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Walking with the Excluded: Immersion at the U.S. Southern Border

by Eric Nicoll

Immersion participants on the U.S./Mexico border line at Nogales.

From October 27 through October 31, 2022, a group of nine pilgrims from Holy Trinity and St. Ignatius Loyola in New York city participated in an “immersion” experience in Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora (Mexico) to directly experience the plight of refugees at the U.S. Southern border. Our immersion trip was centered around the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), a Jesuit-inspired program providing critical humanitarian services at this major international crossroads.

We were encouraged to share our stories with as many people as possible after our return, so we offer the reflections below to the Holy Trinity community.

Walking across the border, we spent two days at the Kino shelter in Mexico. We met and served families and individuals who arrived at the border to escape violence in their home nations, or were recently deported from the U.S. Some had arrived in the past few days or weeks; some had arrived at the border at the same time we did. In all cases, they came to the border carrying only what they could, leaving the homes, their possessions, and their way of life behind.

We served meals in the Kino “comedor” (dining room) to 75 women, men and children living in the shelter as well as about 300 families and individuals living elsewhere in Nogales, Sonora. We had many opportunities to meet and interact with the families and children living at Kino.

Reflections from the comedor:

  • Margie Legowski: Guests filed through the morning 'buffet' line, holding up their plastic containers to be filled. Although there were a few men, it was mostly women, almost always the women. Occasionally a child would peek out from behind their mother and shyly smile, quickly ducking back; at other times they would skillfully assume the role of container-holder, reaching up to me with a smile. Because we were all masked, I tried to look into the eyes of each recipient so they could see my eyes smile as I said, "Good morning". I stretched my arms out to fill the container they each held open in their hands. "Body of Christ", I said automatically and silently. I was in a sacred space.

  • Mary Lou Hartman: Serving drinks and food and utensils to the families who had gathered in the comedor, I was moved by this simple act of communion and connection. I will not forget the mothers who, though weary, turned their attention to their children, or the gentleness and kindness of the families as they sat down and began to eat. All of us had our assigned tasks and there was a feeling of respect and seriousness as we moved from table to table, serving the people in their home.

  • Dennis McAuliffe: We served many KBI migrant guests during the 90 minutes or so that I was part of the food service line. I was impressed by how gentle the people in line were, never asserting themselves over others and always responding with a polite gracias even though my taco station was the last of the food service line.

  • Eric Nicoll: We had some time to play games with the kids at the comedor, ranging from infants to teenagers. Happy four-year-old Pedro beat me at several games of Tic-Tac-Toe. He had no idea the anguish his mother was going through trying to get him to a place of safety and security. I pray for Pedro often.

The Last Supper as depicted in the Kino comedor (dining room). “Do this in memory of me.”

We met with two families, one from central America and one from southern Mexico, who both fled from violent attacks by organized crime (cartel) in their hometowns and were willing to share their stories with us.

Reflections from our meeting:

  • Christine Meyer: The stories of Juan and Hermelinda, Roberto Carlos and Victor gave me a fuller understanding of the omnipresence and pervasiveness of cartel violence. A food vendor, a nurse and a government official all fleeing for their lives and their children’s lives. No one is exempted.

  • Paul Wolfteich: These migrants told us about their journeys north and the homes they had left behind. It must have been difficult for them to tell their stories, and to share their deep emotions, with a group of obviously privileged Americans around a conference table. Their desperate circumstances were clear. When asked what they would do if they could not enter the United States, they had no other plans. It seemed that they could not move forward or back. They were victims of forces too great to overcome. Our conversation with them was especially moving and heavy for me.

  • Brittany Fried: Our conversation with the two families was especially moving. It further humanized the reasons many choose to leave their homes in search of a safer future. The four individuals shared with grace, despite the deep violence and sadness of their stories. Their gratitude for Kino further drove home the importance of the organization’s work.

  • Jane McAuliffe: The wife of one of the families looked so young and fragile that it was hard to believe she could have survived the beatings that forced them to flee. The day after hearing their story, we watched this young family celebrate their son's eighth birthday, living with him in the joy of that moment, even though they had no idea what the future would bring for him or for them.

