Longreads

Father of Migrants

Father Javier, who has directed the migrant shelter in Juárez for seven years, sits in his office among his books. Photos by Itzel Aguilera.

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Alice Driver | Longreads | June 2017 | 22 minutes (5,698 words)

LEER EN ESPAÑOL

“What good is a border without a people willing to break it wide open?”
— Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, quote from live storytelling at California Sunday Popup in Austin, Texas on March 4, 2017

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On the edge of the promised land dust storms rise out of the desert, obscuring everything, even the migrants waiting at the gate in front of a complex surrounded by a chain-linked fence topped by barbed wire. But Father Javier Calvillo Salazar is from Juárez, Mexico and he is used to it all, and to those who arrive after what is sometimes thousands of miles and hundreds of days with a collection of scars, broken bones, and missing limbs to match the inhumanity encountered along the way. They arrive weeping, they arrive stony-faced, they arrive pregnant, they arrive with venereal diseases—sometimes they arrive telling García Márquez-esqe stories of witnessing a crocodile eat a newborn baby in one swift bite.

Nicole was delivered at a hospital into the arms of her mother, Ana Lizbeth Bonía, 28, who arrived at the shelter in Juárez after spending nine months traveling north from Comayagua, Honduras. She showed up at the migrant shelter Casa del Migrante Diócesis de Ciudad Juárez with her husband Luis Orlando Rubí, 23, and her underweight son, José Luis, 2, who had saucer-like eyes that glistened with emotion. Ana, who had grown up selling vegetables in the street since the age of 4, had never finished elementary school.

The migrant shelter in Juárez is so close to El Paso, Texas that migrants feel the bittersweet pull of land they can see but likely never legally inhabit. The shelter has 120 beds for men, 60 for women, 20 for families, and one separate area where transgender migrants can stay if they choose. Most migrants who arrive at the shelter are single men, and in interviews migrants mentioned that President Trump’s threat of separating women from their children had led to a decrease in migration by those groups. Each migrant is initially limited to a three-day stay, but they can extend that time depending on their condition, as in the case of Ana, who needed time to rest and recuperate after giving birth to Nicole.

Ana and José Luis play in the TV room at the migrant shelter while and baby Nicole sleeps.

The shelter was open in 1982 by the Missionaries of San Carlos, and Father Javier has been its director for seven years and working with migrants for 15. A staff of 23 including therapists, human rights experts, cooks, and receptionists helps run the migrant shelter 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In January the Catholic Church assigned Father Ricardo Reina García, 42, to support Father Javier’s work at the shelter, and when I arrived he had been there for almost two months.

I had been traveling to Juárez since 2011, first as a part of interviews for my book, More or Less Dead, and later because I could never stop writing about the women I met, mothers whose daughters were victims of disappearance, rape and murder. I wanted to use my words to fight for justice and equality. What I learned from the research process of my book was that many of the victims of violence in Juárez were migrants, because migrants, who are often undocumented and far from extended family, are extremely vulnerable to violence. After my book was published in 2015, I knew that my next project would tell the stories of migrants, many of whom disappeared without a trace in Mexico, victims of an extensive network of human trafficking. In 2017, I received a fellowship to embark on a six-month project about Central American migrants, and I returned to Juárez to live in the city’s migrant shelter as the first leg of a journey in which I would later follow the migrant trail through Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Three days after Ana’s arrival at the migrant shelter in Juárez, Father Ricardo rushed Ana to the hospital to give birth. Before getting in the van, Father Ricardo said that Ana told him that she didn’t want her husband Luis to be present in the delivery room.

Father Ricardo, who was born in Juárez, is big in a way that could be intimidating if he weren’t so soft-spoken. His voice is a soothing, a notch above a whisper, and he spends his days presiding over baptisms, weddings, and funerals in between ferrying migrants to the bus station, medical appointments, and work assignments. During my two weeks living at the shelter, we spent a lot of time together. One sunny afternoon, as the wind was whipped around the corners of the shelter outside, he said, “My family context means that I understand the dynamics of migration. My dad is from a ranch in Zaragoza, my mom is from Zacatecas, and my grandmother on my mom’s side is from Durango. My roots are in human mobility, which means looking for a better life for future generations. I believe that migration is a human condition that will always be present.”

