Focused on the plight of immigrants

December 1, 2019 - 12:00am -- Chiara Catipon

Focused on the plight of immigrants
A young man who grew up binational in border country decides to take action

“I’ve been going back and forth between Mexico and the U.S. since I was small,” Noé Herrera from Mexicali explains. With family and school in the U.S., he would cross the California border every day, together with others who did the same. 

So, as he says, he basically grew up with a vision of these two countries as neighbors. He and his Mexican friends had good rapport with the students from the U.S. Each side learned the other’s languages, and they all did everything with a sense of binationality. 

However, once he began his university studies, he realized that he was in a privileged position, one that few of his co-nationals had access to. Today this 22-year-old is involving his friends in Southern California in a series of activities to raise awareness regarding the plight of immigrants living in his city. 

Because it was such a daily scene, Noé may have gotten used to seeing the increasingly growing number of people begging for any leftover change in the streets near the border crossing. He couldn’t ignore them, because he had to either walk or drive past them every morning. 

“There were always, always immigrants coming from southern Mexico or Central America,” he says emphatically, and their needs were always in plain sight.

Where to start?

Seeing all this suffering, he asked himself what he could do. His first idea was to “make noise.” He wanted people to know that this condition is far from normal. Indifference in the face of this situation went so against the core of Noé’s belief in God’s call for humanity to treat each other as brothers and sisters. He recognizes that having grown up with the charism of unity, he felt called to do something to dismantle this supposed “clash between cultures” that never existed for him personally.

So he gathered his friends to do a “Run for Unity,” a relay race held every year in May in key cities throughout the world, aimed at promoting the Golden Rule: “Do to others what you would want others to do to you.” The last one they organized saw young people running along both sides of the wall, creating a visual statement of their desire for both sides to see their common humanity.

Still, he felt that he and his friends could do more. They began preparing sandwiches and going to the nearby parks where many immigrants lived. Some of them have been there for years. They were either deported from the U.S. and simply had no money to go back to their countries or cities. So they are just stranded there. Noé’s youth group would offer them food, drink, shoes, clothes, anything they could gather, and spend time talking to them. 

Discovering their reality

In this way, they got to know the various realities of the immigrants: the situations they were fleeing, the families left behind, their search for a way to send money back home in cities where there simply were no jobs. 

“Some cities have become so violent that people just want to get somewhere safe,” Noé sadly admits. Then at the border, these people realize the empty promises made to them. By then, some had already paid their lifetime savings to get transportation across the border, only to be deported the following day.

One particular situation continues unresolved to this day. Last year, about 5,000 people from Honduras walked past Noé’s house when their country’s government became a dictatorship. Tired of the violence and in protest against this political situation, they walked out of their country. Denied asylum at the border, they remained in Mexicali. Noé has seen some of the young men — without much choice — join the drug lords and the women go into prostitution.

As the next step, Noé joined the “Walk for Freedom” movement, started by a young woman who advocates to end human trafficking. These women are now called “slaves of the 21st century.” 

For four weekends now, Noé has gone to visit some of these young men and women. In small groups of eight, he and others approach these people and ask them if they have special intentions. The women would often ask for prayers for their mother, daughter, etc. 

“Then we would pray in front of them and leave them a small gift,” Noé describes, “By doing this little act, we hope that they feel our closeness and find another way of living.” 

Every time they go, it feels scary and intimidating. The atmosphere is tense, and there are tight security protocols to follow. Boys need to stand five feet apart from the women, because their pimps might misunderstand their intentions.

No to indifference

Noé summarizes it all as “a very, very strong experience. It’s the face of Jesus on the cross in my city. My friend says that it’s like walking into the lion’s mouth every time.”

When asked how he handles it, he responds: “To be honest, sometimes I feel powerless. When I’m in one of those ‘feeling down’ moments, I start wondering if it’s even possible to really do anything. Are we ever going to be able to eradicate this problem of immigration?

“Then I think, yes, it’s possible. Recently I’ve been taking courses and meeting wonderful people. I’ve learned to tackle this problem by taking them in steps: first, identify and create awareness of the problem; second, educate people on possible solutions; third, act and execute the plan. These are a general, global way of looking at a big problem like immigration.” 

So last October 18, about 60–70 young people, 12–26 year-olds, held a march. They were mostly from Mexicali, with a group of 10 from Los Angeles and Tijuana. A local TV reporter interviewed Noé, asking his opinion on the government’s response to this problem of slavery, of human trafficking in Mexicali. 

“I told them that I see indifference from our local authorities. It’s not even a priority; it’s taken as a normality, the many cases that we have there in Mexico.” 

The purpose of the walk was therefore to raise awareness of this problem and to show that people all around the world want this to stop through changes in the law or by creating more refugee camps, searching for all possible solutions. 

They walked in silence to represent the fact that these subjects of human trafficking have no voice. The youth were all wearing the same black shirts which said, “abolishing slavery with each step.” They held signs, flags, with different pieces of data; for example, that “only 1% of victims of slavery survive,” or “around $150 billion is made from slavery each year.” As they handed out flyers and pamphlets through the busiest streets of the city, people were honking to show their support and filming the demonstrators.

A small group making a tiny dent in the global picture? Perhaps. Yet, if they can save but one life from human trafficking, isn’t it worth all the effort?

- Chiara Catipon

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