Mexico’s ‘Immigration Saint’ wants the pope to see the ‘Syria at our gate’

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TAPACHULA, Chiapas— In a rundown neighborhood near the Mexico-Guatemala border lies the Bélen shelter, a house that assists what are mostly Central American migrants who are beginning their journey up through Mexico to the United States.

The shelter is managed by Flor Maria Rigoni, a 71-year-old Italian priest who carries a big crucifix tucked into his waistband is if it were a gun. His long white beard, flowing robe and beatdown sandals draw stares wherever he goes.

Those close to Rigoni consider the priest to be some sort of modern day saint—a man who’s devoted his life and faith to helping migrants. An old priest with the spirit of a young man, Rigoni is always making jokes, and appears constantly restless.

He’s a force of energy. And his miracle is bringing laughter to a place filled with sorrow.

Rigoni delivers mass at 7 am.Rafa Fernandez

Rigoni delivers mass at 7 am.

Rigoni’s shelter helps northbound migrants as well as minors who have been rescued from abusive homes and prostitution rings.

“We try to rebuild their self-esteem by giving them psychological assistance,” says Nimbe Gonzalez, a Bélen volunteer who helps the priest rehabilitate sexually exploited minors rescued from bars, nightclubs and brothels. “These girls have testified before the prosecutor’s office and remain in danger. Many come with drug and alcohol abuse problems, so we have to start from zero by teaching them about the importance of personal hygiene, values, good manners. It’s a very long process.”

Nimbe herself is a survivor. At age 14 she was the victim of an express kidnapping in Mexico City and was raped by her captors. She eventually married and moved to Tapachula, where her eldest son died in an accident. Rigoni’s counsel helped her get through that episode, and now she wants to give back to others.

“The day I went to mass, I felt spoken to,” she recalls. “He talked about many of the things I had within me.”

Rigoni’s sermons are indeed captivating. They’re a blend of poetry, philosophy and current events. The soundtrack to his words is provided by the chirping and buzzing of insects in the surrounding Chiapas jungle.

Migrants can stay at the Belén shelter up to 3 days.Rafa Fernandez

Migrants can stay at the Belén shelter up to 3 days.

“He’s my spiritual guide, a friend of the family,” Nimbe says of the priest. “As a boss, he’s very intense, sometimes explosive; he never runs out of battery.”

Despite his reputation for being indefatigable, Rigoni looks tired when I caught up with him on a recent trip to Tapachula. He can’t hide his frustration with Pope Francis’ agenda in Mexico.

The pope is scheduled to visit Chiapas’ picturesque city of San Cristobal de las Casas, but the pontiff will miss experiencing the grim reality of the immigration trail in nearby Tapachula. Many here think the pope’s visit would better be spent visiting Mexico’s southern border, which has become a crossroads for weary emigrants from all over the world.

The Suchiate River dividing Mexico and Guatemala thrives on informal commerce.Rafa Fernandez

The Suchiate River dividing Mexico and Guatemala thrives on informal commerce.

From Central Americans and Cubans, to Africans, Asians and emigrants from the Middle East, Mexico’s border with Guatemala has become an oddly cosmopolitan place.

Mexico’s role as a corridor separating Central Americans from the Sueño Americano is also evolving. Rigoni, who has spent 18 years in the trenches, claims Mexico has gone from being a bridge country to a destination in its own right.

Tapachula-based immigration officials say they detained 84,269 emigrants in Chiapas alone last year. That represents a 65% increase from the previous year. At a national level, the number of detained Cubans has increased by more than 300% over the past two years, and there’s also been a considerable uptick in the number of non-Central American detainees, who are catalogued simply as “others.”

Activists criticize the Mexican government as doing Uncle Sam’s dirty work by “policing” the southern border for passing migrants.

6C2A7336Rafa Fernandez

A group of young men cross into Mexico.

The dangerous journey north, which many claim has been made more treacherous since the Mexican government crack down of the infamous train known as La Bestia, is discouraging many from crossing Mexico. And as the country’s economy continues to outperform other nearby economies in Latin America, many Central Americans are now staying in southern Mexico to find work rather than risk crossing the U.S. border.

Many remain in Mexico as undocumented laborers, while others apply for temporary work permits or humanitarian visas.

Migrants at the shelter plan their journey across Mexico.Rafa Fernandez

Migrants at the shelter plan their journey across Mexico.

