Jessenia López sat with her back against a boulder, her hair still damp from the shower. “Miami,” she said, when I asked where she and Armando, a car mechanic and handyman, hoped to find work. “We have a friend there. We’re carrying her phone number. But we haven’t been able to reach her. We don’t know what to do.” She is 33 and Armando 29; they had left their three children—two teenagers and a baby—with her family in Managua. When Jessenia told me her baby was two years old, she began to cry, but she pressed her hand against her face and stopped. “I never in my life thought I was going to do this. It’s just need that makes you do certain things.”
The wire gate beside the Casa swung open in the shadows, and from the building next door, where he lives, Padre Rigoni came out and looked at the migrants on the sidewalk. “Well, muchachos,” he said. He had taken off his vestments and was barefoot, in a dark T-shirt and rolled-up dungarees. He sat under a broad-leafed tree, near the boulder where Jessenia López was resting her head against Armando’s chest, and for a while Rigoni and the migrants talked about violence in Guatemala and kidnappings in Nicaragua and other grim accounts they were hearing from the road.
“I remember the first Nicaraguan migrant I ever met, 20 years ago,” Rigoni said. “He was 17. This was in Tijuana. He’d found some work there, but he’d keep looking in the direction where the border was, until one day he decided to go across. I got a letter from him, from San Diego. 'Here I am, Padre. But I live like an armadillo. Every time I go outside, I feel as though I have to hide. I can’t do this. I’m going back.’ ”
The migrants were silent. Rigoni sighed and stood up to go inside. He also had letters from migrants who told him they thanked God every day for having guided them to the United States; why the armadillo story had come to mind just then he would not later be able to say, except that he had learned over time that his pastoral role was not to urge migrants onward or back, but rather to give them shelter and blessing and a safe place to consider the enormous implications of what they had decided to do. “Muchachos,” he said, “mantengan sus corazones...” He hesitated, gazing at them, one hand on the gate. “Sanos,” he said finally. “Guard your hearts, children. Keep them...healthy.”