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‘Our Work Is Helping People Find Happiness.’ Meet the Nuns Helping Migrants at the U.S.-Mexico Border

11 minute read

On a sweltering morning in August, Sister Maria Antonia Aranda, a 60-year-old nun from Mexico, navigated her silver Ford Escape into a border checkpoint in Ciudad Juárez. She was dropping off two asylum-seekers who had hearings across the border that day, at the federal immigration court in El Paso. Fatima Rodriguez, a 19-year-old from Nicaragua who had been separated from her 5-year-old daughter by American authorities, anxiously texted her lawyer from the passenger seat. Her companion, a Salvadoran woman in her early 20s, sat in the back seat, adjusting and re-adjusting her waist-length hair. Her eyelids shone with silver glitter, a special touch for the occasion.

After Aranda parked, they all paused for a moment, as if to draw a collective breath. Then, at Aranda’s signal, they got out, walked to the entrance of the Lerdo International Bridge, and kissed each other’s cheeks. Aranda watched as the two young women each fed ten pesos—fifty American cents, the toll to cross by foot—into a turnstile. Within seconds, they disappeared into the crush of pedestrians bound for the U.S. Aranda hoped to God she would never see them again.

Over the past three years, priests, bishops, and Pope Francis have condemned U.S. immigration policy under the Trump Administration and entreated Catholics around the world to stand up for the rights of migrants. But along the U.S.-Mexico border, it’s women like Aranda—Catholic nuns, most of them middle-aged or elderly and many of them first- or second-generation Americans—who have actually built a mass movement.

Sister Maria Antonia Aranda in the Juárez church where she works with migrants.Courtesy of Lily Moore-Eissenberg

It began in the summer and fall of 2018, when the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an association of American nuns, publicized requests for volunteers and financial support—a “call to the border,” as many sisters describe it. Since then, more than 700 nuns from the organization’s 300 member congregations have volunteered their services, some traveling hundreds of miles to join sisters who already lived in border towns. Most of this new influx of nuns began work on the U.S. side of the border—in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California—but others, like Aranda, are scattered from Mexico to Honduras. And that’s only counting nuns whose congregations are American and LCWR members.

Nuns now occupy major leadership positions on the border: Sister Norma Pimentel, who has gained national recognition for her immigration advocacy, directs Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, and an Irish nun named Beatrice Donnellan runs a shelter for migrant women in El Paso. Some of the sisters have arrived at the border with no previous experience in immigration work, while others have already devoted their lives to it. Sister Gloria Rivera, a Detroit-based nun from Mexico, served as a translator in immigration court and directed a migrant shelter in Michigan before traveling to El Paso to volunteer in January 2019. The nuns’ congregations fund their travels largely on donations. Since the summer of 2018, congregations have given more than 1.5 million dollars to immigration-related nonprofits, according to the LCWR.

“The fact that these sisters are joining other members of their order, or other people with whom they’re networked, means they’re more able to avoid the pitfalls of the ignorant do-gooder,” said Eileen Markey, author of A Radical Faith, a biography on the political transformation of nuns in Latin America. “They’re connected to people who are embedded and who have a long-term perspective. In many cases, they have backgrounds in Central America or on the border.” She added, “In some ways, it’s like a return.”

Sister Beatrice Donnellan talks with a pair of visitors dropping off donations at Casa Vides in El Paso, Texas in August 2019.Courtesy of Lily Moore-Eissenberg

Many of the nuns working at the border today are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. They bring a work ethic and philosophy shaped by their own experiences living under Central American dictatorships in the 1980s, when more than a million Central Americans fleeing civil wars in the Northern Triangle sought refuge in the U.S. At the time, hundreds of nuns were living in the conflict zones and sheltering refugees who had been denied asylum by the Reagan administration. The so-called sanctuary movement of the 1980s and today’s religious movement to support migrant rights at the U.S. border are similar, says Amanda Izzo, a professor at Saint Louis University who studies religious feminism and liberal Christianity. “Both come out of the same impulse: people groping towards critiques of structural forms of power,” she says. “It’s small groups of people in impoverished places thinking about what the stories of the Gospel can mean in the context of their lives.”

In 2018 and 2019, waves of Catholic sisters showed up in Juárez and El Paso, bringing laundry detergent, baby wipes, duffel bags of second-hand clothes, and a powerful concept of what it means to serve God: Catholic liberation theology. The strand of Catholicism first bloomed in Latin America under the dictatorships of the 1970s and 80s and has enjoyed a resurgence since Pope Francis, a follower of liberation theology, became the first Latino pope in 2013. The philosophy, which encourages a broad-based, deeply historical understanding of modern problems, advocates for radical egalitarianism and the liberation of the poor from oppressive political and economic systems.

Nuns have traditionally enjoyed very little formal power in the Catholic Church—they are not allowed to become priests and are excluded from most leadership roles. But they have became some of Catholicism’s most vigorous, progressive, and accessible representatives on the ground. “Women religious do not have the authority that men do in the church,” said Izzo, the Saint Louis University professor, but “they’ve carved out these places of autonomy.” For nuns who follow liberation theology, economic and social equality have become priorities on par with religious conversion and worship.

“They are radicalized because of their experiences,” said Margaret McGuinness, a professor at La Salle University who studies the history of American nuns. “They’re not just saying ‘Let’s help the poor,’ but ‘Why are these people poor?’”

