Kyle Eller: Duluthians work to build Mexican orphanage

Concerns about illegal immigration across the Mexican border stir passions, and that's part of the story of Agua Prieta, a Mexican city south of the Arizona border.

Concerns about illegal immigration across the Mexican border stir passions, and that's part of the story of Agua Prieta, a Mexican city south of the Arizona border.

But Mexico has its own immigration problem. The Blessed Nuno Society, an international charitable organization based in Duluth with a mission to help orphans, says the forces of global free trade in the NAFTA era have contributed to unemployment in southern Mexico and Central America, especially among folks like poor, rural coffee growers.

Many of them have heard of greener pastures on the Mexican-American border, and not just across it into the United States. Many of those poor, unemployed, rural people believe that because of trade agreements, factory jobs are plentiful in areas like Agua Prieta.

They arrive, often having spent life savings, to discover that factories can't hire anywhere near the number of people who show up. The factories prefer young women who are maybe "a little more docile," says Tim Heinan, executive director of the Blessed Nuno Society.

Thus, a city which was about 50,000 people only seven or eight years ago is now somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000, with 80 percent unemployment.


On the other side of the border, other forces intrude. Heinan said the U.S. Border Patrol has done relatively well closing the border in Texas and California. It uses the high desert along that part of the Arizona border, with its temperature extremes, rough terrain and even flash floods, as a deterrent.

The only problem is it doesn't seem to deter -- that stretch is now the crossing point of choice. It just means more people die trying.

"Since that policy went into effect, the death rates in the Douglas (Ariz.) area alone have gone from a half a dozen a year to 125, 150," Heinan said. He said the numbers are probably even higher, since bodies don't last long in the desert.

Climate, economics and government are not the only forces to contend with. The crossing of choice doesn't just attract displaced farmers. Bandits on both sides of the border prey on the vulnerable. And perhaps 80 percent of the cocaine in the United States enters that border, along with most any other kind of contraband, he said.

It's often the children who survive and not the parents, perhaps for some medical reason but in "countless cases" because dying parents passed on to their children the last drink of water, Heinan said. That's quite an inheritance.

The result is unspeakable poverty and need. Last year, border authorities brought more than 6,200 unaccompanied children to the overstressed existing children's shelters in Agua Prieta, and still more are brought to three orphanages the Blessed Nuno Society supports because their impoverished families simply cannot care for them. In those orphanages, it may be three or four kids to a bed.

Despite those efforts, teenage girls are often forced into prostitution. Others live in squalor.

Father James Crossman, 83, is a priest at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Rosary in Duluth and the spiritual adviser for the Blessed Nuno Society. He said visiting Agua Prieta opened his eyes.


"I'm like everybody else," he said. "I see the ads in the papers, and I get all kinds of mail urging me to donate to this cause and that cause. ... And they're moving, but when I went to Mexico down in Agua Prieta ... I never knew what poverty could be like up close like that."

Heinan said those who visit often leave with such stories. One youth group which visited from the Duluth area came across a child almost dead of dehydration. They were able to get him medical attention and save his life.

Another group found a teenage boy who had a splinter in his eye. His family -- nine people in the house had only beans on the stove and one bag of rice -- didn't live near public transportation and could not afford medical care anyway. The group got him in and saved his eye.

"It really changes their outlook on how little it really takes to make a difference," Heinan said. He said those who visit leave knowing the work being done is saving lives.

The Blessed Nuno Society has plans to do a lot more -- which is where you come in.

The society is building a new orphanage, centered in Catholic faith and prayer, but open to children of any faith. It will hold about 60 children and provide training in language and computer skills.

Heinan said education makes "all the difference." "There is the dawning of a middle class down there, and people that have language skills or computer skills are sought," he said.

The orphanage will be built in three phases and would cost $1.3 million in the United States. There it will cost the equivalent of $300,000. Donations will be gladly accepted.


But that's not the only way you can help. The organization, which is 20 years old and has helped orphans in the United States, Europe, Africa, Asia, Central America and Mexico, is actually built on prayer. Heinan says an adviser to the organization was Archbishop Constantino Luna, from Guatemala, a friend of Pope John Paul II. He advised charging no dues, meeting only once a year and making sure people are fed at the meeting.

When challenged about the practicalities, Luna's answers were, "God has lots of money" and "You need more faith."

His advice is how the Blessed Nuno Society is run. The group requests but does not require nominal dues to cover postage and meets once a year, with a meal. It has no paid staff, and so all money donated beyond those minimal dues goes to help orphans. The only membership requirement is a commitment to pray for the orphans at least weekly.

The results have been remarkable, some would say miraculous.

It's open to Catholics and non-Catholics alike -- anyone who supports the group's mission and is willing to pray for the kids.

Kyle Eller is features editor of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached at 723-1207 or by e-mail at .

What To Read Next
Get Local