How law enforcement is retraumatizing migrants at the US/Mexico border

Scene of militarism from the US/Mexico border (photo provided by the author)

Scene of militarism from the US/Mexico border (photo provided by the author)

By Cynthia Gonzalez

Migrants and asylum seekers arriving to our community come with invisible wounds left on them by their experiences of violence and persecution in their home countries. Their wounds get cut even deeper by the other traumatizing situations they experience along their journey, including gang violence, hostile environmental conditions, and abuses from law enforcement agents. 

As a member of the Missionary Society of St. Columban's border ministries team, I have had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of migrants. They've given me the privilege of hearing their stories. After listening to them, I've come to believe that the abuse inflicted on them by law enforcement is the worst, the most dangerous and cruel of all. It’s abuse that comes from those who are supposed to take care of you that causes the most damage. How can you go and ask for help from those wearing a uniform when they beat you, rob you, and even rape you?


In March of this year, there was an incident in Cd. Juarez where local police entered with force a church where Columbans serve meals to migrants. The incident was very violent, resulting in some people being hurt. Soon after the incident I was able to talk to one of the migrants who saw the raid. He said he was not feeling well that day, that he was feeling dizzy and his heart was racing. He told me he was scared. He said the police officers, pushing people and screaming, had reminded him of the events he witnessed in his country where he had seen policemen killing citizens in front of him. 


A few days later, I had a conversation with a migrant who was so upset to the point of crying because he had recently been robbed by police in Cd. Juarez. He kept repeating, “They are not good people, they are evil, they are the true criminals.” As he narrated his experience, you could hear in his tone a sense of disbelief, sadness, and anger at the same time.  


A few weeks later in April, I encountered a migrant who was already in El Paso, Texas. He shared with me his plans to reach his final destination. He soon started telling me about his journey. He said he felt very sacred of all the police that circled the area where he was saying on the streets, which was outside Sacred Heart Church. Although he had already been processed and had his court date, he felt like those police men where going to do something to him. He told me that he was not treated well by border patrol agents who in his words “saw him and treated him as an animal.” He said he was insulted and abused while he was in the detention processing center. As he narrated his experience he kept reassuring me that he had never committed a crime in his life, that he was a good person. It appeared to him as if his only crime had been trying to give his daughter a better life by bringing her to safety, and he wasn't ashamed for doing that. 


When I met Raul he was in extreme fear. He was not sure if he was going to present himself again to border patrol to request asylum. He had been sent back to Mexico a few times before under Title 42. He described his experienced being detained as one of the worst experiences in his life, even compared to the ones he lived during his journey through the Darian Gap. The last time he had been detained, he said he was not given food, he spent days (30+ days) without seeing sunlight or taking a shower. Even the thought of being back in that situation again made him feel sick and nauseous. 

Scenes of militarism from the US/Mexico border (photos by the author)

As the government was getting ready to end Title 42, they sent a great number of law enforcement agents from evey level of government to the community of El Paso. As someone who has lived their whole life in this community, it was difficult for me not to feel scared or intimidated. 

It is difficult not to be scared when these officers are coming from out of town, and we keep hearing about the constant abuses (and even killings) done by the hands of law enforcement in other parts of the country. It is difficult to feel safe when all these officers are carrying weapons, and even military equipment that we had only seen in movies or in a place of war. El Paso is not a warzone and the migrants we are welcoming are not soldiers deployed by another government. They are people like Angel who only want to give a better life to his daughter. 

The Missionary Society of St. Columban sees how "militarism is promoted as necessary for defense, security [...] However our experience and history shows that military might has not brought peace and cannot make up for corrupt and unjust structures and governments."

As people of faith, we have a moral responsibility to practice nonviolence. “Nonviolence is based on the inviolability of the human person. It calls for a life of action; assertive imaginative, systematic, preemptive action. This action is aimed at uprooting injustice and eventually bringing about reconciliation" (Fr Naill O’Brien, SSC. Island of Tears, Island of Hope. Pg 92-93).

There cannot be peace at the border until we reconcile ourselves with the migrants who are Christ knocking on our door. There cannot be peace in our country until we reconcile ourselves with each and every one of our neighbors, especially the ones we deny God's presence within.

The day before Title 42 was lifted, a group of migrants gathered near the border fence waiting to hopefully be processed by CBP agents. In the middle of the night, they claimed they were harassed by agents dressed in Texas National Guard uniforms, who told they had to leave in less than an hour or they would use force, some even saying that they would shoot them. 

When Christ knocks on our country's door, this is how we are welcoming him. This is the country we are right now. Is it who we want to be?

Cynthia Gonzalez is the US Advocacy Coordinator for the Missionary Society of St. Columban and is a member of the Columban border ministries. She has lived her whole life in El Paso, Texas. 

Publication Date
May 15, 2023