For many nuns, the most important answer to that question is neither Central American gang violence nor the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Their answer, derived from decades of experience, tends to be more historical: people are poor because of systemic inequalities between groups, states, and hemispheres. Sister Beatrice Donnellan argues that American economic interests and military interventions in Latin America in the 1980s are chiefly responsible for the economic and political instability driving migration to the U.S. today. Aranda often cites the Bible: “Starting from Genesis, we’re talking about migration, no? The people of Israel, the Hebrews, they walked through the desert,” she said. “We can talk about Leviticus, who invites us not to oppress foreigners. Matthew speaks of love for the needy. ‘I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you stayed with me.’”

Sister Caroline Sweeney, a volunteer, makes calls to the families of recent arrivals in Casa Vides in El Paso, Texas in August 2019.Courtesy of Lily Moore-Eissenberg


A former engineer, Aranda decided to become a nun in her 40s. She took her final religious vows at age 50 and expected to spend the rest of her life tending to the needs of her local community—working with couples on their marriages, teaching children to read biblical stories into their own experiences, leading a humble and just life in accordance with the egalitarian values of liberation theology. But then, last January, Aranda heard that a local priest named Francisco García had begun taking in migrants under the newly-implemented Migrant Protection Protocols, also called the “Remain in Mexico” policy. She drove to the church to offer help.

Even at that point, the church’s capacity to house migrants was stretched, and García was beginning to feel overwhelmed. While the local community supported the migrants, they also needed the church to perform baptisms, communions, weddings, funerals, and weekly services. The congregation needed its priest, so García asked Aranda to help care for the couple dozen migrants already living in his church, particularly the women, who feared for their safety on the streets. Aranda accepted, not yet fully grasping what that meant. Between January and August, the migrant population in Juárez swelled from a couple hundred people to more than ten thousand, and Aranda was swamped. She began spending her days shuttling migrants to and from medical appointments, law offices, and border checkpoints, eventually earning the nickname Hermana Uber.

“It’s distressing to not have the human and material resources to assist them all,” Aranda says, speaking in Spanish. “More than tiredness, though, is a feeling of despair, anguish, helplessness because of the failure of governments to negotiate better immigration policies.” Recently, she has observed an increase in migrants from southern Mexico as well as from Central America, putting additional strain on the city’s shelters. “But knowing that the migrants are joining their families is always a great joy and satisfaction,” she added. “Knowing that, in some way, our work is helping other people find happiness.”

Many of the women that Aranda works with have faced gender-based violence in their home countries. Since 2018, when the Justice Department eliminated domestic and gang violence as grounds for asylum—a decision that disproportionately affected women—the rate of asylum approvals for Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala plummeted by nearly ten percentage points, according to the advocacy organization Human Rights First. When migrant women arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, many are then forced to remain in Juárez, a city known for femicide. In 2015, at the peak of the violence, an average of six women were killed each day in Juárez, and the United Nations called the femicide a “pandemic.”

The day before she dropped off Fatima Rodriguez at the border, Aranda found her in a small meeting house beside the church, sitting with a friend on benches painted the color of robin eggs. “Hola, Madre,” Rodriguez said, addressing the nun with a traditional term of respect—“Mother”—that the equality-minded Aranda has never gotten used to.

San Juan Apostol Evangelista church, where Sister Maria Antonia Aranda works, doubles as a migrant shelter in Juárez, see here in August 2019.Courtesy of Lily Moore-Eissenberg

Rodriguez, an activist, fled political violence in Nicaragua after the government started arresting and killing college students like herself for protesting. American authorities separated Rodriguez from her daughter in May because Rodriguez’s parents’ names, not her own, were listed on her daughter’s birth certificate, she explains. (When Rodriguez was a teenager, the family made this arrangement for her protection, after she became pregnant as a result of a rape, she says.) When she arrived at the border, U.S. officials sent her daughter to a shelter and then a foster family in New York City, and returned Rodriguez to Mexico, she says.

Rodriguez was one of the earliest arrivals at the church, which regularly houses people from El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Cuba. She quickly learned how to navigate the politics of floor space and food. In group therapy sessions, led by a psychologist Aranda recruited, she held ice in her hands until it melted in order to build psychological endurance and practice calming her mind. She narrated her traumas often, for American journalists Aranda brought to the shelter and for an American judge in El Paso. She drank cheap soda and texted her family from the blue benches.

Rodriguez’s story ends more happily than most of the stories Aranda steps into. With the help of a lawyer that Aranda knew, Rodriguez proved that she was her daughter’s mother, and a U.S. immigration court judge decided to allow her to wait in the U.S. with her daughter for her asylum hearing.

A few days after Aranda dropped Rodriguez at the border, over a breakfast of salted avocados and hard-boiled eggs, Aranda played a song on the guitar called El Puente, or The Bridge. “Never mind that the pain of a thousand footsteps leaves bloody footprints on it…Lord, make that bridge not break,” she sang, in Spanish. She told me, “Any people can be like the people of Israel. Any person, too, who walks through the desert looking for a better life.”

A week later, Aranda heard the news from one of the secretaries at the shelter: Rodriguez had made it to New York City.

“I only ask God to continue helping her,” Aranda told me. As for the thousands of others still waiting to cross the border: “They speak of leaving a place where they were stripped of their homes and where their relatives were killed,” Aranda said. “They no longer speak of the American dream.”

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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