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Difference Maker

Ellen Calmus helps Mexican families cope with cross-border challenges

The Corner Project assists families with relatives in the US, ensuring, for example, that children of migrant workers born in the US are able to register for school or other services in Mexico.

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Calmus is pleased with the success her organization has achieved in getting families the assistance needed to get their children's documents in order, she says. But the children's predicament is just one of many unintentional "family-breaking" consequences of US and Mexican immigration policy, she says. Excessive reliance on border control has left many Mexican workers effectively trapped in the US by the risks and costs of visits home even for such important family events as deaths or graduations, while tough US visa requirements also make it impossible for family members in Mexico to travel to the US to care for their sick or dying migrant relatives.

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In a policy paper available on the project's website (, Calmus sets out certain "policy fixes" that the US and Mexican governments could implement to help keep families together. They include providing a low-cost telephone connection for Mexican detainees in the US with families in Mexico; allowing more of the seasonal visas that make it possible for Mexican workers to return to their families at home; simplifying the procedures for certifying US birth certificates for use in Mexico; and creating a network of bilingual volunteers to work with US and Mexican agencies in sorting out problems encountered by migrants' families.

Robert B. Myerson, a 2007 Nobel Prize winner in economics who is familiar with Calmus's work, says that she is a true "community organizer," in the best sense of the word.

"She's helping people with their personal problems in tangible ways, while also working to influence the way society is organized for the good," Mr. Myerson told the Monitor. "She's very much a part of the community."

Born in Texas, Calmus came to Malinalco by way of journalism and academia after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1973 and receiving a master's degree in public policy from Princeton University in 1986.

She spent the late 1980s in El Salvador working on a book about that country's civil war. But her research was cut short by the November 1989 assassination of six Jesuit professors, including the social psychologist Ignacio Martín-Baró, an adviser, colleague, and close friend whose death left her traumatized and battling writer's block and depression during a decade working as a university professor and translator in Mexico City.

A return visit to postwar El Salvador in 1995 introduced her to an American Jesuit, Dean Brackley, who had gone to El Salvador after the assassinations and had become a priest in her mentor's country parish. Her appreciation for his support as she revisited the scenes of her war experiences led to Calmus helping Father Brackley rewrite a manuscript that would become his acclaimed book, "The Call to Discernment in Troubled Times: New Perspectives on the Transformative Wisdom of Ignatius of Loyola," published in 2004 with a foreword by Calmus, which describes how editing the manuscript helped her emerge from her depression.

It also led to a job for Calmus as a long-distance editor for a US publisher who had also read Brackley's manuscript.

It was this editing job that allowed Calmus to move to Malinalco in 1997, a place she had discovered while searching for a rural retreat near Mexico City where she could write and think "and just walk in the hills." She had fallen in love with the place, and in 1998 she opened an educational center for neighborhood children.


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