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Jesuits minister to migrants waiting in dangerous Mexican border cities

Jesuit Father Flavio Bravo offers a blessing to a migrant family during Mass Nov. 12, 2023, in Matamoros, Mexico. Three Jesuits in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, minister to the migrant population across the border, where insecurity is rampant. (OSV News photo/David Agren)

MATAMOROS, Mexico (OSV News) — Celebrating an outdoor Mass in a camp for migrants amid a cold and unrelenting rain, Jesuit Father Brian Strassburger preached patience. He spoke of “The Parable of the Ten Virgins” from the Gospel of Matthew, urging the assembled migrants to “wait well” as they bided their time in trying conditions.

“Things don’t always go as quickly as we want or hope for and sometimes we have to wait — and we have to wait well,” Father Strassburger said.

To wait well, he said, “we ask for God’s wisdom to comfort us and help us to be more patient and trust in God.”

He urged them to become involved in tasks such as maintaining the camp, forming friendships and taking advantage of catechism classes given by local priests — recalling how migrants have been able to have their children baptized and confirmed while waiting in shelters.

“God’s time is perfect,” he said. “We cannot think of our time here as wasted time.”

More than 2,000 migrants are waiting in Matamoros, opposite Brownsville, Texas, as they attempt to snag appointments through a phone app for entering the United States known as CBP One.

The process can be frustrating as some of the appointments are randomly assigned, while others are given to people who have been in the system for long periods of time, according to Father Strassburger.

The long waits previously prompted many migrants to cross irregularly into the United States. But U.S. Customs and Border Protection registered 240,988 migrant encounters at the U.S. southwestern border in October, roughly a 10% drop over the previous month.

Observers attributed the decline to Venezuelans taking a wait-and-see approach to crossing the border without a CBP One appointment after the Biden administration announced a decision to start deportations to Venezuela — a country that the United States has had unfriendly relations with.

But waiting can prove trying, especially with insecurity rife in Matamoros and migrants targeted by kidnappers.

“People are not meeting their (CBP One) appointments because they’re being kidnapped,” Sister Norma Pimentel, director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told OSV News.

“I started seeing people abandoning their appointments and crossing the river because they were afraid” to remain in Mexico, said the Missionary of Jesus sister. She added that U.S. officials still grant appointments to those who were absent due to kidnapping.

Migrants at the Mass in Matamoros spoke of living in fear if they left the migrant shelter.

“Very few people leave here because of insecurity,” said Yessica Briseño, a Venezuelan migrant who has spent three months in Matamoros with her husband and three children between ages 10 and 12.

Briseño has fruitlessly tried to obtain a CBP One appointment for three months — something she said is causing her to consider crossing the river, especially as one of her children has suffered emotional difficulties in the camp and is being seen by a volunteer psychologist.

“There’s a real temptation,” she said of crossing irregularly.

Other migrants in the shelter described Mexico as the most difficult country to transit on the northward route through Central America — including the treacherous Darién Gap, the thick jungle separating Colombia and Panama, which is controlled by organized crime and rife with bandits.

“Migration officials take everything,” demanding payment to avoid detention, added Eusebio Quiñones, 38, a migrant from Ecuador, who wanted to cross into the United States “legally” with the CBP One application.

The Mexican bishops’ conference’s migrant ministry issued a statement Nov. 15, describing Mexican migration authorities’ strategy as “containment, detention, deportation and militarization,” while warning, “We do not see a clear strategy of coordination between the three levels of government in response to the inhuman conditions experienced by migrants and refugees in Mexico.”

It also expressed alarm over large numbers of migrants being stuck in cities throughout Mexico and warned of Mexico “becoming a big migration station for migrants, in which they are not permitted (legal) stays, but neither are they allowed to transit toward their destination.”

Mass at the migrant shelter — set on an abandoned hospital site surrounded by tents — ends with the Jesuit team providing migration information as best they understand it.

Father Strassburger counsels sticking with the CBP One application, which he says has improved after being “beta tested on migrants” after its introduction in January.

“The shelters here were full of desperate people and now they’re in the United States,” he told the migrants. “With patience and faith everyone is going to receive their appointment.”

Father Strassburger has worked with migrants stranded in Mexico since his ordination in 2021 and assignment to work in the Diocese of Brownsville.

Working with Jesuit Father Flavio Bravo and Jesuit scholastic Joseph Nolla, Father Strassburger celebrates Mass for migrants four days a week in Matamoros and Reynosa, 50 miles west, along with celebrations at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, where newly arrived migrants are assisted reaching their final destinations in the United States.

He often ministers to them in trying conditions — such Mass in a soggy camp along the Rio Grande, where migrants not wanting to leave sight of the U.S. border wait for CBP One appointments or stay until paying smugglers to cross the river.

Amid the difficulties, he sees inspiration in the migrants’ perseverance.

“I find the migrants are the best example of how they use their faith as a source of hope in the midst of a situation that can be otherwise so despairing,” Father Strassburger said. “They often inspire me.”

David Agren writes for OSV news from Mexico City. He traveled to Matamoros to report on the U.S.-Mexico border situation.

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