On US-Mexico border, Catholic nuns offer migrants rare sanctuary

NOGALES, Mexico — The hundred men and women sat shoulder-to-shoulder at long, wooden tables, all migrants stranded in the crossroads of despair etched into this dusty town on the US-Mexico border.

Most of those gathered looked exhausted and despondent. Some were in pain, nursing wounds, sprained ankles and blisters from nights traversing the unforgiving Sonoran Desert trying to cross into the United States. Others had just been forcibly removed from their lives in the US, now left hundreds of miles from family and friends without money, a phone or a full set of clothing. Some had already tried unsuccessfully to return to the US only to be captured by the Border Patrol and sent back.

This is El Comedor, a small concrete structure where Roman Catholic nuns of the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist welcome thousands of migrants deported from the United States back into Mexico through Nogales each year. The mission offers spiritual support and two free meals per day in the modest building, where the walls are adorned with inspirational posters encouraging women’s rights and a life-size mural depicting Jesus, Mary Magdalene and disciples as modern-day migrants packed together tightly at a jovial “Last Supper.”

El Comedor — part of the Aid Center for Deported Migrants — represents the kind of direct social service, undertaken by thousands of Catholic nuns in the US, Mexico and around the world, that stands in high relief against the Vatican’s investigation of the US-based Leadership Conference of Women Religious based on what it called a “prevalence of certain radical feminist themes” in the nuns’ work.

In short, the American nuns’ leaders are being investigated for heresy to Catholic doctrine. Many of the sisters’ sense of mission grew out of the Second Vatican Council a half century ago when the church began to modernize, opening itself to the world with a new commitment to social justice.

The American nuns drawn to field work here on the border, helping AIDS patients in Africa, or assisting victims of human trafficking networks in Asia and Eastern Europe place themselves in direct contact with humanity and suffering. And that field work often puts these nuns up against strict Catholic doctrine on birth control, homosexuality and other thorny issues that always seem more nuanced and complex when they involve real people who are suffering in real time.

The political backdrop of the tangle between the rigidly conservative hierarchy that runs the Vatican and the more progressive American nuns of the Leadership Conference is defined, Vatican observers say, by a larger clash within the church over Vatican II and how the church will carry itself in the world. There is no attempt by the Vatican to shut down these missions or pull funding for the important field work they do, but the spiritual and social ethos that sustains these nuns is very much under attack. It is an ideological clash that has been compared to a modern ‘Inquisition,’ the Catholic office that investigated and sometimes tortured what it deemed “heretics” in the darker ages of medieval Catholicism.

Sister Rosalba Avalos Ramos hardly seemed heretical as she described the work she and her fellow sisters do serving meals and ministering to the migrants here in Nogales. And she hastened to add that the politics of Rome hadn’t made its way down here to the US-Mexico border. However, the junior sister said she believes the church has strayed from the Catholic teaching of preference for the poor. 

“I believe the church is living a moment of crisis,” Ramos said during a long interview in an apartment near El Comedor. “The church needs to be transformed and live out a more radical commitment to the most needy. If we’re really trying to follow the way of Jesus, there’s a lot of his path that we need to pick up again and start living.” 

The sisters’ work is funded largely by the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, in partnership with a cross-border humanitarian organization called the Kino Border Initiative. The sisters also run a shelter for women and children, another part of the makeshift sanctuary these nuns have built in this desperate way station that has tested the faith of many who have passed though it.

Sister Alma Delia looked to be living out Jesus’ teaching on the poor as she walked among the migrants on a recent morning at El Comedor. She was standing before the hundred men and women gathered at wooden tables waiting for a hot meal. And she was walking them through the house rules.

“No one can be admitted without their deportation paper,” Delia told the group in a calm, reassuring voice as volunteers prepared the meal. She warned about gangsters who will lend phones to migrants, then use the dialed numbers to extort money from relatives.

As Delia spoke to her temporary flock, dozens more people in similar crises lined up outside for their turn to have breakfast.

“We’re not trying to be rude,” Sister Delia said before leading the room in the Lord’s Prayer. “We’re trying to protect you.”

How Sister Delia and Sister Ramos came to this work is a common narrative for nuns.

Twenty years ago, a group of Catholic nuns visited the youth group of Sister Ramos, who is from a small town of campesinos — poor farmers — in the state of Colima near Mexico City. The nuns invited her to get to know the community of sisters, starting to teach and perform missionary work with children and their families.

The work was attractive to the young woman, who had grown up one of 10 children — six girls and four boys. Ramos’ family didn’t have resources to get a formal education, and her father would be away working most of the time while her mother stayed home. She began to doubt that following in her mother’s footsteps was the right life for her.

“I think my decision to become a nun was determined in part by a machismo culture that I come from,” Ramos explained, referring to an aspect of Mexican society whereby masculine bravado is valued and rewarded. “The relationship that I had with my father, my brothers and later a boyfriend made me wonder if getting married was a lifestyle that could make me happy.”

