EL PASO, Texas -- The children enter the room in a burst of laughter and smiles. Hola, bueñas tardes, a boy says, throwing his arms around Father Arturo Bañuelas, 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 Bañuelas 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? Bañuelas 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 U.S. illegally five years ago.
I spent four nights in the desert, says a boy, telling about frightening wolves and running from 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 hitmen 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 U.S. citizen.
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 whats 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 Juarezs 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 hotspots 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.
On a crusade
While some here say legalizing drugs would ease the problem, Bañuelas crusades against them, seeing a direct connection to violence across the border and why people will do anything to enter the United States. Hes 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.