Forced to Flee Violence, Migrants Rely on Faith as They Journey to the U.S.

by Chloe Baker
Faith and Migration

Night after night, Erika Hernández spent six weeks in fervent prayer outside her residence in central Mexico, beseeching God to prevent her son from descending into a life of criminality.

“My prayers were ceaseless, as was my fasting. My faith was unwavering,” stated the 46-year-old woman, deeply concerned that her son might be conscripted into illegal activity by a criminal syndicate.

In a swift response to her prayers, Hernández recounted, her son managed to escape after being abducted by the Familia Michoacana drug cartel near Mexico City. Consequently, the family felt compelled to journey northward with aspirations to cross into the United States.

Religious faith has become an invaluable cornerstone for Hernández and numerous other migrants like her as they navigate the labyrinthine difficulties of their circumstances.

Hernández and ten family members spent a quarter of a year using various modes of transport—including buses, taxis, and even walking—to arrive at the Movimiento Juventud shelter in Tijuana, northern Mexico. They currently await an opportunity to secure a safer existence in the United States.

Prior to the traumatic incident involving her son, Hernández had never contemplated migrating to the United States. Her family was financially stable, with livestock and multiple parcels of agricultural land.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador stated earlier in October that approximately 10,000 migrants each day were in transit to the U.S. border. The sheer numbers have led Mexico’s most extensive railway network to suspend numerous freight train services.

While shelters across Mexico offer refuge to Venezuelans, Haitians, and Central Americans, some facilities in Tijuana have witnessed an upsurge in Mexican nationals who are escaping pervasive violence, extortion, and criminal intimidation.

José Guadalupe Torres, who left his residence in the central state of Guanajuato, saw his circumstances echo those of Hernández. His family was similarly threatened by a narcotics cartel. “We had to separate for safety, but divine guidance has never left us,” the 62-year-old commented. He now ardently seeks an appointment that will facilitate his entry into the United States.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration introduced an online system for migrants to schedule appointments for asylum applications, although unlawful border crossings continue to occur daily.

“Now is the opportune moment to share the word of God,” declared Pastor Albert Rivera, who is currently providing both shelter and spiritual sustenance to nearly 400 migrants at Agape, a nearby facility.

Rivera mentioned that many migrants had been subjected to harrowing experiences, including having family members kidnapped or killed, or being compelled to pay hefty ransoms to criminal outfits.

“Women who are spouses of criminals have come to us after their homes were targeted and received threats against their own lives and those of their children,” Rivera disclosed.

For those feeling despondent while waiting for improved living conditions, his guidance has been a source of solace.

Mariana Flores, who left Guerrero—a state on the Pacific Coast—with her husband and young child after her husband was briefly kidnapped, felt her faith rejuvenated at Agape.

“God performed a miracle for us,” the 25-year-old noted. “Though we may feel disheartened occasionally, attending religious services helps us to persevere.”

Miguel Rayo, 47, who also hails from Guerrero, maintains a digital version of the Bible on his mobile device. “I consult it when I’m in distress or need. Our aspiration is to remain spiritually connected,” he said.

Agape opens its doors to migrants of any faith or ideology. However, attendance at services conducted on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays is strongly encouraged. Prayer sessions in small groups are also a common occurrence in the dormitories.

A short distance away, Casa del Migrante offers not just a temporary dwelling but also daily meals, legal counsel, and mentorship programs aimed at employment and educational opportunities for the migrants’ children. Founded by the Catholic Scalabrinian Missionaries in 1987, the shelter has expanded its scope to include not just deported men but whole families and members from the LGBTQ+ community since 2019.

During Wednesday afternoon Masses led by Rev. Pat Murphy, an American priest, migrants are invited to share their reflections, requests, and concerns. “The service is a convivial occasion to congregate and exchange thoughts,” said Alma Ramírez, a full-time worker at Casa Migrante.

The facility currently houses internally displaced Mexicans who have fled southern states, predominantly due to drug-related violence.

