The little girl playing in a migrant camp in Mexico broke into a big smile when asked what she wants for Christmas.
“A pair of skates,” 9-year-old Jennifer of El Salvador said through an interpreter during a Zoom call on Wednesday. “We have been in the camp over a year and I would also like to see my entire family. I haven’t seen them in a long time.”
But such gifts, especially family reunions, will be hard to come by at the U.S.-Mexico border this Christmas season, said interpreter Jorge Zapata, a pastor and associate coordinator of missions and Hispanic ministries for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas. “There just aren’t not enough toys for every child.”
That doesn’t mean Zapata and others aren’t trying. CBF Texas, Fellowship Southwest, CBF and many local churches and ministries are working hard to brighten the holiday for migrants languishing in shelters and camps on the Mexico side of the border. Whether they are recent deportees from the U.S. or are Central American refugees and asylum seekers hoping for a better life up north, their spirits have been battered.
“On the downside, one of the issues they face is they still have to go out to renew their Mexican permit to be in the country, and that means they have go through the cartels — and a lot of them are very scared to go,” Pastor Lorenzo Ortiz said about occupants of two shelters he operates in Nuevo Laredo, a Mexican city located about 200 miles from Matamoros.
With assistance from Fellowship Southwest and other organizations, Ortiz also operates a shelter farther south in Saltillo. But it is in Nuevo Laredo that drug cartel operatives make their presence felt, even during the holiday season.
“These guys, they come and ask about the families at our shelters,” Ortiz said. “They know me, but at the same time they want to make sure we are not a challenge to their business.”
Amid such threats, he and leaders of other ministries are collaborating to bring holiday cheer to migrants who have been living in shelters for months or years.
“We have different groups that are going to be coming to celebrate Christmas, and it’s going to be nice because they are bringing candies, toys and little things for these families,” Ortiz said.
Children have been practicing carols for concerts to be held in the shelter compounds “and some of the families have been decorating their buildings.
The migrants are doing what they can to help, too. Children have been practicing carols for concerts to be held in the shelter compounds “and some of the families have been decorating their buildings — it’s beautiful.”
The difficulty of bringing holiday joy to migrants makes the effort all the more compelling, said Elket Rodríguez, an attorney and immigrant advocate for CBF and Fellowship Southwest.
Those organizations are moved to act by “the struggles, the desperation and the hardships that migrants experience at the border every single day,” he said. “We listen to their heartbreaking stories every week. We are also mindful of the tireless, the sacrificial and the dangerous work the border pastors do to serve migrants with all of their hearts and passions.”
Fellowship Southwest and CBF are collaborating on three Christmas projects to benefit migrants along the border, he explained.
The first effort involves the CBF Latino Network and seeks to help migrants in Ciudad Juárez and Palomas, Mexico, celebrate Christmas “according to their cultures and traditions,” Rodríguez said.
The second initiative seeks to deliver toys to 250 children in Matamoros as part of Three Kings Day on Jan. 6, and the third is an effort to provide vacation time for pastors who work with migrants at the border.
“These border pastors do missions every day, from before dawn until well after dusk without much time to rest,” Rodriguez said. “Fellowship Southwest is very aware of their sacrifices, and we want to provide them with the time and the space they and their spouses need to relax.”
“There is more hope for what is coming. This is another good motive to celebrate at Christmas.”
Rubin Ortiz, Latino field ministries coordinator with CBF, said he hopes these efforts will bring joy to migrants as they remember their ultimate hope lies in Christ.
Another reason to hope derives from knowing that Donald Trump — whose harsh anti-immigrant policies have made their lives worse — will soon depart the White House, Ortiz said. Also, the application process for DACA, known as the Dream Act, recently was revived by a U.S. judge.
“There is a sense that 2021 will be better,” he reported. “There is more hope for what is coming. This is another good motive to celebrate at Christmas.”
For 28-year-old Zoyla, a Guatemalan migrant in Matamoros, the best present she could receive for Christmas would be reuniting with relatives.
“I am happy, but I am not excited about Christmas because we are in a place where we cannot celebrate with family,” she said through Zapata.
Plummeting temperatures have made life even harder lately, she said. “We are living in a popup tent. It has been very cold, and the wind has been blowing very hard on the banks of the Rio Grande.”
Fellowship Southwest, Zapata’s Heart4Kids nonprofit and local ministries are staging a coat and blanket drive to address the cold. The goal is to deliver these items before Christmas.
“We have a lot of sick children with this weather,” Zapata said. “You can see in the background some of those children are not wearing coats at all.”
The efforts to provide toys, warm clothing and food are rewarding to see, he concluded. “But as a pastor, it breaks your heart because you want to do more.”
CBF’s Fellowship Southwest is accepting donations for winter clothing, food and gifts for migrants in camps and shelters in Mexico.