricity, sanitation, health care and education. Poverty is widespread, not due to a lack of wealth, that is, in knowledge or culture among families, but rather due to corruption and mismanagement by leaders. The unequal distribution of resources and discrimination against indigenous populations exacerbates the problem. Neglect, climate change, and droughts have rendered the land infertile and depleted, making it impossible to produce food.

Bridich Saragos mentioned that another common reason they hear from migrants at the border in Agua Prieta, Sonora, Mexico, is that criminal groups have displaced them. According to Bridich, migrants at the border report, “they are taking away their land, recruiting them, threatening them, or have killed members of their family and they fear for their lives and run away from their place of origin and come north seeking asylum.”

Given the circumstances and the treacherous nature of the journey through the migration route, Selenia Ordoñez from Honduras reflected on the families and many moms with children who come through Honduras in the caravans originating from South America. She wondered, “How do you make this difficult decision to travel with your family and expose them?” All the women in our calls agreed it must be a desperate situation with no other viable options.

Perla de Ángel affirmed that notion: “The most important and common trait among any profile we have attended to has been the search for a dignified life free of violence. No one moves if they don’t have that great need.”

One delegation visits a rural community outside San Salvador. (Photo by Nelson Santos)

Tomasita Moran is involved in a project that constructs homes for families in El Salvador. Both Carmen Diaz and Tomasita stated that in El Salvador, if families have a small house and a source of income, they will not need to migrate. Tomasita shared the story of one of the recipients of the homes they helped build: “She had a young son and was living with close relatives who eventually became angry and told them they had to leave. She participated in our program, and now she has her own little house and works in agriculture, cutting lorocos. She says, ‘I have a little house, and I have a job; I don’t need to migrate.'”

Countries of transit: a path of death

For several decades, communities in Mesoamerican countries have been experiencing the departure of young people and men. However, for countries like Honduras, migratory groups passing through their territory are a recent phenomenon. 

Selenia Ordoñez

Selenia recalls that just over a year ago, many migrants started coming to Honduras, which initially made them feel scared because they did not know who these people were. Selenia said, “We felt that the government at that time was not doing anything. For example, [along] the Danlí border in Trojes, an impoverished community, they were overcrowded with 3,000 migrants entering daily. There were needs in all aspects and insufficient supplies; there was no food, no water, and no place to bathe. Watching the news, one feels overwhelmed.”

Migrants in transit face numerous dangers beyond the lack of basic needs. “Men are at risk of robbery, kidnapping, and human trafficking, while women face an even greater threat, including the risk of being raped, robbed, scammed, prostituted, and subjected to involuntary servitude. Young women and adolescents who are well-informed often seek medical assistance for contraceptive medication before embarking on their journey to prevent pregnancy in situations of sexual violence,” shared Delia Catú, who teaches human reproduction and sexuality to returned and deported children and adolescents to prevent sexual abuse.

Bridich Saragos raises a cross in memory of migrants who died on their journey. (Contributed photo)

At the network launch in El Salvador, Bridich Saragos helped lead a moving devotional based on a weekly vigil their ministry holds at the border. Bridich reminds us, “Not everyone reaches their destination; many perish on the way. The vigil serves to honor the lives lost on the migration journey. Participants lift white crosses adorned with names, a solemn recognition of those who have passed. Some crosses bear the poignant label ‘unknown,’ representing the countless unidentified bodies or souls lost without a trace.”

“We commemorate their memory, acknowledging their humanity as children of God — mothers, fathers, grandparents — who, tragically, fell short of their dreams. In our prayers, we seek solace for their families and the void left in their wake.”

What can the church do in countries of destiny?

So, what is a church to do in their communities for those who make it to their destination, often Mexico or the United States? 

A U.S. presbytery hired CEDEPCA to raise awareness about the challenges Guatemalan migrants face in their communities. The presbytery aimed to address the increasing number of Guatemalans working in agriculture, high truancy rates, and young pregnant girls.

