Rafael Avila was born in Mexico but for most of his life had been living legally in the United States as a permanent resident. He was, for the most part, a bilingual kid from Tennessee.
But troubles with “every law agency imaginable,” as he put it, left him at risk of deportation. He was addicted to opiates. It started with painkillers and, as it does for many, progressed to heroin. His run-ins with the law were frequent.
Avila’s drug use eventually steered him back to Mexico. In 1996, Congress expanded the grounds for deportation to include minor nonviolent offenses, such as drug convictions. The law is retroactive, meaning that immigrants can be deported for convictions predating the legislation. After conviction, many are given “final orders of removal,” which put them on record as deportable and unable to reenter the US if they leave for any reason. Final orders of removal are not immediate deportation orders, but in recent years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has conducted nationwide sweeps of those with final orders.
So in 2014, knowing that he was headed to deportation, withdrawal in jail, or death by overdose, Avila and his English-speaking wife and daughter moved from Tennessee to Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso. He did so knowing he would never be allowed back into the US. It wasn’t a great choice, he explained. It was his only choice.
“For the good of ‘y’all the people,’” Avila said with a wry chuckle, “it was fantastic that I left.”
With its pervasive presence of drug cartels, Juárez might seem like an odd choice for a man fleeing the dangers of drug addiction. Many deported addicts end up buying from and eventually working for the cartels, according to Avila. But securing the proper identification to work legitimately in Mexico can be difficult for deportees who never built lives there, especially those with criminal records. Casting your vocational lot with the cartels can be the most lucrative option available and can open doors to helpful connections.
“Most of us come from hustling,” Avila said.
For him, the risk of putting down roots in Juárez was preferable to the alternative. “I didn’t think I was going to live another month if I stayed” in the US, he said.
Plus, the commute across the bridge into El Paso made it possible for Avila’s wife and daughter to work and go to school in the US.
Avila did not get clean right away. He had a near-fatal overdose after their move to Mexico. His father, a Baptist pastor, came from the US to help him get back on his feet.
Eventually, Avila felt something change.
“It was like being born again, literally,” he said. “In one of the most dangerous cities in the world, I found peace for the first time.”
But Avila was lonely, a common feeling among deportees forced by circumstance and consequence into communities that are not their own. His wife, who spoke only English, was afraid to go to the grocery store during the family’s first two years in Juárez. They had begun homeschooling their daughter to spend more time together as a family and to avoid the commute to El Paso schools across the bridge, which can stretch up to four hours a day.
He and his family knew they needed to find some Christian fellowship to help bear the burden of living in this new place.
A growing number of churches in Mexican border cities cater to the increasingly diverse communities of migrants whose journeys north stall at the threshold of the United States, often permanently.
Outreach efforts to Brazilian, Haitian, and West African immigrants have cropped up in Tijuana in recent years alongside churches already serving Central Americans drawn there. Migrant demographics in places like Mexicali and Juárez are beginning to diversify as well, as hopeful border crossers seek new points of entry and easier places to bide their time.
But tending to the spiritual health of deportees who may have lived much of their lives in the US is an altogether different challenge.
“Deportees are rejected by both sides,” explained Stan J. H. Lee, director of Relevant to Cross Ministries in Tijuana. “First by the US side where they are deported from, and for the second time by [the Mexican] side, who don’t welcome or don’t know what to do with them.”
The first recorded deportations from the United States took place in 1892, numbering 2,801. The figure has waxed and waned over the decades with policy changes and global economic shifts. But it rose rapidly beginning in the 1990s, in large part because of changes to US immigration law that paved the way for aggressive enforcement efforts under both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations. (Removals have dropped significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, in part because of health protocols at the US border and in part because of policy changes under the Biden administration.)
Between 2008 and 2019, ICE deported nearly four million people. Many of them arrived in border communities, speaking limited or no Spanish. And they arrived with a stigma. In cities where bullets can befall those guilty by association or those simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, neighbors keep their distance, uncertain what company newcomers keep and whether the offense that jettisoned them from America was a traffic stop or something more nefarious.
Lee’s ministry targets church planting and outreach efforts toward deportees, including helping plant a church roughly a hundred steps away from one of the main border crossings in Tijuana, where an unceasing stream of deportees trickles out after being processed by the Department of Homeland Security and Mexican immigration authorities. Including his own, Lee can list off a handful of churches with bilingual services in Tijuana and can name only two that he knows of tailoring their efforts to English-speaking deportees.
In Juárez, 600 miles to the east, Avila helped start one.
In 2018, he stumbled across a group of gringos setting up for a worship service in Anapra, a suburb on the west side of Ciudad Juárez near the New Mexico border. They were missionaries planting a church called Algo Más. Avila was drawn to their thick North Carolina accents, which sounded like home. He spent the day attending their Spanish-language worship service and lingering afterward to ask questions.
His family soon jumped in. The church began offering an English-language service, a welcome change for Avila’s wife. Algo Más also began to grow its ministry among the city’s community of deportees, with Avila and his family close to the core.
“Our whole concept of building relationships has been changed,” said David Godzisz, the lead pastor of Algo Más and a self-described “hippie from the mountains.” Deportees are “used to being let down,” he said—by fixers, by lawyers, by relatives who promised to help. “The culture we’re working in is a culture that doesn’t trust each other.”
Avila and his family have been part of helping the church navigate that culture. He also launched his own ministry on the side called Lágrimas de Gozo, a street festival outreach that mixed testimonies, worship, food, and games.
All the while, though, Avila has had to learn and relearn lessons of trust himself. In 2019, the family added a second child, a baby boy. Then came the coronavirus pandemic.
Out of respect for government safety requests, Avila stopped hosting street ministry events. While bringing a box of facemasks across the border, his wife’s car was impounded for being over the mask import limit. Shortly after, his car was stolen at gunpoint.
