The Guatemalan teenager gave the priest her name: Serenidad.
They met on Tuesday morning at a children’s hospital San Antonio, where the priest, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, had arrived to comfort one of the youngest survivors of the deadliest migrant-trafficking tragedy in modern American history.
“She smiled several times, a beautiful smile,” the archbishop recalled in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “I asked if she’d called her family, but her cellphone had been confiscated.”
The archbishop urged the girl, whom he estimated to be around 16, to contact her family once she was able. “And then I said: If you can contribute, it would be great if you can smile as much as you can, because then you can make everyone around you feel good. They will see that you are doing well.”
García-Siller said he heard the news around 7 p.m. Monday: Dozens of people had been found dead or near death inside a broiling tractor-trailer that had come to a stop near the intersection of Interstates 35 and 410 on the city’s Southwest Side. As of Friday, the toll is 53 dead, 11 injured. Four men have been detained and charged in the tragedy; two face charges that could carry the death penalty.
The archbishop said he visited survivors at four hospitals on Monday evening, including a Guatemalan woman he estimated to be around 19. (She nodded when he asked and reacted brightly when he mentioned some cities in Guatemala.)
“She could communicate only through her eyes and with her fingers, and she tried to speak but I couldn’t understand her,” he recalled.
He visited two more hospitals early Tuesday, including the one where he met Serenidad. And on Friday morning, he met with another survivor, a young man from Mexico. He noted that that he did not ask for the victims’ legal names, nor would he; undocumented migrants often use pseudonyms or false IDs.
“Most of the victims were unconscious and very seriously ill,” he said. “They were hooked up to all kinds of things. But I was able to be in each room and to be in their presence to pray and to honor them. And think of their families.”
Born in Mexico, García-Siller has led an archdiocese that covers nearly 28,000 square miles and includes an estimated 800,000 faithful; it began as a Spanish mission in 1713. In just over a month, the clergy and lay staff members of the archdiocese have grappled with two epic tragedies: the May 24 school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, which took the lives of 19 students and two teachers, and now the June 27 tragedy, which took the lives of 40 male and 13 female victims, including citizens of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.
“What I wish for people is to foster a culture of life because there are so many signs of a culture of death,” he told the Tribune. “What happened was an example of a culture of death. What happened in Uvalde, that’s a sign of a culture of death.”
The gunman in Uvalde was an 18-year-old local who had tortured animals and threatened women, according to the authorities.
“We can say the man was sick, he was in crisis, but we are responsible,” the archbishop said. “We are not sowing seeds of life, of respect of human persons, fostering encounters and relationships. The drug situation, the human trafficking — those are signs and expressions of a culture of death. How do we foster a culture of life? That is all of us. I feel responsible.”
On Thursday evening, San Fernando Cathedral — the oldest standing church building in Texas, founded in 1731 — held a memorial Mass and interfaith prayer vigil organized by the Archdiocese of San Antonio and the Interfaith San Antonio Alliance. Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Catholics and Sikhs attended the interfaith service. In his homily, delivered in English and Spanish, the archbishop spoke with compassion about those fleeing poverty and violence to come to the United States.
“You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien, for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt,” he read from the Book of Exodus. “If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely listen to their cry.”
He continued: “Not all sins have the same degree of intrinsic evil by which God is offended, nor are their consequences equally serious. The exploitation of the poor, and in particular of migrants — who flee dramatic situations in search of opportunities and hope — is particularly grave.”
In his homily, the archbishop condemned “traders of death who consider lives as merchandise and ultimately as collateral damage,” but also society at large.
“It is not permissible for anyone in our society to remain idle and look the other way in the face of the humanitarian crisis caused by unregulated migration,” he said. “We all have a role to play in solidarity with people fleeing in search of opportunities for development.”
While stopping well short of calling for open borders, the prelate stressed the need for international cooperation and regulation. At least 100 million people worldwide have been displaced from their homes, and as the planet warms, another 500 million people might join them over the next several decades.
“Immigration is a natural phenomenon that arises from the supply and demand for labor and security,” the archbishop said. “It is like a stream of water. If it is not given a channel, it finds it naturally, but not in the right way. Migration is a natural human right. Likewise, the receiving country has the right and the duty to regulate it.”
While the United States has not enacted comprehensive reform of its immigration system since 1986, presidents and governors have made the southwest border a political battlefield — and the Texas-Mexico border in particular has become increasingly militarized under Gov. Greg Abbott’s multibillion-dollar border security push, dubbed Operation Lone Star.
On the federal level, an emergency public health order known as Title 42, enacted early in the COVID-19 pandemic, allows immigration agents to quickly expel migrants without allowing them to request asylum, though the Biden administration has sought to have it lifted. On Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that the administration can lift the Trump-era “remain in Mexico” policy that compels asylum-seekers to wait south of the border while their cases wind their way through immigration courts. That policy, too, remains in place as the case returns to a lower court.
At the cathedral, the archbishop asked the faithful to listen to the voices of migrants and to urge politicians to enact comprehensive immigration reform.
“Politics — rightly understood — is the opposite of ideological confrontation,” he said. “It is one of the highest forms of charity. It is a path that begins by loving our closest neighbor — in order to be able to love even those we do not know."