EL PASO, Texas
The children enter the room in a burst of laughter and smiles. "Hola, buenas tardes," a boy says, throwing his arms around Father Arturo Banuelas, pastor of St. Pius. • They sing, say a prayer and glue colorful tissue paper to butterfly designs, waving their art in the air as volunteers prepare grilled cheese, fish sticks and Capri Sun. • It is a joyful scene that belies the circumstances that created this gathering in a building across the street from Banuelas' church, a few blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border. The 15 children, ages 5 to 8, were picked up by authorities as they tried to cross without their parents.
"Where are you from, Emely?" Banuelas asks a 7-year-old in a yellow shirt and pigtails. "From Honduras," she replies in soft-spoken Spanish. She traveled with a 16-year-old cousin, trying to reach her mother, who arrived in the United States illegally five years ago.
"I spent four nights in the desert," says a boy, telling about frightening wolves and running from the Border Patrol. "I had cactus thorns on my feet."
Across town, a peasant woman rests at a shelter. She recently fled Mexico and the drug cartel hit men who murdered her husband, oldest daughter and 2-year-old grandson because the husband refused to work as a mule, carrying drugs through the desert into Arizona.
These are the overlooked faces of immigration.
The political debate, and the heat and rhetoric that go along with it, focuses on jobs and security. But in El Paso, the human side is inescapable.
Here, families torn apart by deportations struggle to stay connected, while in the shadow of the border a happier struggle plays out in the sounds of people learning the names of presidents in order to pass a test to become a citizen.
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This city of 665,000 was at the vanguard of border enforcement in the mid 1990s but now seems to collectively shout: Enough.
The conversation is increasingly focused on how the buildup has hurt business and family ties with the city a short way over the border, Ciudad Juarez.
"To pretend that somehow their reality is not connected to what's going on in our country is totally unjust," said Ruben Garcia. He runs Annunciation House, a shelter for immigrants fleeing violence situated not far from Juarez's maquiladoras, assembly plants that pay wages a fraction of what workers earn in the United States.
Most of the people at Annunciation House are seeking asylum but U.S. policies are less generous to Latin America and favor more political hot spots such as Cuba and China. Only two out of every 100 Mexican applications for asylum are granted, said Garcia, an intense man who does not mince words.
"All of this border enforcement has been a strategy to satisfy the political constituency in the northern part of the U.S.," he said.
The feeling is not uncommon in El Paso, where 80 percent of the population is Mexican-American, but feelings toward immigration and border security are, of course, noticeably different than other areas of the Southwest, where fences are little deterrent to human and drug smuggling.
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While some here say legalizing drugs would ease the problem, Banuelas crusades against them, seeing a direct connection to violence across the border and why people will do anything to enter the United States. He has performed funerals for the victims and noticed the police outside, watching for signs of retribution. He once had to ask the parish to help raise $70,000 ransom for a woman kidnapped in Juarez.
"The issue for us spiritually is not to live in fear, that from the blood of all this pain and suffering has got to emerge a better kind of human being that looks at itself and says, 'What happened to us?' "
A picture hangs on the wall of the building where Banuelas greeted the immigrant children. It's of his 11-year-old nephew, Rico, who was gunned down by robbers in 2008 while on vacation in Mexico with his mother.
Rico's memory and the struggles of the children who trek across the border motivate Norma Lugan, who runs a Lutheran charity program that helps reconnect the children with their parents.
Though overall immigrant crossings are down sharply in recent years, unaccompanied children are a growing issue. In 2008, about 8,000 were apprehended at the border; last year there were nearly 24,500, mostly from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Experts point to a change in Mexican policy, which has allowed more children to pass through.
Diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, Lugan said, "These kids give me life. I can't let it go."
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President Barack Obama visited El Paso in May 2011 to make the case for comprehensive immigration reform. He boasted how secure the border has become, a doubling of patrol agents since 2004 and hundreds of miles of fence (the mention of which elicited some boos from the audience, including Father Banuelas), and talked compassionately about the people who crossed the border illegally or overstayed visas.
"Regardless of how they came, the overwhelming majority of these folks are just trying to earn a living and provide for their families," Obama said to applause. "But we have to acknowledge they've broken the rules. They've cut in front of the line. And what is also true is that the presence of so many illegal immigrants makes a mockery of all those who are trying to immigrate legally."
Obama spoke on a Monday. The weekend before, Mariana Amaya, 45, made her regular trip to Juarez. It's the only way she can see her husband, who a few years ago was pulled over in a traffic stop in New Mexico and deported.
Under Obama, deportations have reached record levels — 1.5 million in 2011 — ridding the country of criminals but also tearing apart law-abiding families.
"The government punished him," said Amaya, who works in a restaurant in La Mesa, N.M., and is a permanent U.S. resident. She said her husband could have paid a fine but with a lawyer on top, it was too much.
So she waits to see how her husband might fare if politicians in Washington pass long-elusive immigration reform. "Are they going to pardon the people who have been punished?" she asked.
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While the political climate for reform is as favorable as it has been in years, it is also complex — a battle between rule of law and compassion. Consider that the last time comprehensive immigration laws were enacted was 1986, under President Ronald Reagan.
"He was one of the best, besides Kennedy or Lincoln," said Arturo Benitez, 69, laughing. Having arrived illegally in 1964, Benitez became a permanent legal resident in 1990.
At a charity center in downtown El Paso, in the shadow of the razor wire and guards and long lines at the border, Benitez helps other immigrants study to take the U.S. citizenship test. A short, kind-looking man with dark hair, he paced back and forth on a recent Saturday morning, going to a dry erase board to write the names of presidents and senators.
Halfway through the class, a cake was cut and Styrofoam cups of soda were sent around. Soledad Mendia, 55, had learned a few days earlier that she passed her test, becoming the 279th person Benitez has helped.
"I'm proud of them and myself," Benitez said. "People from Central and South America come to work. They don't come as terrorists. With the drug trafficking, it's hard for the U.S. I understand that. But I love the United States. I never had the opportunity in Mexico that I have here."
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected]