- The Washington Times - Friday, December 30, 2005

EAGLE PASS, Texas — For illegal aliens weary from a long desert journey, the Rev. Jim Loiacono is there with food, shelter and sometimes a trip to Western Union.

He asks only to see U.S. Border Patrol papers, proof that the immigrant has promised to appear before a judge.

Father Loiacono, and other priests along the border, reflect Roman Catholic social teaching that recognizes the right of nations to control their borders, but also asserts that people who cannot support themselves have a right to find work in another country for their survival.

But promoting such compassion for illegal immigrants, and helping them once they are inside the United States, is a tough sell these days. Pressure grows on government officials to better secure American borders, especially after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

Chris Simcox, co-founder of the Minuteman Project, a burgeoning group that fights illegal immigration, said there should be limits to mercy for people who break federal law.

“We have a long history of churches being sanctuaries because they perceive these people as being just children of God,” he said. “But how do they know they’re not aiding and abetting terrorists?”

An estimated 9 million to 13 million illegal immigrants live in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In recent years, Eagle Pass, a town of about 22,000, has seen a rise in illegal immigrants, attracted by its central location between San Antonio and Monterrey, Mexico.

Some have darted across the city’s golf course, whose fairways line the banks of the Rio Grande. Others bunch on sidewalks en route to the downtown bus station. As many as 150 a day have passed through Eagle Pass this year.

“It’s a hard trek between Central America and the United States,” said Father Loiacono, pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Catholic Church, a 500-member congregation four blocks from the U.S.-Mexican border. “They come here ragged and worn out. They really just need TLC at that point.”

In 2003, U.S. and Mexican bishops issued a statement on a migration, saying that “more powerful economic nations, which have the ability to protect and feed their residents, have a stronger obligation to accommodate migration flows.” The bishops also said that nations were obligated to respect the dignity of migrants “regardless of their legal status.”

The parish does provide limited help to illegal immigrants who haven’t yet declared themselves to the Border Patrol, Father Loiacono said. But he said he encourages them to make contact with the agency and, without proof of that action, they are not allowed to use the church’s phones, nor are they given rides to the bus station or financial institutions.

Hilario Leal, spokesman for the Del Rio Sector of the Border Patrol, which includes Eagle Pass, said agents were aware of the church’s aid to immigrants, but the agency’s focus is on border crossers and smugglers.

Eagle Pass Police Chief Tony Castaneda said he doesn’t believe the church is breaking any laws or abusing its status in the community. Instead, he said the church is keeping illegal immigrants from desperation that makes criminal activity a tempting alternative, he said.

“They’re not turning to petty crime and becoming a nuisance to our city,” Chief Castaneda said. “Once they leave Border Patrol, very little assistance is given to them. Word has spread quickly to come to that church.”

Adding to the congregation’s standing is a mysterious crucifix, found floating in the Rio Grande by U.S. Border Patrol agents more than a year ago and later placed in the church’s chapel.

Father Loiacono named the fiberglass, life-size piece “The Undocumented Christ” because he said it serves as a symbol of divine empathy for the plight of immigrants. Thousands of people have come to the church to pray in front of the statue and place photos of loved ones and notes with prayer requests on an adjacent peg board.

Founded in 1884 by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the church leaves its doors open overnight for immigrants to rest until the office opens in the morning.

Meidy Garcia said she and her 3-year-old daughter, Susan, could have died if the church hadn’t provided refuge. During their two-week journey from Honduras, they slept in a rat-infested house, endured double-crossing guides and ached from hunger and thirst.

They crossed chest-high water in the Rio Grande and walked in chilly temperatures for a half-hour before Border Patrol agents arrested them and questioned them for four hours.

A stranger brought them to the church hall, where Father Loiacono and the nuns cared for them.

Soon after, the priest drove the mother and child to a Western Union kiosk and arranged for Mrs. Garcia’s husband — a baker in Atlanta — to send $300 to pay for her bus ride to Georgia. The priest made sure she got the 10 percent discount his church negotiated with the bus company for immigrant travel, then prayed for the mother and child.

She said, “All I could do was cry and thank God for what they’ve done.”

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