Prior to coming to Mexico, my understanding of American immigrants from the south was a fairly broad and all-encompassing category: these were people who had left their country of origin for a better life in the United States, risking detection, deportation, and life to do so. For many, if not all, this is technically a fair definition. Those who come to this country are usually not leaving riches and safety behind, and they usually are willing to risk a lot to be more successful in the US.
Now that I’ve had some “up close and personal” time with hundreds of people here at La72, I realize that that broad and all-encompassing category does little justice to the situations people face and the distinctions between different categories of people. While all migrants are created equal, their situations and legal status vary greatly. Here at La72, there are roughly four types.
The vast majority of people here are middle-aged men who have come alone. Coming from countries with tremendous poverty, they are traveling north, either to Mexico or the United States, to find work. This is their highest priority. When asked where they plan on going after they leave here, almost every single one has a particular city in mind, stating that “there’s a lot of work there.” The type of city, its location, climate, or culture bare almost no meaning, all that matters is the likelihood of work. Sometimes, this factor is so strong that plans can be as vast as, “I’m going to go to either Houston or Miami,” as if they were similar in any way.
For many, their goal is not to remain in Mexico or the US indefinitely, it’s simply to find a way to make a living, often sending a large portion of their money back to their friends and family in their original country. Because of this, and unlike the next three categories of people, this group tends to spend very little time here at La72, spending just enough time to recuperate from their journey to catch the train that goes through Tenosique every three or so days. They care little about legal status—mainly because it would never be granted to them anyway—and seek to move quickly.
This is quite different from the final three categories of people, each of which are at La72 to gain legal status in Mexico, and often remain here for three months while the process is taking place. (This is a slightly complicated process with a lot of stipulations, but basically, if one can prove that the hardship they face is not particular to their situation but rather a systemic issue that cannot be avoided by moving to another part of the country, they can be granted permanent refugee status in Mexico. La72 is an internationally recognized asylum for people to safely apply for this status, and the Mexican government is not allowed to enter the facility.)
Among the most common are women. Growing in greater number in recent years, women are a particularly vulnerable migrant group that often flee for different reasons than men and face heightened risks along the way. The main reason, as I can tell, that women flee is for the sake of their children. Either accompanied by small children (there are quite a few little kids right now) or carrying an unborn child, these women know that their children will have no future in the home country. Either due to economic hardship or violent men in their lives, their children are at tremendous risk, and so they take a huge risk.
And what a risk it is. Unlike the men that must fear being robbed and killed, women migrants must fear sexual assault and human traffickers, a horrifying reality that more than a few migrants will inevitably endure along the way.
Unfortunately, children don’t always have a parent to accompany them, and often we have teenagers traveling alone. Many will remember the mass exodus of children from countries like El Salvador and Guatemala five or so years ago, all unaccompanied. This is still going on, albeit to a much smaller extent. As unconscionable an idea as it may seem to Americans—how could their parents send them alone into danger like that?—for many, it is a much greater alternative than staying. For little boys in many places in Central America, gangs are less of a possibility than an inevitability. The power of the gang is so strong that in some places, boys are expected to join. At 12 or 13 years old, they’re approached and given an ultimatum: join or die. Being very unlike the Fresh Prince, these boys do not have a rich uncle on the other side of the country to take them in and to give them a new life. Heck, even if they did, “the other side of the country” in El Salvador is only 200 miles away, well within the grasp of interested gangs. As tragic and unconscionable as it may seem, their choice is clear: it’s safer to go through Mexico alone than it is to stay here.
Finally, we get to the newest, rarely talked about, and most vulnerable group at La72: our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters. Despite the horrific events in Orlando on Sunday and the repeated instances of someone being fired or denied benefits because of one’s sexual orientation, the situation in the US for LGBT people is comfortable and welcoming compared to that in Latin America. While each of the other groups faces bigotry, hatred, lack of opportunities, and violence in parts of their country and outside of the compound on their way, the LGBT migrants face it across Latin America, and to some extent, even inside the safety of the compound. In some places for some people (and for my Latin American readers, I hope not to generalize completely), there is no sense that same-sex attraction is a sin in which one should “love the sinner hate the sin,” there is simply “hate the sinner.” LGBT migrants are often migrants against their will, being thrown out of their homes by their parents or made unwelcome in their town, and unfortunately, the misinformation, inhospitality, and fear that they faced at home can follow them into La72 with the other migrants.
For me, it is critically important that these people be welcomed and given our attention for two reasons. The first is that, as Pope Francis exhorts us to go to the “periphery” of society, there is no more marginalized group here in need of Christian fellowship and love. To be hated and made to feel unwelcome because of who one is cannot be tolerated, and I applaud the friars here for making it a point to officially welcome them with their own dormitory and special status. But it doesn’t stop here. As Christian and I were talking the other day, the existence of LGBT people here offers a powerful opportunity for conversion in all of the migrants. Just as the other migrants have been victimized by oppressors and forced out of their way of life, so too, if done correctly, they may see how they have also been oppressors in their lives in the way they have unfairly treated their LGBT brothers and sisters. The acknowledgement that we are all not only hurt and oppressed by others but also have the capability to hurt and oppress others, even in subtle ways, opens the door for all of us to seek forgiveness and to forgive, and hopefully, to be in solidarity with one another.
Isn’t that what the Kingdom is all about? The inspiration to welcome LGBT migrants is no different from the original mission of the friars: to go to the margins, find those who are being left out, and welcome them into a home for all.