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March 09, 2023

AHA’s Arizona MAP Experience Personalizes Immigrants’ Struggles

Enduring memories are the mark of each thought-provoking Mission Awareness Process trip. Just ask the travelers from the Academy of the Holy Angels, who recently spent a week at the Arizona-Mexico border. Angels visited both sides of the international border on their quest to learn more about the immigration issue.


MAP trips are organized by AHA’s foundresses and sponsors, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, and allow participants to learn how the School Sisters live their goal to promote social justice.


Participants in the most recent MAP journey included AHA Director of Mission & Ministry Joan Connelly and students Grace Cuttita of Glen Rock, Jacqueline Garcia of Bergenfield, Chloe Rodriguez of Leonia, and Emma Spadora of Ridgewood.


“We were exposed to a network of people and organizations that are trying to assist migrants and help them live with dignity,” Mrs. Connelly shared. “This network provides food, shelter, legal advice, and emotional support. It gave me hope to know that there are so many folks working to heal the brokenness at the border.”


Angels visited the women’s sewing and gardening co-op in Agua Prieta, Mexico, which the SSNDs established as a vehicle for people to sell products and earn a living. The travelers also ate dinner with a border patrol agent who is a friend of the School Sisters. Some of the most poignant moments were speaking with families who are trying to enter the USA, witnessing a group hearing at the federal courthouse, and participating in a vigil for immigrants who have died on their journeys.


The travelers also took time to plant a cross in memory of José Peralta Noperi, a migrant who froze to death while trying to reach the border. The service was led by Gabrielle, a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church and an indigenous person of the Yaqui people.


Jacqueline Garcia said she made a heartfelt connection while speaking with three female immigrants from Guatemala, where Garcia’s parents were born. She saw her own father and mother reflected in these women, particularly as one woman used the same phrases Garcia has heard from her mother.


“The oldest one sort of had the same story as my father because, when she was eight, she started to work in a factory,” Garcia said, explaining that her father began working on a coffee farm when he was eight years old. 


“There was a lot that impacted me from that experience because she was telling me how she was praying to the angels for help and, when she saw my sweater with an angel on it, she started sobbing,” Garcia added. “I definitely will be getting involved more in immigration.”


Garcia plans to become a doctor, and envisions herself devoting time to provide health care to immigrants.


Grace Cuttita, who took the Texas MAP trip in 2022, was ready to learn more in Arizona.


“In Arizona, we were able to see many different migrant shelters in both southern Arizona and Mexico,” this Angel explained. Cuttita observed that there is a considerable amount of trust built during a MAP journey, and travelers forge connections with each other, chaperones, and the School Sisters. 


“At the end of each day, we are able to reflect and open up to each other,” she noted. “The experiences during this trip and encounters with the migrants are raw and emotional. This trip left me with a better understanding of the journey migrants take and the struggles they face. Something I will never forget is the faces of the migrants and the stories they shared with us.”


Cuttita returned home with a deeper appreciation for her family, the safety of her home town, and her access to education.

In Tucson, the Angels visited Casa Alitas, a family shelter where immigrants receive shelter, meals, clothing, and assistance to get where they want to go in the USA.


Site visits also included the Mexican Immigration office in Nogales, Mexico, where Connelly and the Angels spoke with families who were trying to figure out their next step. A Green Valley Samaritan volunteer who traveled with the Angels also drove the group to two other shelters in Nogales: San Juan de Bosco and Casa de Misericordia.


“At San Juan Bosco, we met a Guatemalan woman and her two sons. She had recently received an appointment to speak with American immigration officials. This was a result of assistance she received at the Jesuits’ Kino Center also in Nogales,” Connelly shared.


The group was greeted by “guards” (two sleeping dogs) at Casa de Misericordia. At this site, the Angels met a Minneapolis church group that was also trying to understand the complexities of immigration.


“Casa de Misericordia was pretty amazing,” Connelly shared. “They offered all sorts of services for families trying to migrate. Children were expected to attend school while their families were living there. We met an early childhood teacher who was playing with two young children. She explained to us the importance of play to young children, especially when the family is going through trauma. Folks staying at Casa de Misericordia provided lunch for us and for the other group.”

Tuesday’s agenda brought a visit to the federal courthouse in Tucson.


“We witnessed the trial of about 20 people who had been arrested for illegal reentry,” Connelly said. “This was a group hearing. Folks were dressed in orange jumpsuits and had five-point (hands, feet, and waist) shackles. We also visited Keep Tucson Together, a free legal aid service that assists migrants. At 5:15 p.m., we participated in the Healing Our Borders Vigil. The names of migrants who have died in Cochise County in the past 22 years were remembered by a group. Names on individual crosses were announced aloud one by one and all responded ‘presente.’”


In Agua Prieta, the Angels saw the Humanitarian Aid Center for Migrants and Centro de Atención al Migrante Exodus, a shelter for overnight hospitality. The group also shared lunch with some of the women from the sewing and gardening co-op, and had coffee at Café Justo.


That evening, the group ate dinner with Obie, a friend of the School Sisters who is part of the mounted border patrol. Traveling on horseback allows agents to access areas cars cannot reach, he told the group. Obie also commented on how technology and drones are being used to track migrants and provide information about those in the desert.


“Obie estimated that, on any given day, the border patrol picks up between 50 to 70 percent of people who are trying to come into the USA,” Connelly relayed. “He said that he treats the people who he is processing with respect, and generally gets respect in return.”


This was Connelly’s second trip to the border. This time, she was able to interact with several women who wanted to enter the USA. “I was able to put names and faces to the struggle,” she summarized.



Connelly and her group also witnessed the new 30-foot high sections of the border wall (older sections are still 18-feet high), which she called “a depressing sight.” Later that afternoon, the group watched sandhill cranes and yellow-headed blackbirds at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area.


“In my opinion, this wall is a human and environmental disaster,” she said. “The higher and longer the wall, the more people die trying to get around it. The wall also has negatively impacted the ecosystem in the desert.”


Connelly noted that she would prefer to have tax dollars dedicated to assisting people in need.


“I continue to reflect on the incredible hardships that so many of the migrants experience in their daily lives. The women we met, some traveling with their children, wanted to work to have a safer, healthier life for their children,” she added. “This is a complex situation, but I believe we can, and must, do better to ensure the dignity of migrants.”