For some migrants, the road ended in Juárez, where at least work was readily available. When Nicole was five days old, I sat down with her father Luis, to ask about his journey. He and Ana had taken buses all the way from their home in Honduras to Juárez, and whenever they ran out of money, they stayed in one place and begged in the street or found work. He said, “We wanted to cross to the United States, but according to what the President said, he is going to separate parents from their children, so we changed our plans and decided to stay here.” Luis, despite his youth, seemed confident about building a life in Juárez for his wife and two young kids.

At the migrant shelter, one mother, Ana, had given birth while another mother wondered where her daughter might be. Anahí Ortigoza Reyes, 34, was stuck in Juárez, while her daughter, 4-year-old Ashley Anahí, was in Oregon. Anahí and Ashley Anahí had flown to Juárez from Huajuapan de León, México. Anahí told me she had hired smugglers to get herself and her daughter across the border, but they had been forced to separate. The smugglers took her daughter safely across first, but left Anahí near the border wall with a pair of wire cutters, and told her she had to cut her way through several chain-link fences. Almost immediately, Anahí was caught by border patrol agents and sent back to Juárez. “My husband is on the other side,” she told me. “He lives in Oregon. My daughter is already in Oregon.” I asked Anahí when she had last lived in the U.S. “I returned to Mexico, and I’ve been here 12 years. I came to see my mother was sick,” she said.

Manuel García Corona, 45, who was born in Michoacán, Mexico, arrived at the shelter after being deported from the U.S. He had been living there for 25 years, and he worked as a truck driver despite his undocumented status. When I asked him why he had been deported, he said he had been wrongly accused of transporting undocumented migrants, but he didn’t want to discuss the details. Return to the USA?” he asked. “It is a very beautiful country and the people are patient, and I appreciate their patience in communicating with me, but for those of us who have already deported, it is a country of fear. I would call it hell.” Manuel planned to return to his home state of Michoacán, Mexico rather than to attempt to enter the U.S. again. Other deported men who showed up at the shelter spoke of children left behind in the U.S., of families split apart—and they said they would cross the border as many times as it took to be reunited with their sons and daughters.

The migrant shelter is decorated by murals designed by Juárez artist Octavio Navatomik and painted by migrants. The murals depict the migrant train, La Bestia.

“One time the train almost cut off my feet,” recounted Darlin Palacios, 38, originally from San Pedro Sula, Honduras. He had bright, inquisitive eyes, and he was calm and measured in his storytelling. He sat in the TV room at the shelter in front of a mural, which was painted by migrants, that said “Ningun ser humano es ilegal” (“No human being is illegal”). The mural featured the face of a white lady with soap opera hair, a black adolescent and a very light-skinned boy, and beside them was the train, which included voluptuous women riding on top that I surmise could only have been painted by men.

The cargo train, which Darlin and most other migrants ride, runs from southern to northern Mexico, is known by migrants as La Bestia (The Beast) and El Tren de la Muerte (The Death Train). It covers some 1,000+ miles from Tapachula to Juárez and on the trip migrants need to hop dozens of different trains and get on and off to avoid police checkpoints and gangs controlling certain territory. Darlin had arrived at the Migrant Shelter in Juárez in what would be his 15th attempt to cross the U.S. border. He first made the trip in 2004 when he was 26. He had been working in Honduras at an electronics repair shop, but both he and his family were deeply in debt, and they needed money. He made the decision, against his family’s wishes, to try to get to the U.S. “I celebrated two or three birthdays and two Christmases on the road,” he said.

