Churches Defend Mexican Immigrants Against Harassment

Feb 20, 2003 12:27 PM EST

LAS CRUCES, N.M. – Along the border of the U.S. and Mexico, over-zealous Border Patrol agents continue to harass Mexican immigrants. They position themselves near churches and other places where Mexican immigrants gather and question them as they return home. The practice angers Bishop Ricardo Ramirez who says it is immoral. "We always go through that, no matter where we go," says Ramirez, the bishop of Las Cruces, whose family is originally from Mexico. "That is an in dignity we have to endure wherever we go."

According to human rights workers, the Border Patrol acknowledges that it is against protocol and has promised to end the practice, however little change is seen along the border. "They know that people do not know their rights, and they abuse them," said Claudia Mitchell, associate director of the social ministry office for the Diocese of Las Cruces. "Then, they (migrants) get so nervous that they make a mistake."

Though the events are isolated, immigration workers from Texas to California say that it is a common problem. Fernando Garcia, executive director of the El Paso-based Border Network for Human Rights, said he has complained to the Immigration and Naturalization Service about targeting churches and schools, and has found mixed success. "After Sept. 11, it seems they have flexible-ized the way they enforce the law," Garcia said.

In a recent survey , the Border Network found 80 different cases of harassment along the Texas-New Mexico border, including 200 different types of psychological or physical abuse and civil rights violations. Garcia said the problem is not confined solely to illegal immigrants. Half of those harassed had some legal status allowing them to either live or work in the United States. Garcia said a" culture of abuse" exists along the border.

The scene is similar farther west in Arizona. Jose Robles, director of the Hispanic ministries office for the Diocese of Phoenix, said civilian vigilante groups vowing to protect the border themselves have made it dangerous for Mexicans crossing the border. Ramirez echoed the same concerns. He complained of a "militarized" U.S. border that has been "exaggerated in the name of security" after Sept. 11.Robles, however, said the INS has acted more courteously in his diocese. "They don't mess with us," he said. "They know better."

In the Diocese of San Diego, officials say harassment at or near churches is an "off and on problem." But Linda Arreola assistant director of the diocese’s social ministries office, takes the matter more seriously. "Besides the fact that it is intimidation, they're not allowing people to worship," she said. "So it's really a religious freedom issue."

The nation's Catholic bishops have been steadfast in their defense of the right to migrate, even if it sometimes means arriving illegally. In a joint statement issued last November with Mexican Catholic bishops, the U.S. bishops said migrants "possess inherent human dignity that should be respected." They recalled the words of Pope John XXIII in 1963, who said "every human being has the right to freedom of movement and of residence within the confines of his own country; and, when there are just reasons for it, the right to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there."

Treatment of migrant farm workers has become a top-level legislative priority for Catholic Charities USA this year. Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe said he has personally complained to INS officials about treatment of migrants coming across the border. "And in the churches, I have told my leadership that we welcome the people who come, whether they have documents or not. This is their home."

Churches in California have expanded their advocacy for immigrants to include Middle Easterners, many of whom since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks are now required to register with immigration officials. Brother Ed Dunn, the Southern California organizer for the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, said his group is working to educate Iranians in Los Angeles and Indonesians in San Bernadino County of their legal rights. Dunn's group also coordinates an 8-hour training session for community leaders, who then bring the know-your-rights tips back to churches, where the immigrants can learn what the INS can and cannot do." Churches are one of the places that immigrants trust the most, in terms of coming to," he said.

By Mike Moon