Her everyday work involves helping deported immigrants at the US-Mexico border. Jana Echterhoff, a volunteer, cannot get the stories of the stranded migrants out of her head. Alexandra von Nahmen reports from Nogales.
Early in the morning, people are already lining up in front of the soup kitchen door. More and more people are gathering in front of the nondescript building located only a few hundred meters away from the US border crossing in the Mexican city of Nogales. Jana Echterhoff is wearing a yellow apron with her name stitched on it. She sweeps a strand of hair out of her face. “Almost time to begin,” says the volunteer from Germany.
The door opens and the room quickly fills up. This time, most of the people there are young men who look exhausted and battered. Some of them are wearing torn pieces of clothing and there are only few women among them.
Ever since 2008, the Catholic Kino Border Initiative (KBI), named after the Italian Jesuit Eusebio Kino, has been helping migrants who have been deported from the USA to Mexico because they have tried to cross the border illegally. Echterhoff helps hand out the breakfast consisting of beans, rice and fish.
Dangerous journey through the desert
Echterhoff stops at a table and listens. She learned Spanish at school and her past internships sparked her interest for Latin America. “I was interested in the topic of migration. Children of immigrant families are normal part of the place where I grew up,” says the 22-year-old who comes from the Ruhr region in western Germany.
Currently enrolled in the Globalization and Development Studies program at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, she is collecting data in Nogales for her master’s thesis. What happens to the immigrants after they’ve been deported from the USA? How does the Catholic Church help them? Those are all questions that interest the German university student.
“I wanted to go the USA to earn money. I want to help my mother,” explains 27-year-old Javier from Honduras. With the help of a smuggler, he embarked on the dangerous journey through the Sonoran Desert. He paid hundreds of dollars. Anyone who smuggles drugs does not have to pay for the trip but that was out of the question for him, said Javier. In the end, he was caught by US border patrol guards and deported.
Echterhoff hears stories like this every day. “Most people who come here are in bad shape. Many of them are injured in the desert, especially their feet,” says the German student. Also, they are malnourished when they are released from detention centers.
She anxiously turns to a teenager who is doubling over in pain. “He claims that an American border patrol guard beat him with a baton,” says Echterhoff. The teenager is bandaged around his waist. A volunteer tells him, “You have to go to the hospital,” but the boy doesn’t seem to really be listening.
Kino Border Initiative provides warm meals, medical assistance and legal aid. “Our most important tasks are listening to people and getting them back in shape,” says Sean Carroll, the Jesuit priest who manages the project that is run on both sides of the border – in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico.
Echterhoff agrees with him. “We try to give them back dignity and respect. Authorities treat them like dangerous criminals even though they are in dire need of help.” She adds that one cannot imagine what that does to a person.
She recalls an encounter with a Mexican woman who – after living in the US as an undocumented worker for 15 years – was deported because she parked her car illegally and did not pay the fine on time. Ever since Donald Trump took office, Echterhoff has been seeing cases like these more frequently in Nogales. The US government vowed to deport undocumented immigrants if they committed crimes; however, the magnitude of the offense seems to play no role.
“The Mexican woman was completely distraught,” recalls Echterhoff. “She had tears in her eyes when she told me that she did not know what happened to her children, ages 8 and 12. They stayed behind in the USA and had the right to live there because they were born there.” The authorities did not respond to her queries. Only weeks later did the mother manage to get her children out. “The human tragedies are heartbreaking,” says Jana Echterhoff.
Nogales – a divided city
In May, her three-month stint in the Mexican city of Nogales comes to an end. She says the first-hand experience of day-to-day life here has been dramatic. She is skeptical about Trump’s harsh immigration policy, as she is about the construction of a “protective wall” along the US-Mexico border. The twin cities of Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico are already separated by a border fence.
“When I walk along the fence and see the crosses or photos that have been put up there, it reminds me of the wall that stood in Germany,” says Echterhoff. She does not believe that new barriers will keep people from trying to cross the border. She says that a wall would only make the situation worse in Nogales; she has no doubt about it.