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West Texas pastor called to serve growing number of migrants cut off from US asylum system

Baptist pastor and migrant activist Rosalío Sosa has his work cut out for him as U.S. policy at the border continues to deny asylum to a wave of migrants that “won’t be stopped.”

JUÁREZ, Mexico (CN) — It’s best not to be on Chihuahua’s Highway 2 after night falls, but it’s a different kind of darkness into which Pastor Rosalío Sosa is trying to shine a ray of light. 

“What do you think about darkness? Does it exist or not?” he asked as he powered his black SUV over the pitted roadway in the direction of the day’s final brilliant flares of greens, oranges, pinks and purples.

The vivid colors still reflected in the standing water from the previous week’s rain as he pulled into the hotel parking lot in Ascención, Chihuahua, where he was preparing a shelter and senior care facility for the influx of migrants he knew were on their way.

“More and more keep coming. The flow of migrants won’t be stopped,” the pastor of the Tierra de Oro Baptist Church in El Paso, Texas, and administrator of five migrant shelters in and around Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, said.

Those five are part of the larger Red de Albergues para Migrantes, or Migrant Shelter Network, a group of 20 facilities in the area that Sosa is planning to expand.

As more migrants find the safety north of the border just out of reach thanks to U.S. policies that have effectively brought the U.S. asylum system to a standstill, Sosa increasingly finds his work cut out for him.

The latest count of asylum seekers waiting in Mexican border cities was 26,505, according to the University of Texas at Austin’s Strauss Center for International Security and Law, which monitors informal waitlists maintained by Mexican authorities and civil society groups.

That figure, however, was published in November, and only included people on waitlists in eight cities — Ciudad Juárez no longer among them. The center's next update in February will surely be much higher. 

While his faith is his prime motivator, the roots of Sosa’s drive to protect these extremely vulnerable people go deeper than a divine call for compassion. Like those he shelters, he himself came from an environment steeped in violence.

“Theirs are stories that many people don’t understand,” he said. “Many folks look at them and say, ‘These filthy people, what are they doing here?’ But those folks come from a different world.”

Pastor Rosalío Sosa checks on the progress of a new shelter for migrants, seasonal agricultural workers and people experiencing homelessness in Ascención, Chihuahua, in early January 2022. Sosa told Courthouse News that the shelter was up and running by the time of publication. (Courthouse News/Cody Copeland)

And — also like some of the migrants who make their way north — Sosa understands what it is to respond to such a context with violence of his own, and how escape can end up being the only way to get free of it. 

He remembers that it was a Wednesday in December when he’d finally had enough. His mother’s drunken boyfriend had beaten her one too many times, then passed out belly-up on the living room floor. He took a baseball bat as hard as he could to the sprawled man’s distended beer belly and watched the eyes bug out of his skull like a cartoon pig’s. 

He didn’t seriously hurt the man, but terrified by his own actions, six-year-old Rosalío Sosa fled to the street and stayed there, learning to fend for himself in what he described as the “urban jungle” of Ciudad Cuauhtémoc and other cities in Chihuahua.

“From that time on, I learned how to deal with people. You have to think the way the other person thinks,” he said. 

Those lessons learned on the streets would go on to serve him well in his humanitarian work. As an administrator of migrant shelters, he must deal with people from organizations as intractable as the Department of Homeland Security, Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, and the various criminal organizations that traffic migrants across the patches of desert they have divided up among themselves.

Along with the Migrant Shelter Network, Sosa has helped shelter as many as 180,000 migrants since 2018. In 2021, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship awarded him its Emmanuel McCall Racial Justice Trailblazer Award.

And he isn’t finished yet. He hopes to build more shelters along Highway 2 in order to afford what protections he can to migrants who make their way to this dangerous stretch of road in northern Mexico. It is not uncommon for migrants to be abandoned on the highway by smugglers too afraid to enter into the territories of rival criminal groups.

It seems the fear of crossing the lines we draw in the sand is not exclusive to migrants aspiring to reach the other side of the U.S.-Mexico border.

As for his own fear, Sosa sees it as a tool to help bring some light into a situation that U.S. policy and the various powerful entities vying to control migrant lives appear determined to keep dark.

“Yes, I’m scared, but I use it to my advantage,” said Sosa. “And I consider it a privilege to be able to help.”

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