A Honduran family enjoys a meal at the Kino Border Initiative dining room in Nogales, Mexico, just across the border from Arizona. (Courtesy Michael and Peggy Purkerson)
A Honduran family enjoys a meal at the Kino Border Initiative dining room in Nogales, Mexico, just across the border from Arizona. (Courtesy Michael and Peggy Purkerson)

BROWNSVILLE, Ore. — Along the border between Mexico and Arizona, there are both more hope and more despair in the last two years.

That’s the assessment of an Oregon Catholic couple who this spring traveled south of Tucson for the fourth time.

Michael and Peggy Purkerson, members of Holy Trinity Mission here, went on an immersion with the Kino Border Initiative. The couple helped sort clothing and other donations at a feeding site in Nogales, Mexico. They served food to families. They also heard from migrants, social workers and ranchers to get a balanced perspective on border issues. 

The Purkersons also helped with music at Mass in the border town of Arivaca, Arizona, where there are residents on both sides of the immigration debate. Some townspeople want a big, beefy border wall and some want easier admittance. But almost no one in town supports the armed militia groups who have shown up to patrol the border. 

The Purkersons, married for 41 years, met one rancher who, while he wants tighter controls on immigration because of drug smuggling, nevertheless has affixed spigots to his borderland wells so migrants can drink. “No one should die in the desert,” he told the couple.

Many residents of the area, whatever their politics, support a better guest worker program that allows laborers to cross the border more easily, working in the United States while living in Mexico.

One advocacy group linked to the initiative accompanies asylum seekers to Phoenix to shield them from verbal and physical abuse from immigration opponents.

Two years ago, Michael Purkerson said, the migrants served meals at the Mexican site were mostly young men who had been deported. Now, the dining room is full of families and children from Central America who are more optimistic than the deported men of the past.

“They seemed more hopeful and more upbeat at having made it that far,” said Purkerson, 65.

But also at the center are migrants recently deported from the U.S. or sent back to await asylum decisions. Their spirits were the lowest of all, approaching despair, Purkerson explained. 

Peggy’s brother is Jesuit Father Peter Neeley, a cowboy hat-wearing clergyman who leads the Kino Border Initiative’s education programs.

Father Neeley told visitors on immersion that those who get deported feel a crushing sense of failure. U.S. border agents exacerbate the shame by making deportees walk a gauntlet with belongings in a plastic bag.

The dining room, run by the Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist, seats about 100, so migrants must eat in three or four shifts. About 600 people per day on average get fed. They live in tents and under tarps on the streets and on the fringes of a nearby cemetery. They find refuge in the dining room. 

Before the meals, the sisters ask diners to sit quietly and breathe deeply, the day’s only moment of peace for many. They thank God for the blessings of the day.

“Through this time I felt a tremendous joy present in everyone, migrants and helpers,” Purkerson said. “Moving through this immense suffering there is a presence. Migrants come with hope. It draws people to come and volunteer, to come and see. This is community, a common unity.”

Climate change fuels northward migration. Rural families in Central America have suffered a five-year drought and can grow barely enough food for survival. A blight has hit the coffee crop. In many Central American cities, families face gang violence and governments indifferent to their plight.

Matt Cato, director of the Archdiocese of Portland’s Office of Life, Justice and Peace, knows the Purkersons and urged them to share their border experiences here in Oregon. “It’s one thing to form opinions of a person or classes of people when it’s a nebulous, generic concept, and another when you’re close enough to see the Face of Christ in each one,” Cato said. 

Mike, a coffee roaster, purchases fair trade beans from Honduras. He met one Honduran family that seemed delighted by his business practices.

Purkerson, who marvels at those who work with migrants at the border every day, was moved by a teacher from Boston who rented a house on the Mexican side of the border and volunteers, serving meals and tutoring children.

At 65 and dealing with multiple sclerosis, Purkerson is doing as much as he can. “We have people who are suffering who need our help,” he said.