Unless you encounter an immigrant and listen to his or her story, your perception will most likely continue to be informed and shaped by fear, prejudice and the media, Aragon says. (Photo: Peter Haden / flickr)
My friend, Uziel, is one of the thousands of Central American youths who have migrated to the U.S. searching for a better life.
Originally from Aldea Miramar - a Mayan, Mam-speaking community in San Martin Sacatepéquez, Guatemala - he migrated to the U.S. 10 years ago, when moving through Mexico was relatively easy.
He was in 11th grade when a deported friend, who lived and worked in the U.S. for a year, told him, "It's good living over there. There is a lot of work."
Growing up, Uziel heard stories about the money one could make in the U.S.
"I thought about it for a while," he recalled. "I told my parents, but initially they opposed the idea. My father worked in the fields growing corn and beans; we had enough to buy food, but nothing else."
The "coyote" (smuggler) who would take him from his village in Guatemala to the U.S. charged $6,000.
To get the money, his parents had to pawn their home. They weren't sure about it, but after considering the idea, they made the decision to support him.
"My goal was to come to the U.S. to work to give a better life to my family, send money and build a house," he said.
Like Uziel, the hope for a better life drives the migration of thousands of Central Americans to the U.S.
Regarded as one of the most dangerous journeys in the world, their sojourn through Mexican territory exposes them to multiple life-threatening obstacles and risks.
Yet, the burning vision of a better future impels and inspires them to confront with faith the sacrifices, uncertainties and perils of the journey.
"As we went through Chiapas," he said, "we pretended to be street vendors to go unnoticed. The smuggler made us stop at several houses where people treated us with indifference."
In Mexico, migrants are an exploitable target for criminal gangs and corrupt officials. They are invisible victims of theft, abuse, kidnapping and human trafficking.
Poor migrants, who can't afford a "coyote," ride on top of "La Bestia" (The Beast), a freight train that gets them through Mexico. On its northward route, "La Bestia" is a silent witness of untold stories of murder, mutilation, extortion, kidnapping and rape.
Female migrants are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault. In fact, six out of every 10 female travelers are raped. They're often forced to sleep with "coyotes" in exchange for protection.
Aware of the grim reality that awaits them, and to prevent a pregnancy from rape, they employ Depo-Provera, a contraceptive injection that works for up to 12 to 14 weeks.
This is why the journey through Mexico is dubbed "the path of misery."
In response to the surge of Central American migrants, Mexican authorities - with funding from the U.S. - implemented a crackdown and increased surveillance of the southern border to deter migration.
Migrants are now following more dangerous alternative routes, increasing their vulnerability and risk of death, theft, abuse, kidnapping and human trafficking.
Uziel's pilgrimage through Mexico included Tapachula, Chiapas; Puebla; Mexico City and Altar, Sonora.
For thousands of migrants, Altar marks the last stretch in their perilous journey to a better life. In Altar, Uziel went to a safe house where at least 400 people waited to cross the border.
The following day, he and 50 others rode a bus to a place where they were to continue the arduous pilgrimage across grueling and unforgiving terrain.
His group trekked through the desert for six nights.
"I know people die in the desert or freeze to death in the mountains while trying to come here [the U.S.]," he lamented. "I didn't feel afraid because I was used to walking in my village, but there were many people from the city who were very afraid."
"An older man broke his foot," he added. "Fortunately, he was with family who helped him keep moving. Another man and his child, after five hours in the desert, were unable to keep going and went back."
Uziel said, "At one point I felt exhausted. I was so cold, and my legs got numb. I was afraid. I thought I wasn't going to make it. I thought I should have stayed. 'Why all this suffering?' I wondered."
"But I remembered the debt," he said. "I couldn't let my parents lose their home and kept going."
"No immigrant said they went out into [the desert] to get a deeper understanding of the mystical writings of St. Anthony or any of the desert fathers or mothers," observed Daniel Groody, associate professor of theology and director of Immigration Initiatives at the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
Deep down, migrants know very well the challenges lying before them, even the lingering threat of death.
But time and again, their stories are about the willingness to sacrifice not only for their own personal benefit but also for the good of the people they love.
"If you had the chance to stand before President Trump, what would you tell him?" I asked Uziel. He laughed nervously. I said, "Seriously, what would you tell him?"
He got quiet, thought for a few seconds and said, "We're not stealing from anybody. We're not bothering anybody. Give us the opportunity to work. We're people with a desire to succeed."
Uziel added, "Unfortunately, we don't have the same opportunities in our country. Before God we are all the same. It doesn't matter your skin color, race or where you're from. Give us the opportunity to continue working and living in this country. We're here because we want a better life."
We're living in times of excessive fear and polarization. Fear drives us to build walls of hate and prejudice. As followers of Jesus, our call is to build bridges of love, hope and reconciliation.
Unless you encounter an immigrant and listen to his or her story, your perception will most likely continue to be informed and shaped by fear, prejudice and the media.
So, I invite you to get out of your comfort zone and be intentional about meeting an immigrant in your community.
In listening to his or her story, you will discover someone who, like Jesus, relinquishes everything in self-sacrifice, self-emptying and self-offering for the sake of those he loves.
Juan Aragón is the Hispanic ministries' strategist for the West Virginia Baptist Convention of the American Baptist Churches, USA. You can follow him on Twitter @jaragongarcia.
Editor's note: This article is part of a series on local churches / Christian organizations and immigration.
Previous articles in the series are:
Catholic, Evangelical, Mainline Protestant Leaders Endorse BRIDGE Act
Haitians, Others Arrive in Tijuana Seeking Entrance into U.S.
8 Reflections from Faith-and-Immigration Documentary
First Step to Ministry with Immigrants: Build Relationships