In Tucson, Arizona, we met with Erick Meza, Borderlands Coordinator at the Sierra Club to learn about the environmental impacts of the southern border wall, such as disruptions to the migration of wildlife.

Reflections from the meeting with Erick:

  • Jane McAuliffe: Erick added another important perspective to our immersion experience, one that I suspect few of us had given much thought. Huge walls disrupt natural habitats and act as dams during heavy rains, creating food conditions for those who live near them.

  • Nora Ivory: A vital perspective on the border that isn’t often thought of in day-to-day rhetoric regarding the wall. Engaging talk that made you think.

  • Eric Nicoll: I hadn’t thought much about the environmental impacts of migration. This was one of many moments during the trip that we were reminded that the issues surrounding immigration and refugees are complicated and multi-faceted.

Among our tasks in the comedor was to filter out bad beans and debris from sacks of beans, before they are cooked for daily meals.

As the “Day of the Dead (All Souls Day)” approached, we walked through the town of Nogales, Sonora (on the Mexican side of the border). We walked from the Kino shelter to the downtown point of entry through which migrants are deported from the United States, paying respects in the city of Nogales cemetery, and walking alongside the U.S. border wall.

Reflections from our Nogales walk:

  • Mary Lou Hartman: Led by Connor, a Kino volunteer, we walked through Nogales to the border wall, and then onto the cemetery. I was struck by the absurdity of the wall with its barbed wire through which you could easily see the American town of Nogales, so close and yet so impossible to reach. The metal wall slats were painted with many messages: “Libertad, Dignidad,” “Wall Shall Fail,” “No Violencia.” There was a cross planted on the ground, wedged between the slats, and in one section, someone had stenciled candles whose light glowed in the sunlight. At another point along the wall, we came upon the portrait of Sergio Hernández, the 15-year-old Mexican child who was shot and killed by a U.S. border patrol guard while playing with friends. We then walked through a cemetery, where families were preparing for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), a Mexican holiday where relatives welcome the souls of deceased relatives with food, flowers, and lights. I could not help thinking of our visit to the Pima County Cemetery earlier in the trip, where many who had died trying to cross to the United States were buried. The infant children, the John and Jane Does, whose remains had not yet been identified.

  • Christine Meyer: How amazing that walls and divisions often inspire art! The border wall, the Berlin Wall, the Israeli-Palestinian wall: the art on each taps into the deep and God-given yearning towards connection, not division.

  • Brittany Fried: One part of the walk that especially stood out to me was seeing the shelters many migrants rent once they arrive at the border and are informed of the asylum backlog (or shutoff due to Title 42). Many of the units did not look particularly structurally sound or have proper roofing. Further, many looked directly at the border wall, which felt like a cruel irony. This experience was a reminder of the misinformation many receive prior to their journey to the border and shed light on the realities of life there upon arrival.

  • Jane McAuliffe: Seeing the wall up close, feeling it loom above me made it real as no photograph ever could. I kept thinking "What would it be like if we had a wall like this running right down Wisconsin Avenue, bisecting our city in two."

At sunset, we participated in a prayer service at the Pima County (Arizona) Cemetery, a public cemetery for those who die alone with nobody to care for them, including the homeless and migrants who perished in the desert. Many could not be identified and were buried in graves marked “John Doe” or “Jane Doe.” Joanna Williams, Executive Director of the Kino Border Initiative, led us in prayer.

Reflections from prayer service at the Pima County cemetery.

  • Nora Ivory: Impactful moment to face mortality and the importance that certain rituals mean for the living.

  • Margie Legowski: I stood silently over a "Jane Doe" marker and pictured her probable journey, her family, her home. I wondered who was waiting for her and if they still hoped for good news. I knew Jane was at peace; I prayed for her family and all who knew her, missed her, prayed for her. I still do.

  • Dennis McAuliffe: Joanna's words at the grave site of the many migrant "martyrs" were very moving. I felt a special sadness as I reflected on how many of those who died in the desert were the victims of their advanced age making their survival so unlikely.

On Sunday, October 30 we visited the rural community of Arivaca, Arizona located on the international border. We began with a hike in the rough desert terrain where many migrants risk their lives seeking shelter in the United States, and where some perish.

