Head and Heart Moved to Action: Reflections on a Critical Immersion to the U.S.-Mexico Border

For the inaugural post of Mission in Motion, a blog dedicated to reflections about efforts to animate Jesuit values at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, Jamie Kralovec, Associate Director for Mission Integration, offers a reflection about his experience on the U.S.-Mexico border through Georgetown’s Magis Kino Immersion.

“I will do anything to get back to my children.”

Photo of the Georgetown group walking along the Mexican side of the wall across from Nogales, Arizona

Hearing Ariel’s words firsthand forever changed my understanding of the issues surrounding migration on the border between the United States and Mexico. Ariel lived for years in the U.S. without legal documentation, before being apprehended by law enforcement, sentenced to 1.5 years in a federal detention facility, and then deported to Mexico, a country where she has no family or friends. She left behind two children in the U.S. and a career in health care as a Certified Nursing Assistant. Ariel shared her story with me and a group of other Georgetown faculty and staff at Casa Nazareth, a shelter in Nogales, Mexico run by the Kino Border Initiative (KBI) that provides safety, healing, and micro-enterprise opportunities for migrant women. We were in Mexico and southern Arizona in January 2019 through Georgetown’s Magis Kino Border Immersion, an intensive experiential trip with three goals: 1) grow and learn together about the reality of migration issues on the U.S. – Mexico border; 2) consider the implications of this reality for our individual and collective spheres of influence; and 3) reflect together on our roles and responsibilities as faculty and staff at Georgetown relative to the issue of migration.

Each woman at Casa Nazareth had a unique story, but all have been broken in some way by the immigration system, some crossing hundreds of miles of treacherous, uninhabitable desert in the hope of securing a better life. In painful and uncomfortable moments seated around an intimate circle, I ceased to be a distant and passive observer of a complicated policy issue. The unpleasant emotions I was feeling during Ariel’s retelling: sadness, anger, and shame, helped lead me into a deeper, more personal engagement with the persons and events of the immersion experience. With resilience and vulnerability, Ariel invited me into an intimate encounter with her as a person with a story that compels a personal response. As a father of three young children, I suddenly found myself grappling with the personally unimaginable: a life separated from my wife and children by a structure that imposes legal and physical barriers to family unification. This movement: from detached, rational analysis to growing in reverence and relationship with persons our society relegates to the margins, embodies our mission at Georgetown as a Jesuit educational institution committed to social justice. Fr. Greg Boyle, well-known Jesuit author of Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, describes the mutuality that happens in these encounters as kinship:

Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied.

Facilitated by Georgetown’s Office of Campus Ministry and the Center for Social Justice Research, Teaching, and Service, Magis Kino models Jesuit education and its interplay of experience, reflection, and action by asking participants to make a sustained commitment to justice as a result of engaging directly with the issues of migration. This approach to learning only works if groups make room for continuous reflection before, during, and after the experience. Reflection helps us make meaning of our experiences by getting in touch with the deeper sources of our sensations, allowing ourselves “to be challenged to change” in the words of former Jesuit Superior General Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. KBI’s approach to immersion trips, designed so that participants humanize, accompany, and complicate their experiences, helped spur our group’s deep reflections at the end of each day. In keeping with its commitment to complicate the issues, KBI also introduced us to a diversity of stakeholders, including law enforcement, the court system, and property owners and ranchers along the border. 

Fr. Peter Neeley of the Kino Border Initiative sharing “holy relics,” objects left behind by migrants along a trail frequently used by migrants near Arivaca, Arizona

One of the trip’s most poignant and physically demanding experiences was a two-hour guided walk of a portion of the migrant trail in Arivaca, Arizona. Jesuit Fr. Peter Neeley led the hike and encouraged us not to reproduce, but to visualize the immigrant experience. It was here that Fr. Neeley presented us with goods he has collected over time left behind by migrants on their arduous journeys. Referring to these objects as “holy relics,” Neeley invited us to grow in solidarity and love for migrants by imagining the people who had once held these objects. The baby bottle for a nursing infant stirred strong emotions and again, like Ariel‘s story, crashed my internal defensive barriers that deceive me into believing that migration does not concern me personally. It pulled me to recognize and affirm the inherent human dignity that I share with the mother and the child who had passed the trail beneath my feet. I will keep these holy relics in mind as I continue to discern the most effective ways that I am called to respond to this experience.

Georgetown faculty and staff eating with parishioners of St. Ferdinand church in Arivaca, Arizona

Pope Francis has encouraged the world to “show some concrete solidarity” with migrants and my immersion experience leads to me to consider ways to express such real solidarity. Four days in Nogales left me with many questions for which I do not pretend to have the answers. I am especially aware after this experience of my own privilege. I will never live on a daily basis with the regular fear and anxiety that migrants carry, or that of our own undocumented students at Georgetown. In spite of this privilege, I cannot proceed without acknowledging that my time in Arizona and Mexico claimed me in a significant way. While there are no perfect solutions to the multi-faceted issues of migration, the complexity does not excuse meaningful action. How might we respond to the needs of migrants and to the social justice implications as individuals and as university community? In the months that follow I will discern this question along with my colleagues at Georgetown. Mindful that individuals are called to respond in their own unique ways, I offer some suggested action steps for anyone interested in humanizing the issue of migration while recognizing its complexity and emphasizing accompaniment of people on their journey:

  • Support KBI’s critical work of education, humanitarian assistance, and advocacy with a financial donation. The organization especially needs in-kind donations of clothing, toiletries, and home goods.
The Georgetown group of faculty and staff on the Kino Border Immersion with hosts from St. Ferdinand and the Kino Border Initiative

The word Magis, rooted in the Jesuit virtue of magnanimity, invites all of us involved in educational endeavors at Georgetown to respond to the gifts of our own lives with gratitude and generosity for others. My brief time on the U.S. – Mexico border moved me to deeper sensitivity and awareness of the suffering experienced by migrants. Jesuit education inspires us at Georgetown to use all of our gifts, including our intellectual inquiry, to engage constructively with the suffering of persons on the margins. I will continue to discern my response to Ariel’s sacred story and her invitation to a deeper solidarity.

Please reach out to Jamie at pjk34@georgetown.edu with any questions or reactions to the post.