EL PASO, Texas (CNS) — With Pope Francis’ visit Ciudad Juarez — Mexico’s fifth-largest city and the most populous on the country’s northern border — the issues of migration, and most importantly, of migrants, are at the forefront.
Many of the speeches he gave during his visit to the United States last September included references to immigration.
“Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War,” he said before a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress. “This presents us with great challenges and many decisions. … Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'”
Thalia Hernandez Gutierrez is one of thousands of U.S. immigrants who have crossed the border into the U.S. from Juarez and now enjoys legal residency status, but her case is unusual due to causes she considers to be “an act of God for my life.”
Her personal story is no different than that of the average “juareno,” native of Juarez, growing up amid shootings, abductions and drug trafficking. Finding bodies or just bloody human heads thrown about the town square were a regular part of life.
“One night when I was 9, my aunt’s house, right next to ours, was blown up and burned to the ground,” she told Catholic News Service about her first direct brush with violence. Her step-uncle was “on the wrong path and luckily no one died,” she said, “but they sent word that they would kill us all.”
Hernandez grew up only with her mother; her father had abandoned them early on.
While in high school, Rogelio was one of Hernandez’s childhood friends who were dropouts. Although generous and helpful within their tightly knit San Agustin neighborhood, he also was involved in the drug trade. Rogelio was responsible for the worst moment of Hernandez’s life — and was probably her savior.
One day, while sitting with another friend at a burger stand where her mother worked, Rogelio came in and started to chat with them. Outside, a truck went by and fired shots at Rogelio’s vehicle.
“He went out and was talking to them,” Hernandez recalled, “but all of a sudden they were shooting at him. We saw everything. I was frozen in panic, so my friend pulled me down to the floor.” She knew the shooters, and they saw her; they all went to the same high school.
Hernandez, then 17, her mother and her friend were threatened with death if they didn’t keep silent about the murder. After weeks of sleepless nights and high family tension while cloistered in a house with all its windows covered with blankets, Hernandez’s mother had had enough.
“Early one morning, my mom’s friend took us to the (border crossing) bridge, and we went up to the guards,” she said. After giving her child a hug, the mother had her go with the officers and tell them the whole story. Before that Sept. 6, 2013, the youngster did not know Mom’s complete intentions.
After an extensive interview by authorities, Hernandez was classified as an abandoned minor. She was taken into custody and then placed at a shelter run by the El Paso Diocese’s Migrant and Refugee Services. She was there two months.
“I went to high school, but all the classes were in English and I couldn’t understand enough,” she said. “Now I go to Ysleta Community Center, focusing on learning the language. I want to study to become a veterinarian.”
At the shelter she met Rafael Muriel, two years her senior, who worked there as a language teacher. After her departure from the shelter, they bumped into each several times and later became a couple. They now share an apartment.
Hernandez was taken to the border three months shy of her 18th birthday, qualifying her as an abandoned minor. She has seen the blessing in that unfortunate event.
“The shelter was a beautiful place. There I met wonderful people, especially the children,” she said breaking into tears because, as she said, they reminded her of herself as a child.
These days Hernandez connects with her mother, who has remarried, only by phone.
“I have not met many people here, but I love the ones I have met,” she said in closing. “I feel very peaceful. I feel positive about my future.”