N’Yisrela Watts-Afriyie, Nancy Carrera and Dr. Teresita Matos-Post sharing a shawl as a symbol of the comfort shared with migrants on the journey. (Photo by Roy Horan)

Nancy Carrera of CEDEPCA explains that it was important for the presbytery in the United States to understand the reasons behind specific actions. She states, “Migrant men would take their older children to work, but they would then encounter the law in the United States, which mandates that education is a right. This meant they were obligated to send their children to school, where the instruction was always in English. Due to overcrowding in living spaces, young girls ended up getting pregnant. Most of these families speak more than 22 recognized Mayan languages and struggle to understand the systems in the United States.”

The presbytery established a support group for young mothers, providing parenting classes and workshops on U.S. laws and rights, teaching them Spanish and English, and providing sexual and reproductive education. As a result, the mothers learned about their new environment and received additional training to start their businesses and support their families.

Selenia believes that churches in the United States could have a greater impact if they advocate for migrant communities due to the availability of resources. “It is important to insist on the human rights of those who have already arrived in the United States, as there have been many rights violations. Churches could influence the recognition of these rights and defend the rights of migrants,” Selenia said.

Bridich in Mexico stated, “As a church, it is not our concern to ask why you are crossing or coming. But we must unite in solidarity with these people by offering what we have. Because the Lord does not ask us for something that we do not have, but that we have, we should share.”

In ministry with the returned or deported

Before this experience in El Salvador and the many conversations with the delegates from the United States and Mesoamerica, I had not given too much thought to the fortunes of those who are caught in transition and returned to their country of origin and those who make it to the country of their aimed destiny and are deported.  

In our conversations, these Christian leaders from Mesoamerica have an immense knowledge of what awaits the returned and deported in their home countries.

Tomasita Moran pointed out the significant number of people who have been returned or deported to their communities in El Salvador. Even though there are no official records of the exact number, when Tomasita interacts with groups in the communities Alfalit serves, she shares that there are often a handful of self-identified deportees. She states, “There are many testimonies in the communities, and when someone starts talking and sharing their experience, it’s not just 2 or 3 people, but 7, 8, or even more.”

According to several leaders, helping returned and deported migrants reintegrate into their communities is a challenging task. Carmen Diaz of IRCES, who has worked with returnees and deportees in various capacities in El Salvador, explains that many returnees face social stigma. “While sending remittances, they develop self-esteem for having money and being able to help their families, but when they return, they are assumed to be a failure; if they returned with nothing, people in their communities surmise it must be because they did something wrong. They do not have where to return, nor do they have contacts. If they migrated due to violence and their lives are at risk, they cannot return to their communities of origin,” Carmen concluded.

The work and challenges ahead

As all of us leaders return to our homes and work, we share a common expectation for the possibilities that the long-awaited formation of the Mission and Migration Network will bring to the work of the church with communities in mobility. 

The whole group celebrates their final day together. (Photo by Nelson Santos)

The women I interviewed mentioned the challenges in understanding migration dynamics as a significant obstacle. However, they expressed hope for the connections made and identified goals and tasks for the leaders within the network and the Church abroad.

Perla de Ángel stated, “In the field of immigration, there are no fixed rules. What may be applicable today may not be applicable tomorrow. Hence, it is important to keep abreast of the latest developments and changing dynamics in the local context.” Similarly, Delia Catú added, “The topic of migration changes constantly. Today, they say one thing; tomorrow, something else. We can never understand it fully in depth.” For Nancy Carrera in Guatemala, the network has the potential to “create bridges between churches and Guatemala [and Mesoamerica] and between churches and immigrant communities in the United States.”

Finally, Delia pointed to the extraordinary leverage of the church: “Pastors, priests, and nuns are closer to the community and the stories of the people, and they are the ones who have the powers of voice and vote and influence in political circles.”

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