By John Garland, Pastor
San Antonio Mennonite Church
Here are five facets of the refugee crisis on our southern border, and five ways that you can respond as a church or an individual.
Compiled from the experience of a Mennonite pastor in San Antonio, there are included suggested Bible stories to read while you discern your response, a check on five popular myths that surround this crisis, and a brief human anecdote from our experience here in this city.
The historical context is complicated, and the complexity of the current crisis is overwhelming. The root, however, is the extreme violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, particularly against women. A brutal combination of gangs and corruption has resulted in horrors of human trauma that families are risking everything to escape. The journey through Mexico is extremely dangerous and violent, oftentimes controlled by trafficking cartels that mislead and extort the desperate refugees. If they make it to our border on this sacred journey to save their children, it is miraculous. They arrive traumatized and broken, holding on only to the glimmer of hope that the United States is a land of freedom.
Blocked on the bridge
The Circumstance: Currently [summer of 2018] Customs and Border Protection agents are preventing asylum seeking people from getting to legal ports of entry. Walk any bridge over the Rio Grande (bring your passport), and you will see hundreds of people from Central America lying there after their long journey north. Officers on the middle of the bridge have prevented them from getting to the point where they can legally ask for the due process of asylum. They must either stay there on the bridge, hoping the officers will eventually let them pass, or risk sheltering in the Mexican city that is violent and plagued by cartel control.
What you can do: Support Churches in Northern Mexico that are sheltering immigrants that are turned back at the U.S. ports of entry. The easiest strategy is to support is Catholic Charities, who run a series of shelters. More challenging, however, is reaching out to the Protestant and Non-denominational churches in the border cities that are sheltering and feeding these families. Our church has identified 15 and is looking for more. If some members of your church speak Spanish, this could be a great opportunity to build a meaningful relationship.
A False Myth: “People can just enter our country legally if they want to. They can follow the law by going to an embassy in their own countries or asking for asylum at a legal point of entry.” In truth: every Central American I have asked says that our Embassies require long, multiple-week waits for asylum hearings. Because they are under immediate threats of death or the loss of their children to the gangs, this is an impossible wait. When they arrive at our land ports of entry, however, they are stopped just yards away. There does not seem to be a legal way for an impoverished Central American to ask for asylum.
A Human: On the bridge in Reynosa, I met a woman from Honduras with two small children. She was among about 80 people living on the bridge. She had lost her husband on the journey north. She did not understand why she had to wait there, and she had no knowledge of the political debate or the policies of our country--she just wanted to escape the violence. She had been on the bridge for 8 days, subsisting on food brought by a church group and water from a water fountain at the entrance to the bridge. I heard a few days later, that this bridge was cleared during the night, only filled by new families the next day.
From Scripture: Consider Judges 12:1-7. Read the story of Jephthah in Judges 11 and 12. He is a disastrous and tragic leader, with a legacy of violent dissension among the tribes of Israel. Look at how he used the bridges/fords.
The Circumstance: Children (under 18) arrive at the border with no family. They are taken into custody by the Border Patrol and placed in huge foster homes. These youth have witnessed and been subjected to horrific trauma in their homes, more on their journey north, and now find themselves in a foreign place, surrounded by other traumatized children. Their young bodies are recovering from the physiological and mental effects of trauma as they struggle to learn, find purpose, and fend off depression and anxiety disorders.
What you can do: Foster Care agencies, especially in the Southwest (but throughout the country) are being overwhelmed by the increased numbers of children needing placement from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. You can sign up to be a foster care family, or to support a foster care family with “respite care” (qualified babysitting). Even if you do not speak Spanish and do not take in a Central American child, you can alleviate the burden on Foster Care agencies to more adequately serve these children.
A False Myth: “These kids are gaming the system. Their parents are smuggling them here to, so they can take advantage of free social services and public education.” In truth: these children are coming from a) desperate families who have no other way to keep their children alive, or b) they have run away from horrific situations or murdered families. They have all experienced multiple severe traumas (physical and mental) without the capacities and resources to recover without meaningful support. Their arrival at our border is miraculous, and though they are wounded, they must be treated as the miracles their lives are.
