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Via Crucis recalls migrants who have died, disappeared on way to U.S.
Catholic News Service photo
Children carry a small statue of Jesus Christ during a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession in Guatemala City.
Catholic News Service photo
Children carry a small statue of Jesus Christ during a Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) procession in Guatemala City.
Catholic News Service

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — There is no way to mistake how Scalabrinian Father Mauro Verzeletti feels about immigration from Latin America to the United States. He does not want it to happen, mostly because he knows the journey most migrants will face is fraught with danger and threats.

But the priest who works with families of migrants in the San Salvador Archdiocese said he also wants the people who treat migrants as criminals and objects of exploitation to know that what they do to them is downright shameful, even un-Christian.

Father Verzeletti shakes his head when he hears mention of the "iron barrier," the tall fence erected along much of the U.S.-Mexico border to keep migrants out of the United States. The barrier became the backdrop for a Mass celebrated near Nogales, Ariz., April 1 by American bishops who have urged the U.S. Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

"You want to know what I call it?" he asks. "I call it the 'border of shame.' Why? Because Jesus didn't come to make borders or fences. That border, that fence, it divides, it hurts us, it kills us."

Father Verzeletti, a Brazilian national, organized migrant-focused Stations of the Cross April 11 in San Salvador so that people can enter the Easter season meditating and praying for family, friends or neighbors who have died or "disappeared" while trying to cross from Mexico into the U.S.

One of the disappeared is Rafael Rolin. His mother Ana Zelaya, of San Salvador, carried a laminated photo of Rolin during the Stations of the Cross -- Via Crucis in Spanish -- as she recalled his disappearance nearly 12 years ago. He was 22, could not find work in El Salvador and was desperate, she said.

Even though Zelaya begged her son not to leave, he set off for the U.S. May 4, 2002. She spoke briefly with him 11 days later when he told her that he was staying with a "coyote," someone who would smuggle him across the border. She never heard from him again.

These days, Zelaya works with a group that helps people look for family members who have gone missing along the border and sometimes to repatriate their remains. The lucky ones are found. Other families, like hers, have to accept that not only will they never see their loved one again, but they also will not be able to properly bury their dead.

"They do this out of necessity," she said, explaining that people like her son do not easily choose to leave their homeland, especially when it means they will live under fear of deportation, often in substandard conditions and put their lives in the hands of people who might abuse them or even take their lives.

"These people are not criminals," she said of the migrants. "It hurts to hear this when you're a mother. When you know that someone is doing this to live better. He had a lot of limitations."

Some of the limitations, including a lack of work, are the result of past political interventions by the U.S. in Latin America, Father Verzeletti said. U.S. support of repressive regimes has affected everything from education for the poor, foreign trade and what a country can successfully produce, he said.

Father Verzeletti echoed Zelaya, saying that people who cross into the U.S. are not criminals but that the harsh laws targeting migrants are criminal instead.

El Salvador's poverty rate was around 29 percent in 2013, according to the Ministry of Economy of El Salvador, though that seems to rise when the economy of the United States suffers. In 2008, in the midst of the Great Recession, the rate stood at 40 percent, leaving many to point out the direct link between remittances, the money migrants send home and the stability in El Salvador.

Ricardo Mejia said poverty affected his decision in 2006 to leave El Salvador with $90 in his pocket. He briefly joined the people praying the stations, and seeing some of the shoes, water, backpacks and photos of dangerous border crossings that adorned the various stations reminded him of his trek north. He recalled begging for food, jumping trains and hitchhiking all the way to the border.

At the border, Mejia had no money to pay someone to smuggle him into the U.S., so he went to a cyber cafe to print maps of possible places to cross. He befriended two other men and they walked through a river and the desert, where, he said, he saw children as young as 4 being smuggled.

Though he crossed successfully, Mejia was nabbed hours later by U.S. Border Patrol, detained and deported. He said he normally weighs about 150 pounds but returned home at 90 pounds, emaciated and traumatized.

While Mejia made the attempt for financial reasons, he said some families leave because of rampant crime and extortion by drug traffickers and organized crime networks. Today, Mejia would not attempt crossing into the U.S. again because of threats of sexual and physical abuse, the danger of the desert and the presence of drug traffickers and smugglers.

For Father Verzeletti, it is such tales that lead him to oppose any attempt to cross the border. He knows people are too desperate to listen though and he said he does not oppose someone attempting to live a better life. Still, he harbors concerns about the poor treatment of migrants even if they reach the U.S. safely.

"Jesus came to break barriers, to give food to the hungry," he said. "For him, there was no such thing as an undocumented person."

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