Darlin has spent the better part of the past 12 years on the migrant trail, covering an expansive loop of territory without ever arriving at his desired destination. Talking about the current political environment in the U.S., Darlin commented, “The border is a little more racist than before, but racism has always been around. We are more scared of crime here in Mexico than of migration agents. Migration agents will always stop us. Gangs will not stop us—they will kill us.”

Darlin remembers every trip in detail, and he talked about most of adventures with fondness, except for discussing being kidnapped by a gang on his most recent attempt to cross the border and getting lost in the mountains of Mexico for a month. He described how beautiful the trip could be, at times, especially seeing Mexico from atop a train. Yes, he had cried on the trail and he had felt depressed, but he tried not to think about it, because his future was always on his mind. The two times he managed to cross the U.S. border, he was caught immediately and deported. “Did you know they use drones to find you at night?” he asked. “The drones detect motion and shine a light on you.” The second time the removal order stated that he was prohibited from entering the U.S. for 20 years.

“This is one of the best migrant shelters in the Mexico,” Darlin told me. “They take care of you and the food is good. The only thing is that they don’t let us leave unless we have work. They say it is for our own security.” Juárez, was the most violent city in the world between 2009-2011, and it continues to experience elevated levels of violence. When I arrived on March 23, 2017, there had been a total of 71 homicides in the city that month, and right before I arrived police had discovered 18 unidentified bodies in a mass graves.

A lone migrant waits in the dining hall as the cook prepares dinner.

Migrants were locked in the shelter, allowed 10 minutes per day of phone and internet time, and were escorted to their dorms at 8:30 p.m. each night. They could leave the shelter during the day if they wanted to work and earn some extra money at jobs arranged by the shelter. Many migrants complained about the strict schedule, but they were also appreciative of how well the shelter was run. Every migrant that I spoke to mentioned that many shelters in Mexico were corrupt and operated for profit, charging migrants for food and showers, or even serving as a connection to smugglers and human traffickers. Some shelters did not have beds, some didn’t have electricity, and others served rotten food or simply no food at all. Ana, mother of days-old Nicole, described how often, “There are too many migrants, and there are shelters where the directors are not good people—they even sell the food. It is a business. They only let you shower once a week.”

Breakfast at the Juárez shelter was served at 7:30 a.m. each day. The chickens housed in the back patio of the shelter produced a dozen or so eggs a week, which Lolita, the cook who was on duty most mornings, fried up when they were available. The coffee was hot and plentiful, and we drank it out of mugs that tasted faintly of bleach. Lolita worked miracles with donated food, and often served up pancakes, stuffed chile rellenos, and homemade chicken soup. Migrants who never knew where their next meal might come from let out sighs of happiness at the sight of Lolita’s food.

A migrant named Gonzalo Rodríguez arrived at the shelter several days after Darlin, and he told me that he was gay and had worked as a teacher in Costa Rica until a conservative, religious administrator tried to jail him for being gay while working with kids. He fled Costa Rica and met up with his father and half-brother in Honduras. According to Gonzalo, his half-brother decided to join him in trying to reach the U.S., and they traveled together to Mexico via a smuggler. They went to the consulate in Honduras where they paid $2,500 each for fake identification papers, which they believed would make their journey easier. However, shortly after they started traveling in Mexico, the smuggler sold them to human traffickers. Gonzalo said he was afraid to tell people that he was gay because many shelters in Mexico would turn away gay or transgender people at the door.

Gonzalo, who had a wide, flat face and a direct manner, lowered his voice to a whisper and said, “My brother was sold into drug trafficking, and I was sent to a storage room in Magdalena where there were about 185 people. There were people of all nationalities: Hondurans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, some from Nepal, India, who were being prostituted–children between the ages of 13 and 15 were being prostituted. Do you understand me?” Larger guys like Gonzalo were used to pack cocaine and marijuana. He explained, “The black box was the most feared of all because everyone knew they were going to take an organ. And that is where they killed girls or the boys because they no longer needed them. They killed them in front of the whole world.” I had heard rumors of organ trafficking in Mexico for over a decade, but I told him that no research had proven the existence of such a technical, coordinated, expensive transaction. “Surely organ trafficking would leave some evidence of existence?” I asked. Gonzalo insisted that organ trafficking was real.