A Human: My family took in a young woman who was an unaccompanied minor. She became like a big sister to our daughters. Within a few weeks of her time with us she had already been informed of three more deaths in her immediate family in Central America. She matter-of-factly described the rapes she had experienced, the torture she had witnessed, and the gangs that could take anything they wanted as a “reality of life” . . . and then she would weep uncontrollably at an animated Disney movie, or after finding out her friend could not afford her phone bill. She enrolled in college classes, studied perpetually, methodically washed our family car when it was not necessary, stroked our daughters' hair tenderly, prepared for Baptism in our church, and yet wept with the fear that she was “bringing evil to our family” or that “we must know how terrible she is.” She was torn between a dream of becoming a social worker who helped people through trauma, and going back to her home country, afraid that she would never be accepted here.
From Scripture: Consider the human trafficking story of Genesis 37. Joseph, like the many persecuted families of Central America had vision and gifts. What trauma did Joseph suffer, and what further traumas does he suffer in Genesis 39-41? How does God use a victim of violent human trafficking slavery?
Separated and Detained Families
The Circumstance: Families flee the extreme violence of Central America with a hope that in the United States they can find asylum. They are threatened with extortion, torture, or death by gangs, with the complicity of cowed local authorities. With the immediate threat, there is no time to wait through the weeks-long process at a U.S. Embassy, so they leave with everything they have. These families are generally the business owners and entrepreneurs of their towns who have some savings. As they progress through Mexico, with everything they have, they are extorted by gangs and cartels, or they fall into the hands of human traffickers with false promises of lenient laws in the U.S. These families are guided illegally across the border with the understanding that the Border Patrol can guide them through an official asylum case. They seek out officials and are immediately detained. Fathers are taken from the family and placed in male-only facilities where their hearings are expedited, and they are quickly deported. Mothers and children are put in different facilities. Through most of the 2018 summer, children were separated from mothers, creating a nightmare situation of traumatizing family separation for thousands. Currently (July, 2018) the best-case for these families is that the mother is still with the child in detention, while the worst-case is that the family is completely separated--husband from wife from child. In both, families who believed they could legitimately seek asylum in the “land of the free” have been decimated.
What you can do: To support family reunification efforts, please reach out to Catholic Charities (in San Antonio, they have been named by the Federal Government to facilitate the reunification of hundreds). As an individual or church, support immigration attorneys who are working in the detention centers. The majority of refugees have no representation and the majority of attorney working on their behalf are working pro-bono (without pay). Your community could pay an organization of attorneys or an individual office to represent a refugee to make this process more sustainable (each asylum case costs at least $3000 to process).
A False Myth: ‘These families should know better! They’re breaking the law and they should have just come here legally through an Embassy.” In truth: These families are desperately trying to save their children’s lives. Waiting for weeks to be processed at an overwhelmed Embassy is not realistic when your children are under threat of rape, murder, or gang kidnapping. In their flight, they are fed lies by human trafficking gangs who make false promises in exchange for life savings. They have no access to accurate political news or legal advice. They give up everything they have, and all of their resources to get to the U.S. border in the hope that they will save their children’s lives. Few make it, and when they do, it is miraculous.
A Human: I met a young woman in detention south of San Antonio. Her husband had been taken away from them at the border. Her daughter had been taken from her arms days later. She thought she knew the name of the center where her daughter was sent, but wasn’t sure. She was in the courtroom of the detention center to ask the judge for a ruling of “credible fear” (meaning that her reason for fleeing her home was worthy) to begin her asylum process. Her eyes were puffy with weeping, and she continued to sob in the courtroom. An attorney entered the room, asked her last name, and began to work through her case. The woman’s face lit up with hope. Suddenly the attorney realized she had mistaken the woman with the common last name as the person she had been paid to represent. She excused herself and quickly left. The woman, after a moment, collapsed into sobs, until a court bailiff roughly shushed her. Alone, she did not succeed in her hearing. I don’t know what happened next in her life.
