July 2, 2015 began with a bologna sandwich and eight hours in a cell. Adrian Quiroz’s four months in immigration detention were coming to a close, and he was going to be deported to Mexico that day. He and the other deportees were strip-searched, handcuffed together, and then ushered onto the bus that would take them out of Mesa, Arizona and through the high-traffic border town of Nogales. Quiroz recalls the frenzied tension on the bus as migrants pressed their faces against the windows, trying to get a look at what would soon forcibly be their “home.” Many of them didn’t remember what Mexico was like, some weren’t from Mexico at all.
“Everyone was asking, ‘What are you going to do, where are you going to go?” Quiroz recalls, “I tried to sleep a little bit, when I woke up I had arrived: Nogales, Mexico.” He remembers the patrol officer’s words as he got off the bus, “Don’t come back.”
For Quiroz that was a difficult reality to bear. He is a single father to two sons who were taken into custody of the Arizona Department of Child Safety while he was detained. That first night in Mexico he slept on a cold park bench near the border. “I rest my eyes, but I didn’t rest my mind,” he remembers, “I kept thinking and thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to my kids? Who’s going to take care of them? Will they give them the love I have given them?’”
The next morning he woke up to his sobering new reality. He was in a city he had never seen before. His Spanish was rusty. His pockets were empty. The last time he had been in Mexico he was 12-years-old. After a man attempted to kidnap his brother, his parents brought the family to the United States. For twenty years they lived the American dream. Quiroz went to college, started a successful landscaping company, became father to two beautiful sons, and now within 24 hours it was gone.
He went back to the only people he knew in his new country, the Mexican border patrol officers. “We were looking for you,” they said, “we want to bring you to the ‘comedor.’” Comedor means ‘dining room’ in Spanish.
The Kino Border Initiative (commonly known as el comedor by locals) is not much to look at. It’s a shopworn one-room shelter a block from the U.S.-Mexico border. It scarcely looks big enough to hold a kindergarten class, yet its humble quarters manage to feed and welcome the daily dozens of recent deportees constantly feeding the line outside its doors.
The Kino Border Initiative is a Catholic, binational migrant aid organization. Through the shared efforts of religious sisters, priests, lay employees, and a steady stream of volunteers, the tiny “dining room” is able to offer migrants two meals a day, shelter for women and children, healthcare, legal advice, and cautionary guidance about the realities of crossing the desert. Next to the bathrooms are maps warning migrants of the distance they can feasibly travel without dehydrating. Above that is a faded mural of Jesus sharing a meal with his disciples. And below that, a crucifix above a rusty sink. It’s an organization well aware of its limitations but brazen enough to minister anyway, tirelessly stomaching life-altering catastrophe on an hourly basis.
The tangible offerings, while important, are humble, and are far outshined by the space the comedor provides migrants to reckon with a deep emotional and spiritual wound that comes from deportation. The natural camaraderie instilled in the dining room allows them the freedom to come in haggard, disillusioned, rejected, with the “don’t come backs” still reverberating in their ears, and be imbued with some semblance of human dignity in the offering of Mass, in the bandaging of a wound, in fitting blistered feet with a new pair of shoes.
Quiroz remembers when he first walked through those doors. “They started serving us the food, and my first meal at the comedor was amazing,” he gushes. “They gave me new pants, a shirt, clean socks, clean underwear. They started asking me questions, ‘Are you alright? You need more water? More food? Can we help you with something?’ They’re just trying to talk to you and hear what you have to say. If you want help they help you. With anything.”
Quiroz knew what he wanted help with getting his kids back, and while custody battles are well out of the Kino Border staff’s control, there were steps they could help him take. Within two weeks they helped Quiroz find a job in Nogales (to be as close as possible to his kids) making garage door openers for an American company. Within four months he was settled in an apartment with his mom who moved back to help support him. That meal at “el comedor” was a moment to breathe, a moment to focus on new goals. In a barrage of dehumanizing voices and behavior, it was the volunteers of the Kino Border Initiative and their gentle motivation that tipped the scales against despair.
“For me it was such a blessing because I finally didn’t feel alone. I had my compadres. It gave me a little bit of faith and hope to realize, ‘Okay, this is going to be alright. I can do this, I can do this. Thank you God, I can do this.’”
After two years, Quiroz was reunited with his kids. They now live a simple life in a meager apartment. Quiroz works the night shift at a factory while his mom helps take care of his sons. After two years in foster care in the United States, his sons speak an adorable mash-up of English and Spanish. They may have an apartment in Nogales now, but Quiroz says Mexico will never feel quite like home.
“That place,” Quiroz emphasizes pointing to the Kino Border Initiative, “that’s my home.” He continues to go there to share meals with the staff and volunteers who helped him, and to offer consolation to the migrants who arrive every day who are just like him. “And those people are our family.”
Casey McCorry is a digital associate for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a documentary filmmaker, wife and mother.
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