Reflections on our hike:

  • Paul Wolfteich: Before beginning the hike, we looked at artifacts left by migrants who had crossed the high desert. The artifacts told something of the people who came – a baby bottle, a bible, camo clothing, even a full bottle of cologne. The artifacts were described as “relics,” a term that resonated with some of us because each object reminded us of a person who suffered, as Christ suffered. As we hiked, we also saw a few artifacts, discarded and swept into piles by flood waters. For me, the hike was a prompt for meditation on those who crossed. The hike was too short, safe, and comfortable to convey what a migrant experienced. But I tried to imagine losing my bearings in the hills, unable to go back, uncertain where to go, abandoned by the guide I relied on to bring me to safety.

  • Jane McAuliffe: Even for a short period, the hike was hard. We pushed through thorn-studded brush and scrambled up and down gullys, quickly finding ourselves disoriented. It was hard to even imagine doing this for days at a time.

  • Eric Nicoll: When we were told that we would hike in the desert so we would experience walking in the footsteps of refugees, I figured it would be a flat, rocky field with some cactus. But this was deep ravines, steep hills with heavy brush, and treacherous enough that you could easily twist an ankle at any step. I could not imagine traversing this country for days, weeks, carrying whatever you could and fearing for your life. It really drove home for me the value of getting out of my comfort zone, to literally “walk with the excluded,” and not just assume that I understand other peoples’ circumstances.

Following our hike in the desert, we participated in mass at St. Ferdinand’s Catholic Church presided by Father Peter Neeley, SJ, the founder of KBI and affectionately referred to as “Padre Pancho.” Following mass, the parishioners of St. Ferdinand’s hosted a potluck lunch for our group, and we had the opportunity to hear first-hand of the experiences of ranchers and others living directly on the U.S/Mexico border.

Reflections on mass and discussions at St. Ferdinand’s:

  • Dennis McAuliffe: During the Mass with St. Ferdinand's parishioners, who also prepared and hosted our delicious lunch, I was struck by how warm and welcoming they were to us despite the potential divisiveness of our political perspectives. It was only during Jim's presentation of the importance of the wall that I felt the dispiriting difference in KBI's HAC approach towards the migrants and that of some of the ranchers.

  • Nora Ivory: Key in understanding the “complicated” portion of HAC and humanizing all persons involved in the issue. (“Humanize, Accompany, Complicated,” or HAC, was a term often repeated during our immersion experience.)

  • Margie Legowski: Although this was my fifth Kino experience, I still felt a little nervous going into our post-liturgy pot luck conversation time. I fretted over how I would begin a conversation and what I would ask, and eventually moved my introverted 'me, me, me' focus to wondering how I could make the St Ferdinand's parishioners more comfortable with this northerner. I sat down with my food and began to chat with one of the women in the parish, each of us easily sharing how we'd gotten to Arivaca and this place in our lives. Halleluia! We quickly found common ground: Girl Scouts! Although SHE had gotten to round up cattle and ride horses, sadly, I was always on foot. But no worries: we knew some of the same songs and began to regale everyone with a round of "Make New Friends". We've emailed since then and will continue this new tradition when next we meet. Thank you, Holy Spirit!

  • Paul Wolfteich: Our hosts were experienced advocates as well as ranchers, having given their presentation on the border to almost 170 groups before us. They support the wall to stop migrants from crossing the border and showed us video taken on their property of men in camouflage crossing their land at night. They see an open border as a national security issue. Regardless of the merit behind their policy proposals, I credit them with presenting their point of view to people who may not agree with them. And I credit Kino with including their perspective among those we heard during an intense and full visit.

Father Peter Neeley, SJ led immersion participants to Arivaca, Arizona to experience walking in the footsteps of migrants. The rough terrain in the distance shows what migrants face as they move north.

We ended our stay as we began - with prayer, although this time it was in the form of a deeply meaningful home Mass and a reminder to humanize, accompany, and see the complexity of the immigration process.


If you would like to get involved with the Holy Trinity’s Migrant Familia, please contact and ask to be added to the Migrant Team e-letter. To make donations for housing and other basic needs for the nineteen migrant and refugee families Holy Trinity accompanies, visit . Finally, to make donations directly to the Kino Border Initiative, visit


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