ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS. Halfway house at Mexican border offers hope to migrants unwelcome in US

The Rev. Flor Maria Rigoni's white cassock gleamed in the noonday sun as he dashed from room to room in the newly opened, bright-red building high on a hill overlooking downtown Tijuana. He thoughtfully stroked his long beard as he listened sympathetically to a Mexican migrant's tale of disillusionment and financial ruin after deportation from the United States.

He checked on two Central American women who were stopped in Tijuana by Mexican police while trying to enter the US and ordered deported to their homelands.

He then conferred with the other priest and three nuns who staff the Centro Scalabrini Casa del Migrante.

Fr. Rigoni is a migration specialist and director of the center - the Roman Catholic Church's first halfway house in Mexico for indigent Mexican and Central American migrants. The center, which opened in February and was officially dedicated April 4, was built as a result of:

Growing concern in this border city of 1.2 million over the increasing number of destitute migrants sleeping on the streets.

Concerns that a new US immigration law, which goes into effect May 5, could mean huge numbers of deported migrants will wind up settling near the border.

Officials of Mexico, the Mexican state of Baja California, and Tijuana are worried that many migrants will stay in border cities either because wages and the standard of living are better or because the proximity to the US is a psychological boost. ``At least they can tell their parents or relatives, `I am here at the border,''' Fr. Rigoni said.

Soon there will be more of these church-run centers all along the 2,000-mile US-Mexican frontier.

The Casa del Migrante is a ``pilot project'' for centers that the church is planning for other Mexican border cities in order to help deported or disillusioned Mexican and Central American migrants, according to Archbishop Jer'onimo Prigioni, the papal ambassador to Mexico.

``The migration phenomenon is the responsibility of all local churches here [in Mexico]. All of them must collaborate and be concerned with seeking solutions to the problem,'' Archbishop Prigioni said at the center's official opening.

He called the center ``a spring of hope for those who cross. In this house they encounter reasons to live and reasons to hope. It is not a solution to the migration problem, but a symbol of the church's efforts and underlines its preoccupations.''

Migration, Archbishop Prigioni said, is often a ``human, family, and personal drama. You can never resolve it by [discounting] the human and ethical aspects, despite all of the laws in the world.''

The three-story center is run by the Scalabrini Order's Missionaries of San Carlos, an order of religious men and women who help migrants around the world. It was built with $400,000 from the Rome-based Scalabrinis, a West German Catholic organization, and private donations.

The center has 35 residential rooms, a 218-person capacity, three infirmary rooms, a doctor's office, and 100 volunteer on-call physicians. Migrants receive lodging, a change of clothing, breakfast, dinner, counseling, and help in finding jobs to earn enough money to return home. The missionaries pick migrants up from Tijuana General Hospital, the bus station, and Colonia Libertad, Tijuana's most famous border neighborhood.

Posters in churches throughout Tijuana now advertise the center, which helped 362 migrants in February and nearly 1,000 in March. About 95 percent are from Mexico's interior, usually from the financially-strapped states of Jalisco, Michoac'an, Oaxaca, and from Mexico City.

The center was originally perceived as a politically touchy subject that could spark new church-state tensions since the Catholic Church maintains a low profile in Mexico by law. Among other things, clerics are banned from taking part in political parties or acting as leaders of union associations.

But government-church solidarity and consensus is emerging on the need to help indigent migrants. This was evident during the center's opening, which was attended by several prominent Baja California and Tijuana officials.

Meanwhile, Fr. Rigoni senses that migration is slowing, and he detects a new sense of desperation on the part of migrants deported from the US in recent months.

He is heartened, however, by the enormous interest shown by Mexicans and Americans who want to volunteer time to help the migrants or donate clothing.

``The policies of the US and Mexico are very different on the migration question,'' Fr. Rigoni said.

``The politicians don't agree, yet on the level of people we have bridged a new dimension. People are ready to help people, and for me it's a sign of our two societies - a sign of hope.''

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