It's after dinner at Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, Mexico. With so many people moving about, the shelter feels alive. The 150 or so beds are nearly full, but more and more men arrive each night. Most have been deported from the United States and know nothing about Tijuana. They come to Casa for free room and board for two weeks. Here they have a chance to save enough money to travel back home, whether home is across the border in the U.S., down in southern Mexico, or back in Honduras.
As a white American volunteer at Casa del Migrante, I approach my presence here as a learning opportunity. The shelter will provide hospitality whether I am here or not. Of course, I hope to contribute to this hospitality, particularly in small moments of everyday service. One of the most sacred pieces of this welcoming is the sharing of stories.
Jorge, a migrant I met three days ago, approaches me in the dark shadow underneath the stairs. Originally, he was from Zacatecas, Mexico; he sports a bald head and has blue eyes. A paycheck still waits for him at Panda Express in Escondido, California, where he was employed as a cook. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) picked him up before he had a chance to get his money. He told me how he is trying to make enough money here in Tijuana so that he can cross to the U.S. and get his old job back.
He motions for me to come closer. Unfolding a crumpled bill from his pocket, he says, "Look what they gave me." He shows me 50,000 Mexican pesos. In a story that switches between Spanish and English, he explains how for the past week and a half he has been working on a construction site near the big plaza. His foreman finally gave him his pay today: the 50,000 pesos. He could not believe it. He was so excited. Until he found out by speaking with the priest and a few of the employees at the shelter that the 50,000-peso note has been discontinued and that it is almost worthless. The peso was revalued on January 1, 1993; pesos dated before then are 1,000 times less valuable than the new Mexican peso. His 50,000-peso bill is really worth only 50 pesos, just under $5.
Jorge's anger and sadness is overwhelming. This is the pain of possibilities lost. This is the constant battle that is played out every night at Casa del Migrante; it is war, all the time, between opportunities lost and chances to start again. Tonight, despair wins and tears crawl down his face. He repeats over and over again, "Those f***ing guys. Those f***ing guys."
Unfortunately, such exploitation is common on both sides of the border. Numerous examples of exploitive labor conditions in the U.S. come to mind, as well as numerous accounts of police robbing and beating migrants in Tijuana. Two migrants showed up this morning telling how they were arrested by the police and held at the station since they did not have any money to bribe the officers.
I cuss with Jorge and do my best to comfort him. Jorge hands me the 50,000 pesos. I try to turn it down but he insists, "Take it. Remember this."
Tonight I consider our roles in all of this. Where will Jorge go from here? As a white Christian of privilege, what will my response be? Where will I take this anger, and how can I legitimately be about love and change? These questions remain unresolved, but it all seems to start with remembering stories. In stories, the dignity of migrants is affirmed.
In sharing this, I hope to mourn in solidarity with Jorge. Although I do not own the tears, I can listen to him, cuss along with him. And in the dynamic and terrible hope of our faith, I can strive to cross borders and welcome the stranger.
Rob Neighbours lives in Santa Cruz, CA.
This account is taken from Voices of Immigration, a campaign of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CCIR) aimed at highlighting the stories of immigrants in our country. Believing that every person is made in the image of God, we seek to restore the human element to the conversation around immigration reform. Each day this week a new story will be highlighted on God's Politics, with additional ones posted throughout March at CCIR's Web site: www.faithandimmigration.org.