Migrants leave drawings and message behind at the shelter before continuing their journey to the U.S.

Over the years, Father Javier had heard similar  stories. “When we talk about migration we’re talking about numbers, we’re talking about profit, we’re talking about economy, we’re talking about interests, we’re talking about the product of many things: sex, human, and organ trafficking,” he said.

“I have multiple burns on my skin because I did not want to do things I had to do,” Gonzalo said. He lifted his pants leg to show me the marks. “Me and three other men, they forced us to have sex with animals, to give oral sex to dogs. Yes, they recorded it to make videos.” I had seen such bestiality videos for sale in the Tepito neighborhood of Mexico City, and like the organ trafficking rumors, I had also heard of traffickers forcing victims to make specialty porn videos.

When it comes to the human body, everything can be trafficked. Migrants are a product in a system that breaks them down into lucrative parts, often until there is nothing left. “The strange thing is that migrants exist, but at the same time they do not exist, because they have no identification papers, and therefore everyone does whatever they want to them,” said Father Javier, as he sat in his celestial blue-walled office at a desk littered with piles of paper and books. Behind him was a blinking router balanced on the base of a cross with a tiny crucified Jesus and a golden statue of Our Lady of Fatima. Father Javier, when not in his religious robes and presiding over weddings and baptisms, ran around energetically in athletic fleeces and vests tending to migrant affairs.

Migrant bodies are a big business globally. Father Javier explained how migration was more profitable than drug trafficking in Mexico. What I learned from the migrants who shared their stories was how drug trafficking and human trafficking were intertwined, as was the case of Gonzalo who was a victim of trafficking and was also used to pack drugs. Migrants are a statistic, a product that can be moved according to specific interests on a given side of the border. “We are talking about human trafficking, we are talking about the disappearance of children, we are talking about the sale of organs,” Father Javier said.

At 16, Bayron Valle found himself headed to the U.S., fleeing violence and economic difficulties in Ocotepeque, Honduras. On his second attempt to reach the U.S., at 18, he made it to California undocumented. He recounted how police caught him in Indio and sent him to a holding center in Brawley, then moved him to one in central California, then to one in San Diego, and finally to a center in Arizona in a process that took eight months.

“It is just like jail. You have no choice about anything. Calls are very expensive—they cost .35 cents per minute,” said Bayron, now 22, as he sat in the morning sun at the migrant shelter feeding orange slices to the turkeys and chickens that wandered around the Maguey plants in the garden looking for insects. “When I was brought to Arizona, it was terrible. We were given potatoes to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, only potato, potato and potato.”

Bayron, who has a baby face, was wise in the ways of the migrant trail after seven trips from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico border. “I just want to pay some debts we have in Honduras, from when my brothers and my mom studied,” he explained. “In Honduras, it is not possible—on the other side, yes, it is. If I stay in Honduras, I will die, and I will do nothing.” He was traveling with his cousin Carlos Portillo, 25, from Ocotepeque, Honduras.

Carlos washes his clothes at dusk with his left hand because his right hand was injured on the train.

At dusk each evening, Carlos stood outside the men’s dormitory washing one of his only two shirts with one hand. The other hand, which was bandaged, hung limply at his side. It was Carlos’ first time on the migrant trail, and he described how, “The gangs threw us off La Bestia, and we couldn’t defend ourselves, because if you defend yourself, they kill you.” He missed his 7-year-old brother and talked about his dream of giving him the opportunities he never had. “My dream has always been to help my family.”

