Sabbatical day with Father Ricardo Elford

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NOGALES – Meeting “Rosa,” a Mexican woman facing deportation who sought a church sanctuary, and walking near the site of the killing of a young unarmed Mexican teenager by a Border Patrol agent along the 20-feet steel barrier between the Mexico-USA borders were among the highlights of a one-day trip that sabbatical participants of the Redemptorist Renewal Center spent with Redemptorist Father Ricardo Elford.

Led by Redemptorist Father Paul Coury, RRC director, and Redemptorist Father Greg May, retreat director, participants of the RRC sabbatical program also visited Casa Maria de Guadalupe in Tucson where “Catholic Worker” members and volunteers feed some 600 poor people daily. On this particular late November day, sabbatical participants who are men and women religious coming from Australia, Canada, England, Ireland, Kenya, New Zealand and many parts from the United States spent their time with Father Ricardo exploring Church ministries and life in the south side of Tucson and along the border.

They met Rosa Imelda Robles Loreto who more than three months ago faced deportation because her visa had ran out and has since stayed in the country without document. Rosa took refuge at the birthplace of the Sanctuary Movement at the Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson. Father Ricardo, who has been working as an advocate with the Redemptorist Borderland Outreach for more than 45 years, was one of the founders of this movement in 1980s. Rosa who has been in the sanctuary for more than 100 days told the sabbatical participants that it has been difficult living separately from her husband and two children, but she is grateful for their support and prayers.

At the border fence near the site of the killing of 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez two years ago in Nogales about 70 miles south of Tucson, Father Ricardo said the border patrol acted with “impunity.” He said the incident began with a marijuana smuggling over the fence. When police offices and agents responded to the call on Oct. 12, 2012, they met with rocks thrown over the fence as law officers tried to apprehend the two men climbing back toward Mexico. According to eyewitnesses, Rodrigues was walking down the street when the other youths ran past before the shooting started. Young Rodriguez was killed with multiple shots.

Father Ricardo said he wants to stress to the sabbatical participants the two major situations when looking at the fence. More than 20 years ago, the U.S. government began building fences in populated areas, beginning in El Paso, TX, then San Ysidro across Tijuana, CA and finally Nogales and other Arizona border towns. With the separation barrier migrants could no longer slip across the border so they began to cross the border through the “deadly Arizona desert.”  He said in the year that ended Sept. 30, 2013, 182 bodies were found in the desert, and this year, 122 bodies were found. Since 1999, more than 2,400 bodies have been brought to the Medical Examiner’s morgue in Tucson. While the number of migrants crossing the border has decreased dramatically, the deaths continue. In October, he said 10 more bodies were discovered. Secondly, he said 1,100 people were deported every day, and Nogales is one of the major ports of deportation. With deportation, he said, “we see families are being torn apart.” Researchers say that when a parent is denied a visa or deported, the stress is enormous, leaving youngsters to care for younger siblings and families to decide if to leave jobs in the name of family unity. It can lead to marital problems as well as mental health issues for parents and their children.

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The sabbatical day with Father Ricardo came a few days after U.S. President Barack Obama issued an executive order that allows some portion of undocumented immigrants to be able to “come out of shadows” assuring that they will not be separated from their families. Father Ricardo said this would help stop deportation of more than 4 million people. More than 11 million immigrants are believed to live in this country without documents. Many people have already inquired how to go about benefitting from this executive order, said Father Ricardo. Father Paul noted that the local ordinary, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, has been a great supporter for the immigrant ministry. Bishop Kicanas expressed his hope that the president’s action will prod legislators “to pass a comprehensive bill that will protect family unity, provide legal ways for people to come to this country to work, and to provide an earned pathway for citizenship for those who are participating in our community.”

Now working with “Clinica Amistad,” Father Ricardo said he is helping people without insurance or coverage and people who need medical attention but have no place to go. Many are undocumented Hispanics, while others came from Africa or the Middle East, said the Redemptorist priest whose office is “my car.” That’s why “I have so many junks and papers and documents in it.” He said it is hard to describe what his title is, but it is fair to say that he works as an advocate, community organizer or social worker, but all for migrants and undocumented immigrants.

One sabbatical participant noted that in her congregation the sisters always receive social justice documents relating to immigration issues and inherent problems. She said the one-day sabbatical trip to the border made real those issues. Another sister said her congregation’s charisma is identical with Father Ricardo’s ministry of serving the poor, the lowly and those abandoned. The sabbatical is a program for priests and men and women religious organized and taught by Redemptorists in Tucson. It was held three times a year – spring, summer and fall.

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