“We have a Syria at our gate,” Rigoni says, describing the violence that’s pushing Central Americans into Mexico. “It’s an undeclared civil war.”

Rigoni says immigration should be viewed as a “permanent human condition.” But he understands the government’s need to exert more control in its border, too. Not everybody entering Mexico is fleeing violence. Some are criminal elements, or “organized crime exports,” as Rigoni calls them.

In places like Tapachula, Mexico’s famous narcocorridos (songs glorifying the drug culture) are increasingly being dedicated to Central American gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13).

After mass, Rigoni substitutes his robe for casual attire and looks at the ceiling, pondering against the backdrop of the Chiapas jungle.Rafa Fernandez

The priest talks to one of his parishioners.

Burnout and Hope

Father Rigoni is a political animal. He’s become a masterful fundraiser for his shelter and can move seamlessly between the worlds of poverty and money. He can also be quiet, contemplative and experience what he describes as a “compassion hangover.”

He admits he can get tired, sometimes sickened by all the migrants and their tales of woe. “They all leave their stories with you,” he says.

Indeed, it’s easy to feel an emotional burnout after just a few days in the shelter; it’s a place filled with tales of cruelty and brutality. But there’s also tales of hope and awakening. Those are the moments that keep the priest going.

A few years ago Rigoni says a man in a squeaky wheelchair approached him after his sermon.

The man said he had fallen under La Bestia and got his legs severed by the train’s wheels. He said he laid his head on the tracks to kill himself, but was saved by another passing migrant.

Rigoni says the man in the wheelchair told him that at first he cursed the other migrant for pulling him off the tracks. “I asked him why he didn’t let me die. But today I come to tell you, that I may not have legs but I can still hug my wife, kiss my children and tell you that life continues. I now realize that I have more than my two legs,” Rigoni said, reciting the man’s story.

A billboard near the border advertises the pope's arrival in Chiapas.Rafa Fernandez

A billboard near the border advertises the pope's arrival in Chiapas.

Rigoni’s voice cracks with emotion as he finishes telling the man’s anecdote.

These are the kind of people he lives to help. And he wishes that Mexico—and the Vatican, too—would do more to help those in need.

He laments that his adoptive country is looking down on Central Americans the same way the U.S. looks down on Mexicans. Instead of treating southern emigrants with empathy, Rigoni says Mexico is becoming more discriminatory and arrogant, like it’s neighbor to the north.

Guatemalans wait at an immigration post in Tapachula, Mexico.Rafa Fernandez

Guatemalans wait at an immigration post in Tapachula.

At the same time, Mexicans are benefiting from cheaper labor provided by Central American migrants.

According to immigration official Claudia Alvarez, most Mexicans living in Tapachula now have a Central American maid who gets paid around $80 a month, much less than what a Mexican maid would make in Mexico City. She says many of the undocumented Guatemalan maids are mistreated and threatened with deportation by abusive employers.

A deported Guatemalan holds up a Mexican permit. He claimed to have been arbitrarily detained and sent back.Rafa Fernandez

A deported Guatemalan holds up a Mexican visa. He claimed to have been arbitrarily detained and sent back.

The patterns of immigrant abuse in Tapachula are similar to those in some U.S. border states, Rigoni says. “People blame immigrants for crime, rape, vandalism,” the priest explains.

He says Mexico needs to change its immigration policies and attitudes, which are based on old thinking that migrants are just passing through. Mexico is now becoming a destination country for migrants, and it needs to act accordingly, he says.

Rigoni says immigration cannot be stopped, regardless of how much security is deployed at the border. People find a way around. In Chiapas alone, there are nine formal border crossings, but authorities believe there are more than 300 “blind spots” where migrants cross undetected each day.

“The open veins of Latin America’s migration are here, in Tapachula,” the priest says.

A transgender migrant rests at the Belén shelter next to Mexico's iconic Virgin of Guadalupe.Rafa Fernandez

A transgender migrant rests at the Bélen shelter next to Mexico's iconic Virgin of Guadalupe.

The pope, sadly, will miss all that when he visits Mexico.

But Rigoni says Francis can still learn an important lesson from the Mexican people.

“I used to judge Mexicans as reluctant, but I have learned the Mexican people don’t give a damn about the government they have,” Rigoni says. “They know how to open their own paths. Mexico is one of those countries that solves its own problems, in spite of the government.”

That’s the immigrants’ way, he says. “And migrants around the world will do the same.”

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