Pairing her comments with bright, perfectly even smiles and a girlish laugh, Ramos said that during the early years of her formation with the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, she learned that Jesus identified with the very poor.

“My desire to work with the most needy came from an experience I had working in the mountains with the indigenous people of the Tarahumara in the state of Chihuahua,” she said. “Their lives reminded me of of my upbringing, and how poor my family was.”

Ramos spent seven years teaching children as part of an assignment that made her “internally tense,” she said, because she really wanted to return to working with the poor.

“I’d been asking the superiors for a change for two years,” Ramos said. “They kept putting the question before me: ‘Where do you want to be?’ Then they gave me the option to choose and I chose here.”

Today, Ramos has strong family ties to the unique challenges undocumented immigrants face.

“I have brothers and sisters in the United States who are living there as undocumented immigrants,” Ramos said. “I know the stress levels that my brothers and sisters live. I know the anxiety they have because they could be caught and separated from their children.”


Here in Nogales, there are few other services for deported migrants. They live hand-to-mouth just a few paces from Arizona but separated by a sophisticated security apparatus of fence, gates, cameras and guards spanning hundreds of square miles and costing billions of dollars each year. Each day a stream of semi trucks, full of freshly produced apparel from the maquiladoras nearby, can be seen waiting to pass into the US just a few hundred feet from El Comedor.

West Cosgrove, the director of education at Kino Border Initiative, is familiar with the paradoxes of the US-Mexico relationship. American companies assemble their goods at the maquiladoras nearby, he said, but the materials are shipped from elsewhere.

“These companies are here for one thing: cheap labor,” said Cosgrove, who lived and worked in El Paso, Texas on the border with Juarez, Mexico for several years before moving to Nogales earlier this year. “I just want to throttle this economic system.”

Rumors of jobs at the maquiladoras draw migrants from within Mexico to the already strained area, compounding the problem in a place where stranded people routinely sleep in a nearby cemetery for want of a bed.

Arnulfo Torres, 42, and his son Juvencio, 20, said they had traveled for 60 hours to reach Nogales from the state of Oaxaca, more than 2,600 miles away. Finding no work and afraid to cross the border, the Torres men said they planned to return home to Oaxaca for Christmas.

Jesus Cortes, 24, grew up in Merced, California. His parents brought him from Mexico when he was 9 years old. Then four months ago, he was arguing loudly with his girlfriend at their home when someone called the police to report a domestic disturbance. Police found that Cortes was undocumented, arrested him and initiated the deportation process.

Cortes attempted to cross illegally back into the US in early December but his group’s food and water ran out. After more than a week in the desert, they turned themselves over to the Border Patrol and Cortes spent several days in jail. He said he wouldn’t stop trying to return home.

“I’ve got to make it over there,” Cortes said. “I have to get back to my mom and dad. My mom is sick. I’m OK right now, but it’s just sad that I’m alone.”

Sister Lorena Leyva Reyes has worked at the Kino Border Initiative for four years, and said she received a quick education upon arriving in Nogales.

“When I arrived, I knew very little about working with migrants,” Reyes said, explaining that she had seen migrants crossing the border as a child growing up in Agua Prieta, Mexico across from Douglas, Arizona.

“Our congregation works in schools, parishes, with the indigenous,” Reyes said. “But all the sisters should come to this project for awhile because this is where you really encounter the face of God.”

Reyes, like Ramos, spoke at length about taking inspiration from the migrants they help each day.

“From the moments the migrants arrive and they begin to talk with you, knowing what they’ve suffered and what they’ve experienced,” Reyes said. “Some women have been raped. And then they show up here and then they smile. Their faith is incredible.”

Sister Ramos agreed.

“They are the most vulnerable in an already vulnerable population,” Ramos said.

Women are often victimized on both sides of the border, sexually abused and sometimes targeted for abduction as they make the treacherous journey through the Sonoran Desert into the US — or after they have been deported back into Mexico through Nogales.

When one of the sisters meets a woman who has been attacked, she is invited to stay at the shelter, dubbed the Nazareth House.

“The women often arrive much more impacted,” Ramos said. “They’re in a state of shock, feeling higher stress by their travels. But you can see their bodies changing when they arrive here [at the shelter], relaxing. They can think more clearly about the decisions they’re about to make.”

There is sometimes catharsis here for the men as well, even if few solutions.

“In Mexican culture, you rarely if ever see a man cry,” said Sister Reyes, sitting at one of El Comedor’s long tables. “Here we’ve seen men cry because they get here and the realize they’re totally powerless. Their suffering is such that even Mexican men cry.”

Research for this series has been funded by a Knight Grant for Reporting on Religion and American Public Life, sponsored by the Knight Program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism; the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting; and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.