The issue for us spiritually is not to live in fear, that from the blood of all this pain and suffering has got to emerge a better kind of human being that looks at itself and says, What happened to us?
A picture hangs on the wall of the building where Bañuelas greeted the immigrant children. Its of his 11-year-old nephew, Rico, who was gunned down by robbers in 2008 while on vacation in Mexico with his mother.
Ricos memory and the struggles of the children who trek across the border motivate Norma Lugan, who runs a Lutheran charity program that helps reconnect the children with their parents.
Though overall immigrant crossings are down sharply in recent years, unaccompanied children are a growing issue. In 2008, about 8,000 were apprehended at the border; last year there were nearly 24,500, mostly from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Experts point to a change in Mexican policy, which has allowed more children to pass through.
Diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, Lugan said, These kids give me life. I cant let it go.
A presidential visit
President Barack Obama visited El Paso in May 2011 to make the case for comprehensive immigration reform. He boasted how secure the border has become, a doubling of patrol agents since 2004 and hundreds of miles of fence (the mention of which elicited some boos from the audience, including Father Bañuelas), and talked compassionately about the people who crossed the border illegally or overstayed visas.
Regardless of how they came, the overwhelming majority of these folks are just trying to earn a living and provide for their families, Obama said to applause. But we have to acknowledge theyve broken the rules. Theyve cut in front of the line. And what is also true is that the presence of so many illegal immigrants makes a mockery of all those who are trying to immigrate legally.
Obama spoke on a Monday. The weekend before, Mariana Amaya, 45, made her regular trip to Juarez. Its the only way she can see her husband, who a few years ago was pulled over in a traffic stop in New Mexico and deported.
Under Obama, deportations have reached record levels 1.5 million in 2011 ridding the country of criminals but also tearing apart law-abiding families.
The government punished him, said Amaya, who works in a restaurant in La Mesa, N.M., and is a permanent U.S. resident. She said her husband could have paid a fine but with a lawyer on top, it was too much.
So she waits to see how her husband might fare if politicians in Washington pass long-elusive immigration reform. Are they going to pardon the people who have been punished? she asked.
While the political climate for reform is as favorable as it has been in years, it is also complex a battle between rule of law and compassion. Consider that the last time comprehensive immigration laws were enacted was 1986, under President Ronald Reagan.
He was one of the best, besides Kennedy or Lincoln, said Arturo Benitez, 69, laughing. Having arrived illegally in 1964, Benitez became a permanent legal resident in 1990.
At a charity center in downtown El Paso, in the shadow of the razor wire and guards and long lines at the border, Benitez helps other immigrants study to take the U.S. citizenship test. A short, kind-looking man with dark hair, he paced back and forth on a recent Saturday morning, going to a dry erase board to write the names of presidents and senators.
Halfway through the class, a cake was cut and Styrofoam cups of soda were sent around. Soledad Mendia, 55, had learned a few days earlier that she passed her test, becoming the 279th person Benitez has helped.
Im proud of them and myself, Benitez said. People from Central and South America come to work. They dont come as terrorists. With the drug trafficking, its hard for the U.S. I understand that. But I love the United States. I never had the opportunity in Mexico that I have here.