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Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB


Abbot Peter NovecoskyImmigrants’ stories

A lot of ink has been spilled about immigrants and refugees — especially in reaction to the new policies in the U.S. initiated by President Trump. Church leaders have been critical about some of the broad new policies being introduced — and protested against.

We are currently living in a period with the highest number of refugees being forced from their homes and countries. There is massive internal and external movements of peoples fleeing war, violence and injustice. It is not only the United States that is dealing with this crisis. It is much worse in Europe.

What is sometimes lacking is a human face to the statistics. Why would parents send young children unattended across foreign borders? Why are families torn apart? How do children get involved in violence and gang warfare?

Some background stories are carried on the back page in this week’s PM. It is worth repeating some of them, to understand who is fleeing, and why.

Edelmiro Cardona fled his native Honduras with his brother, leaving behind his wife and 4-year-old daughter, when gang members came calling. His brother had rented out a house. Gangsters, who were related to some tenants, moved in and refused to leave. “We had to flee because they came by our house shooting,” said Cardona. He sold his motorcycle and tools to pay for his escape.

The brothers found refuge at a church-run migrant shelter in Mexico. “We’re asking for refuge status because if we return to our country of origin, we run the risk of being killed,” Cardona said. “It was a direct threat.” What must be more troubling to him is what will happen to his wife and daughter in Honduras, where the homicide rate tops 80 per 100,000 residents — one of the highest rates in the world.

Gangs are a constant threat in some Central American countries. Powerful gangs extort payments from small-business owners or demand that children join their ranks. Teenage boys are forced to carry out killings and young girls are forced to become gangsters’ girlfriends.

“There is a threat to entire families for rejecting (gang demands), so they leave. We are increasingly seeing entire families leave . . . including grandparents. They leave their countries due to persecution and enter (Mexico) as refugees,” said Mariana Echandi, UNHCR spokesperson in Mexico.

New terrors await refugees on the road. Criminal groups regularly attack and kidnap migrants in Mexico. And additional payments have to be made if migrants reach the U.S. border. No one crosses the U.S. border alone, explained Sister Leticia Gutierrez, director of the Scalabrini Mission for Migrants and Refugees. They have to pay someone.

Antonio Solis, 20, shared his experience of trying to cross through Mexico. He was attacked and robbed of 380 pesos, the equivalent of less than $19. He knew the risks he faced, but he fled after gangsters told him to carry out a contract killing.

“They pulled me into a car and said, ‘You’re going to do this. If you don’t do this, we know where your family lives and you will be the last one to suffer,’ ” said Solis, a field hand.

It’s hard to hear stories of such cruelty. These are the dilemmas migrants have to face. It’s hard not to open one’s heart — and one’s country — to such victims.