Father Javier had been working with migrants for so many years, and he had become used to sorting through their fragmented and constantly evolving stories and seeking to understand how best to help people when the nature of truth was constantly shifting. He knew their fears intimately, both the told and the untold, and he saw how the desperation and violence that were part of the migrant experience made it difficult for them to trust anyone. On the migrant trail, a police officer could also be a human trafficker, a soldier could be a rapist, a fellow migrant could be a smuggler, and a potential love interest could turn into a future pimp. Father Javier had also seen all the ways families could be broken apart: “Look how many people get left behind on the road—how many fall off the train, how many are mutilated, how many get split in half, how many are running to catch the train with their husbands and as they jump up, one of their own children falls off and gets left behind.”

The violence of daily life and even the brutality of transience—for example, of never knowing if and when you will eat—wore migrants down to the bone. In turn, their collective stories, warning me that if migrants had my name and gave it to kidnappers, the kidnappers might search for me on Facebook and ask for a ransom, for example, or informing me that a migrant I had interviewed was actually a smuggler, made me paranoid and fearful. On my last day at the shelter, Gonzalo asked me to take photos of him so that he could send them to his brother, a brother who I had heard him say was both dead and alive. He then requested that I send the photos to him via Whatsapp. As he gave me his telephone number, I paused, because in sending the photos I would be giving him my number. Sensing my hesitation, he said, “You don’t want me to have your number, do you?” I wanted to trust him, and I felt bad, so I sent him the photos. But within 24 hours, I had both a Facebook friend request from him and a voice message on my phone. I deleted both.

A mural decorating the shelter that was painted by migrants.

Anahí stayed at the shelter for a week while working with the staff to try to figure out how to get her 4-year-old daughter back to Mexico. There were complications because, as it turned out, the husband she mentioned, was not officially a husband. Anahí later said that he was boyfriend, although since she hadn’t been in the U.S. for 12 years, at best it seemed like he might be an ex-boyfriend. Given that he had no legal relationship to the child, U.S. law enforcement was considering charging him with kidnapping Ashley Anahí. When I talked to Father Javier about her case, he said he thought Anahí’s stated boyfriend was “probably the smuggler. That is how they work—they traffic children and women.”

Anahí had two other children living in Huajuapán de León, Mexico, Miguel Ángel who was 10 and a U.S. citizen, and Nelly Charo, who was seven. She left them with family, and had talked to them about her reasons for leaving, but she wasn’t sure they understood. Although she had given up on crossing into the U.S. again, she was hopeful that when Miguel Ángel turned 18, he would be able to help his sisters get citizenship. “My consolation is that he can help his sisters arrange documents to study there and get ahead,” she mused.

The night after Anahí returned to Huajuapán de León to get the original copy of Ashley Anahí’s birth certificate, which she needed to get her daughter on a flight back to Mexico, Father Ricardo gathered the remaining migrants in the church next to the shelter to read the story of Abram leaving for the Promised Land. “Abram was a migrant. How does his story relate to your story? How did you feel when you left your family?” asked Father Ricardo. The migrants sat quietly.

Finally, one asked, “Why didn’t Abram reach the Promised Land? I need to know. Is it because he was a sinner?” Even though these men from Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico, and beyond couldn’t share their feelings directly, they wanted to know if they were being punished for some unknown sin. What is it to wander with no hope of reaching the Promised Land? One thing that struck me in all my interviews is that when I asked migrants—some of whom had been kidnapped and tortured or had spent years and thousands of miles trying to reach the U.S.—what the hardest part of their journey had been, they all said some version of “leaving my family.”

On his most recent trip from Honduras to Mexico, Darlin was kidnapped by a gang for four days. In his 12 years traveling the migrant trail, he had become a scholar of extortion systems. In Mexico, this included paying a price to certain gangs in certain cities before jumping on La Bestia. The gangs would require each migrant to pay a certain amount of money and give them a code. Gang members traveled on the train demanding the codes from migrants, and those who didn’t have them were thrown off or kidnapped and sold to traffickers. “At first, I thought I was going to die, because the first thing that came to mind was Los Zetas,” said Darlin describing his kidnapping, which he assumed was the work of a major Mexican drug cartel. Police found the kidnappers and freed Darlin and several other migrants, who all immediately went to bathe in a local river. While they washed themselves, someone stole their clothes and fired a few shots at them. “I found a piece of cloth thrown in the garbage, and I wrapped it around me and ran into town barefoot and half-naked, and everyone was watching because it was something strange.”

