“Migration, for me, is where we really encounter the God of the Bible—the God of Abraham, of Exodus, of the great journey,” he told me one day, in his Italian-accented Spanish, as we sat on worn couches in an open-air alcove where he receives migrants seeking advice or a blessing. At the entrance to the Casa’s dining hall is a bronze statue of John Baptist Scalabrini, the 19th-century Italian bishop who founded the order to which Rigoni belongs. The pastoral mission of the Scalabrinians is the care of migrants; the missionaries run centers in 24 countries, including four in Mexico and one just across the Suchiate River in Tecún Umán, on the Guatemalan side of the raft crossing. Three of the Mexican Casas del Migrante—in Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, and Tapachula—were built up by Rigoni.
One evening, three dozen migrants sat on the sidewalk just outside the entrance to the Casa, too hot to go inside. A rooster crowed, and the migrants talked in low voices and smoked cigarettes, which a vendor across the street was selling for 15 cents apiece. Several huddled around a pay phone, peering by flashlight at pieces of paper with area codes indicating Houston and Atlanta and Pittsburgh and Chicago.
There was a 19-year-old Honduran who wrote poems every night about leaving his beloved behind in order to cross the border into America; he was on his way, he had decided, to Los Angeles. There was a Nicaraguan construction worker on his way back to Santa Cruz, California, where he had lived for six years, until American immigration officials threw him out. There was a Guatemalan woman on her way to a sister in North Carolina; a Salvadoran couple, passing their swaddled baby back and forth in the darkness, on their way to cousins in Maryland they’d never met; and a 15-year-old Salvadoran boy who turned to me suddenly, after learning I was American, and asked, “You have streets there with three lanes on each side, right?” He nodded when I confirmed this was so and said he intended to fall in love in the United States.
On a map on the Casa’s entrance wall, someone had attached a note containing distances, in kilometers. Tapachula to New York: 4,375. To Houston: 2,930. To Chicago: 3,678. Above the map was a warning poster about the hazards of the Texas and Arizona crossings—don’t risk it, the desert temperatures can be fatal. I had seen no one so much as glance at the poster.
“Where are we going? We don’t know,” said Fernando Somosa, a lanky Nicaraguan boy with an enormous smile, punching the arm of his friend José Ramos, who had left their village with him four days earlier. “We’re just going where the dollars are.” Somosa was wearing a shirt he had bought secondhand in a market near his home; it had permanent-marker writing on it, in a loopy scrawl: “To Alyssa—Ur Super Cool! Meghan.”