Alfonso Vazquez barely remembers life in Guanajuato, his childhood home north of Mexico City. Some snippets remain: His mother crying a lot, days when a plate of tortillas fed him and his five siblings, other days when the plate was empty. His mom made weekly phone calls to his father, who sent money every week to their village from wherever he was.
But there's a memory that's proved "one of the hardest things to forget to this day," says Vazquez. At age 4, Vazquez was carried by his mother through the Sonoran Desert, a 120,000-square-mile stretch of sweltering land that traverses the tough line between northwest Mexico and the southwest United States. "I remember a lot of crying. My dad was pushing my mom to continue north. I remember him saying, 'We're heading to El Norte.'" Their journey to the border was over 1,200 miles, and from there to Phoenix, the capital of Arizona, another 200.
From there, Vazquez's path to a stable life in El Norte has been delayed by many roadblocks. When he was 8 years old, he and his dad spotted people boarding a bus parked outside a gas station near their home in north-central Phoenix. His dad explained they were ice—Immigration Customs and Enforcement—buses. At that moment, Vazquez realized he'd need to hide. "To not be able to do normal things, to travel, but not be able to go back to Mexico and visit grandparents—it was hard."
When Vazquez was 14, his father left the family, and his mother had to choose to either stay in Phoenix without support or go back to Mexico without a future. They stayed, but as Vazquez faced his senior year of high school, he realized attending college—that distinctly American stepping stone from poverty to self-sufficiency—would be next to impossible without papers.
"I got caught between my parents wanting a better future for me and a system in the United States that is broken," says Vazquez, 20. "That's the most difficult thing, that nothing could be done in Washington after so many years."
Vazquez's story highlights issues that are deeply contested in the United States by Christians and non-Christians alike. Hopeless poverty put a strain on Mexicans and drove them north to a land of plenty. But illegal immigration has also put a tremendous strain on health and human services in the country, especially after the recent recession. Some Christians think law and order (enforcing immigration laws) is the highest priority; others believe compassion even toward lawbreakers is the church's primary calling. The debates are far from over.
But as the nation tries to repair what nearly everyone agrees is an inadequate immigration system, Christians in Phoenix are ministering to those caught in the middle under the scorching heat of their city's sun.
Not a New Problem
The immigrant's silhouette has been a feature of Arizona's landscape for most of its history. In 1942, 30 years after Arizona became the 48th state, Mexican workers began arriving as part of the Bracero Program (bracero means "strong arm"), instituted by President Franklin Roosevelt to shore up the nation's faltering wartime economy. Working with farmers, U.S. officials determined how many Mexicans were needed annually for the harvest, and Mexican officials distributed that number of work permits throughout northern Mexico. When permits ran out, workers desperate for income came north anyway.