Daniel Juezca from Veracruz, Mexico rests at the migrant shelter with is nine-month-old son Oscar Mateo in his arms.

One day, Darlin told me that Ana, whose newborn was then 15-days old, had heard a rumor that Luis had kissed the night cook in the kitchen. The next day, I noticed scratches and bruises on Ana’s neck, and when I walked out to the van to meet Father Ricardo to go drop off to a group of migrants leaving the shelter, I found Luis among them. “I’m going to cross the border,” he said, piling in the car without glancing back at his wife, daughter, and son, who were sitting in the sun behind the fence.

As Father Ricardo drove, he talked about his love of teaching and of literature, especially poetry. And then he recited “I Have a White Rose to Tend” by Cuban poet José Martí from memory. “I cultivate a white rose/ In July as in January/ For the sincere friend/ Who gives me his hand frankly./ And for the cruel person who tears out/ the heart with which I live,/ I cultivate neither nettles nor thorns:/ I cultivate a white rose.” By the time Father Ricardo’s voice dropped off at “rose,” we had arrived at a bus stop on the side of the highway. The migrants got out of the car, and as we drove away their faces and bodies disappeared in a cloud of dust.

That night, Father Ricardo, worried about Ana, brought her dinner to the family housing area so that she wouldn’t have to face questions from the other migrants. We sat together and ate in silence, waiting for Ana to share her feelings. When asked about Luis, she said calmly, “I don’t know where he is going. He will not return.”

Over several days, Gonzalo, the migrant fleeing Costa Rica, continued to tell me his story. His half-brother was still missing, and Gonzalo had decided to go from shelter to shelter along the Mexican side of the border in search of him. He wondered if his half-brother had simply vanished into the black hole of disappearance in Mexico. According to an Amnesty International report 29,917 enforced disappearances have been reported in Mexico.

When I sat down to talk to Father Javier to talk about disappearance, he said, “I don’t know if you have heard about Tamaulipas and the holes that there are filled with dogs. They put migrants to work packing drugs, and then suddenly they take them over to a hole that is filled with Dobermans. They throw the migrants down there, and the dogs eat them.”

I thought of the case of the 43 Mexican students who were forcibly disappeared in September 2014. The government reported that their bodies had been burned, but a forensic investigation failed to find virtually any organic matter or bone fragments. In the absence of evidence that the Mexican students were dead, they joined tens of thousands of reported and unreported disappeared. “Why doesn’t anybody talk about human trafficking? We have direct testimony, and we have shown the video of it in meetings. Logically, is likely that organ trafficking exists, human trafficking exists, slavery exists,” said Father Javier when talking about the growing problem of disappearance in Mexico.

Darlin, the shelter’s resident philosopher on migration and the migrant who everyone proclaimed had made the most attempts at crossing the border of anyone they had met, talked about how news of murder and disappearance affected everyone. He said, “Our families never want us to take this road, because they have heard how dangerous it is. Did you hear the news about 72 migrants that were killed in Tamaulipas at the San Fernando ranch [in 2010] Since then, Honduran families have believed that their loved ones could return in a casket or never return at all.” He admitted that each time he left home, he said goodbye with the awareness that he might never return.