Upon entry, migrants are greeted by a portrait of the Virgin Mary. “Some migrants, upon receiving permission to enter, have said that they felt reassured the moment they saw the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe,” Ramírez revealed.

Both at Casa del Migrante and Agape, some migrants request baptism from Murphy and Rivera. Others seek their spiritual guidance for blessings. Many are concerned about the family members they have left behind, while some remain optimistic about the eventual conclusion of their odyssey to the United States.

“As they enter, I suggest they pray, ‘Lord, open the gates for me to pass through,’” Rivera recommended.

“In essence, imagine a journey where you arrive broken, but through prayer and proper procedures, you secure an appointment that culminates in your arrival in the United States. That is an experience that will indelibly etch itself on their memories,” concluded Rivera.

This religion coverage is brought to you through a collaboration between Big Big News and The Conversation US, with financial support from the Lilly Endowment Inc. The content is the sole responsibility of the Associated Press.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Faith and Migration

What is the primary focus of the article?

The article primarily focuses on the role that faith plays in sustaining migrants on their challenging journey to the United States. It provides an in-depth look at individual experiences, as well as the support offered by religious institutions.

Who is Erika Hernández?

Erika Hernández is a 46-year-old woman from central Mexico who prayed fervently for her son’s safety and to prevent him from being drawn into criminal activity. After her son was abducted and subsequently escaped, she and her family embarked on a journey to the United States, supported by their strong sense of faith.

What role do religious institutions play according to the text?

Religious institutions, such as the Movimiento Juventud shelter in Tijuana and the Agape facility, provide both physical and spiritual refuge for migrants. These organizations offer shelter, meals, and spiritual services, among other support mechanisms, to help migrants cope with their difficult circumstances.

What is the Biden administration’s policy toward migrants as described in the article?

According to the article, the Biden administration has introduced an online system earlier this year that allows migrants to schedule appointments for asylum applications. However, the text also notes that illegal border crossings continue to occur on a daily basis.

What groups of migrants are mentioned in the text?

The text mentions migrants from Mexico, Venezuela, Haiti, and Central America. It also indicates that migrants come from various backgrounds, including families, individuals, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

How has the situation at the border been affecting Mexican infrastructure?

The article states that about 10,000 migrants per day are heading to the U.S. border, according to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. This surge in migration has led Mexico’s largest railway network to suspend numerous freight train services.

What kind of threats are migrants fleeing from?

Migrants are predominantly fleeing from threats of violence, abduction, and extortion perpetrated by organized crime groups and drug cartels. Some have experienced the kidnapping or killing of family members or have been subjected to criminal extortion.

How do migrants maintain their spiritual health during their journey?

Migrants rely on personal faith, and many keep religious texts on their mobile devices. Religious services and prayer sessions in shelters like Agape and Casa del Migrante also contribute to maintaining their spiritual well-being.

Who is responsible for the article’s content?

The article’s content is the sole responsibility of the Associated Press. It is part of a collaboration between Big Big News and The Conversation US, funded by the Lilly Endowment Inc.

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Mark Adams October 21, 2023 - 2:06 pm

Incredible article. But what’s the govt doing about this, both US and Mexican? Seems like the article didn’t dive into that much.

Emily Johnson October 22, 2023 - 12:28 am

A very well-researched piece. But I’m a bit skeptical about how these shelters actually operate. We need more info on the ground.

Sarah Williams October 22, 2023 - 1:46 am

This is so sad but also uplifting. These people have gone through so much and yet they keep moving forward. Faith’s powerful, ain’t it?

Kevin Brown October 22, 2023 - 3:57 am

We hear a lot about the politics of migration, but this is a fresh take. Makes the issue more human. kudos to the writer.

John Smith October 22, 2023 - 9:43 am

Wow, this is a real eye-opener. never knew faith played such a big role for migrants. Makes u think, doesn’t it?

Paula Stevens October 22, 2023 - 1:01 pm

got to say, this gave me a different perspective on migrants. It’s not just about fleeing violence, it’s also a spiritual journey for some.


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