“Man, it’s just one thing after the next,” Avila remembered thinking to himself. He began to have those low feelings again; living in Juárez is not easy.
Then he got a call. Someone his father knew in Dallas was looking to donate a car. God’s provision “amazed me every time like it was the first time,” he said.
Partway into the pandemic, Avila got a job with Preemptive Love, a humanitarian nonprofit working with people in conflict, crisis, and war zones. He is now a program officer for Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia, which gives him access to visit facilities serving asylum seekers who are stranded at the border and awaiting immigration hearings. US policies requiring asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their cases are processed have led to crowded shelters and tent camps all along the border.
Avila is all too familiar with the risks they face from cartel recruiters and human traffickers, with the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks now layered on top.
With Preemptive Love, Avila has worked with churches to get infant kits and food to the asylum seekers. It has encouraged him to know that churches were helping in Juárez, that his faith community has not abandoned the border migrant community.
“They were the ones that completely changed our minds about what churches were doing with migrants,” Avila said.
Avila still misses Tennessee. He especially thinks of the opiate addicts he knew there and wishes he could somehow go back and help them, help the church reach out to them. “I wish I was the me I am here,” he said. “But over there.”
On his good days, however, Avila sees a purpose for being in Ciudad Juárez, plenty of reason to be thankful. Not only had the decision to return to Mexico saved his own life, but it put him in a unique position to offer lifesaving aid and hope to communities on the side of the border that will probably forever be his home.
“I get to minister to people who not everybody can reach,” he said. “I’m beyond grateful to get to be here.”
The Cross and the Freezer
Jessica Margarita Menjivar’s story doesn’t have a happy ending, at least not in the way immigration stories in America are usually told. Fleeing violence in El Salvador, she did not find safety. Apprehended at the US-Mexico border, she waited in detention for eight months and was deported.
But to summarize her heartbreak is to miss what God was doing in the midst of it. If there is a redeeming silver lining, it’s hidden in the details.
Leaving El Salvador was the hardest decision Menjivar had ever made up to that point in her 39 years. A gang controlled her neighborhood in San Salvador, Soyapango, and had set up a “watch station” on her roof. Among other things, the gang dictated when she should turn her lights on and off. They kept a close eye on her and her two teenage daughters. And she knew it was only a matter of time before the girls were enlisted as “girlfriends,” serving the sexual appetites of gang members as assigned.
Menjivar had always envisioned herself as a missionary, sharing the gospel in other countries. She never imagined these would be the circumstances that would propel her out.
She sent her girls ahead, planning for the day they would be reunited, and she set out not long after. Along the way, she had to pause for an emergency oral surgery.
Nearing what she thought would be the end of a three-month journey, Menjivar was feeling hopeful as she neared the US border. Just across it, she was apprehended by Border Patrol agents at San Ysidro, California.
“I told God, ‘Why you didn’t let me die if you knew that now they were going to arrest me?’” she said.
A man detained in the Border Patrol station whispered encouragements, telling her God had a plan for her. Exhausted and aching everywhere, Menjivar didn’t buy it. She remembers lying on the crowded floor of the detention center near a toilet, studying the underside of the bowl.
“I didn’t even have the strength to talk to God,” she said.
After days in “the freezer”—what detainees and workers call the cold rooms where migrants often spend their first nights in some detention centers—Menjivar heard two women praying over some others. It reminded her of a dream she’d had years earlier.
“I saw myself preaching about [Jesus] and praying for women just as they were in that room,” Menjivar said.
She got off the floor and joined the women, beginning a prayer ministry that she then brought with her to a detention facility in Tacoma, Washington, where she waited for eight months for a judge to hear her asylum case.
There were moments she was tempted to despair, thinking of being separated forever from her daughters, who had made it to the US. But her informal ministry gave her a sense of purpose.
While in detention, Menjivar met Jose-Luis Bonilla, a volunteer coordinator with World Relief, who encouraged her to lean into her ministry. She led two prayer services per day and several Bible studies. “I was busy teaching about Jesus,” Menjivar said.
In the most unexpected way, she realized, the dream of becoming a missionary she’d had since age eight had come true. “I met many women from different countries and taught them about Jesus,” Menjivar said. “My wish took 32 years, but God heard it.”
At the time when Menjivar was detained, a Trump administration policy had made it nearly impossible for Central Americans to win asylum on the grounds of escaping gangs or domestic violence. The Biden administration reversed that decision in June, opening the doors for thousands of men and women in identical situations to Menjivar’s to be considered for asylum.
But the change came too late for her.
After eight months in detention in Tacoma, Menjivar was flown back to El Salvador in handcuffs on October 28, 2018.
“I felt a lot of shame,” she said. “In my country I have never had a problem with the authorities.”
Menjivar’s connection to her church community is helping her overcome the stigma she sometimes feels she carries as a deportee. She continues her own prayer ministry in El Salvador in a sister church to the one she grew up in. She works with children and continues to keep in touch with women she met in detention, encouraging and praying for them.
She fears returning to her old home and facing the gangs there that she fled. For now, she sleeps on the floor of her sister’s house, talking to her daughters over WhatsApp.
In May of 2020, her oldest daughter graduated from high school and enrolled in college. Seeing the future ahead for her daughter, Menjivar feels a victory, even as she struggles with poverty and ill health at home. She needs knee surgery, but she’ll have to wait for a spot to open up at a national hospital because she cannot afford to have the procedure at a private one. The pain has gotten so bad, Menjivar said, that she cannot walk.
In the midst of her pain, she reminds herself constantly of the promise that God works all things for the good of those who love him. “Every day, Romans 8:28 becomes more real to me,” she said.
Bekah McNeel is a journalist based in San Antonio.
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