EL PASO, Texas — Paul Jarzembowski said some may ask why he, as assistant director for Youth and Young Adult Ministries at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, would attend an event focused on migrants and the issues affecting them in the border region of El Paso.
“We work with young people and young people are migrants,” he explained to a group of bishops, lay ministers and others interested in helping migrants during a Sept. 23-27 gathering in El Paso.
In an April document on youth and young adults, Pope Francis called for ministry to serve certain populations, including migrant youth. After all, in the United States alone, the population ages 15-39 is set at 104.9 million and, of those, 19.1 million, or 18 percent, are migrant youth, explained Jarzembowski.
If ministry for youth and young adults is not interwoven with migration, the Church can’t say it fully engages young people, he said in a Sept. 25 presentation he gave in El Paso highlighting the lives of migrant youth and the issues that affect them.
And the El Paso region is plentiful in the migrant youth population the document, called Christus Vivit, mentions as one that needs special attention — and one that comes alive in the life of those such as 26-year-old Jesus Torres, who spoke with the group of visitors.
Born in the neighboring city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Torres moved across the border at age 4 with his family of mixed nationalities — some Mexico-born and some, like his little brother, born in the U.S. But when Jesus’ visa expired, he had to go back across to Juarez with relatives, leaving U.S.-born siblings on the other side.
“When you go to Mexico, you wake up,” he said, meaning that a tougher life kicked in, including having to face the city’s daily violence, working at young age for little money and watching opportunities for a career vanish.
On several occasions, someone pointed a gun at him for no reason, and it wasn’t an isolated incident, he said. On top of it, he began missing his family on the U.S. side, including his little brother.
The separation lasted for a difficult two years, Jesus recalled.
“What hurt was the separation of the family, not seeing my brother grow up and when I (finally) saw him, he was a little man,” he said.
The story is similar to the one told by U.S.-born Jaquie Torres (same last name, but not related to Jesus). She went the other direction: to live in Ciudad Juarez with her family, where they had a home. When they returned to El Paso, they had to live in cramped spaces and she faced long periods of time away from her father, who was forced to travel to nearby New Mexico for work. The family saw him only once a week.
“That was really hard for me,” she said.
To make ends meet, her mother went to work in Ciudad Juarez and that made Jaquie, a teenager, responsible for the care of her younger siblings while the mother and father were absent.
“So I had to basically grow up,” she said.
For a while, she was angry at God for her plight and stopped going to church for a few years.
“I had everything and he took it all from me,” she said.
She eventually returned to receive confirmation classes and after seeing other youth in similar positions, she decided to help them.
El Paso Bishop Mark J. Seitz, who joined the youth on a panel, said even though young migrants face more difficult daily lives than most people their age, “there is a strong drive in immigrant youth and a strong work ethic.” Seeing their families have a tough life makes them determined to have a better life than their parents, he said.
“It moves them,” he said.
Besides facing difficult material lives, migrant youth may also experience anti-immigrant sentiment from their peers.
“One of the things that we struggle with in youth and young adult ministry is (encountering) youth and young adults who are themselves opposed to young migrants,” said Jarzembowski.
They persecute their peers, he said.
“We experience this in many parts of the country,” he added.
But those who work with them try to remind them of the pope’s words in Christus Vivit (“Christ Lives”):
“In a special way, I urge young people not to play into the hands of those who would set them against other young people, newly arrived in their countries, and who would encourage them to view the latter as a threat, and not possessed of the same inalienable dignity as every other human being.”
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