On my second to last day at the shelter, Gonzalo  told me that he thought he had AIDS. I encouraged him to get tested, but he said he was afraid that Father Javier and Father Ricardo would judge him. That afternoon, Father Ricardo, who liked browsing documentaries on YouTube, invited me to watch a short documentary about migrants in Mexico that was shot in December 2016. “One of the migrants at the shelter who is here now is interviewed,” he said. Half-way through the interviews, Gonzalo appeared, sitting on train tracks next to the TV interviewer. He looked the same, except that he introduced himself as Olvin, and he told the interviewer the same story he had told me, except he said that the traffickers murdered his brother right in front of his eyes. When I Googled the name Olvin Rodríguez, I discovered that he had been interviewed by another journalist for a Pulitzer Center article. In that version of his story, he said his brother had been murdered too.

A migrant takes a nap in the TV room during the afternoon.

The next day, staff at the shelter told me that Luis showed up at the gate looking for Ana. Father Javier, who had seen the evolution of relationships at the shelter commented, “There are many guys who come with a woman who is their wife and suddenly leave. They come with children or women who are pregnant like Ana, and we must help them. Suddenly, the guy leaves and says ‘bye’ and does not care much about the girl and is gone.”

When Darlin left the shelter to try his luck crossing the border yet again, he explained that there were no opportunities for him in Honduras. He said, “If I am deported again, I would go again, I will try and try again. When I look at older people who walk these roads, I say, ‘Will I have to reach that age to get to the United States, or will I still be trying when I am that old?’” He joked that perhaps migration was his hobby.

Within 48 hours of Luis’ appearance at the shelter gate, Ana declared she had found a house to rent in Juárez. She told Father Javier that a friend had rented it to her cheaply, and she packed up the kids and left. Father Javier worried about the kids, especially José Luis, who was underweight for his age, and who had no birth certificate.

“Sometimes you don’t know if the man is the smuggler or the trafficker because the woman is very dominated,” he said. “There are cases in which you do not know if he is a brother, a cousin, a friend, a lover, or a smuggler.” Because neither Ana nor Luis could provide a birth certificate or other legal document to prove that José Luis was their child, Father Javier wondered if he was even theirs. Ana told Father Javier that she was going to live on her own, but she told other migrants that Luis had found a house for them. “Why didn’t she tell me the truth?” asked Father Javier.

The last time I saw Gonzalo, he said, “They found my brother! He is in Texas, but they amputated his leg because he was shot by his kidnappers. And he has AIDS.” I would never find out if his half-brother was dead or alive, if he had been murdered by the kidnappers in front of Gonzalo, who also went by the name Olvin, or if he had been shot by the kidnappers when he escaped. I did not challenge Gonzalo about the veracity of his story because I felt the threat of the violence he was fleeing, felt it so deeply that I feared for myself without knowing why.

“If they told me today that I could change jobs today, I would say ‘yes’ because I need to care for my health,” explained Father Javier. “What I can tell you is that I am experiencing a crisis now, because I have been very sick. I have been very sick for four years and I fall, I fall again, I have problems with my blood, problems with my heart, with my blood pressure.”

On my last day at the shelter, I sat in his office studying his face in deepening half-shadow in the late afternoon light. “The cardiologist told me, ‘You need to start thinking about slowing down a lot because it’s already affecting a lot of things,’” he said. The problem was that none of the other priests in Juárez wanted to work at the migrant shelter, so the bishop required him to stay. “The bishop told me, ‘Let’s be realistic, you must stay because I see that it is God’s plan,’” explained Father Javier.  As he talked, he said he did believe God would show him a little bit of mercy for his work at the shelter. Looking weary, he asked, “Tell me, when is migration bad? When is it going to be bad to want to look for a better life? A better job? When will it be bad to want to flee death, or save your children from being murdered or prevent your government from crushing you?”

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Alice Driver is a freelance journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She is the author of More or Less Dead, and she is a 2017 Foreign Policy Interrupted Fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times, Outside Magazine, The Atlantic, Oxford American, Lenny Letter, The Guardian, and Pacific Standard.

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Editor: Mike Dang
Photographer: Itzel Aguilera
Fact-checker: Matt Giles; Translation: María Ítaka

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