From Scripture: Reflect on Jeremiah 22, an instruction on how to treat to treat people who have been robbed a, as well as used and the great danger posed to a nation if any damage is done to orphans a. widows.
Released Parents and Children
The Circumstance: Women and their children who have been detained together (fathers are often separated out and deported) are held for only 20 days (based on a ruling about the amount of time that is humane to imprison a child). These mothers are expected to find “sponsors” in the United States to pay for bus or plane tickets from their detention centers. If they are able to, the mothers are fitted with GPS-monitored ankle shackles, are given a court date in the area their sponsor lives and dropped off at the Greyhound Station or Airport. With no money or food, unable to fully comprehend their tickets, and with a child who has often been made ill by the conditions of detention, these mothers are extremely vulnerable and desperately in need. If they do find aid to make it to their destination, it is possible that their debt to their ticket-buying “sponsor” can lead to abuse or human-trafficking.
What you can do: At the center of the majority of the detention facilities, San Antonio has the Interfaith Welcome Coalition that works in the Bus Station and Airport to guide and support these mothers and children on their journey. Your community could support this groups work to supply resource backpacks and guidance, or you could expand this Welcome network to the major bus terminals and airports near you.
A False Myth: “These women are using children to sneak through the system, then they skip their court dates and use our national resources to pay for the care of their children.” In truth: These mothers, who have been forcibly separated from their husbands, are desperately trying to save their children. They are at enormous risk with no resources. They overwhelmingly meet their legal obligations because they believe in the United States system of justice (and have staked everything they have on it).
A Human: On a recent Greyhound Bus trip from San Antonio, I sat across the row from a woman just out of detention. She had on a prison sweat suit, a GPS monitor on her ankle, and all of her possessions were in a little shopping bag. Her child was obviously feverish (as often the children who come out of cold, densely populated prison cells are) and she held her tight to her breast. The child rotated between crying-out and sleeping, in that pattern so obvious to any parent of a virus oscillating between incubation and attack on the little child’s cells. The shrieking of the child was painful, but the bus driver did not understand what was going on. He said over the bus intercom that the child needed to be quiet. Half an hour later, with no change, the bus driver pulled over in a fury, turned on the cabin lights and walked back to the woman holding her febrile child. “You need to make that child be quiet,” he said. A lady a few rows back said, “She doesn’t speak English, sir. May I translate?” He said “Please,” and then she said in Spanish, “He wants to know if there is anything that we can do to help.” At the next rest stop, a fellow bus rider came back on board with infant fever reducers and Pedialight.
From Scripture: Contemplate Acts 16:16-40. What are the experiences and actions of the jailer? What is the legal and spiritual fall-out of Paul and Silas’ misdemeanor?
The Circumstance: Fathers, mothers, and entire families are being deported back to Central America after a desperate, month-long journey to escape death. They have spent their life-savings to escape their home and are returned with nothing but the threats they left. Central Americans are flown on jets to their home Capitals.
What you can do: Support the international mission agencies of your religious community in the greeting of Central America deportees at their home Airports. Resources for the first week could save lives. Their lost life-savings cannot be returned to them, but a merciful gift of sustenance seems just for those who believed in the false promise of safety in the United States.
A False Myth: “Deporting people keeps out criminals, deters more illegal immigration, and saves our economy.” In truth: Deportation is economically very expensive and does little to deter the desperate attempts of other families. Further, we are rejecting the most successful, resourceful, and driven families of Central America who were targets of violent extortion. Deportations invariably divide and destroy families.
A Human: In a small church in northern Mexico, I met a man from Central America who had thought he could find a new life for his family in the United States. He showed me scars from tortures at the hands of gangs and forced tattoos that marked a death-sentence if he left his home territory. At the United States border he had been taken from his wife and daughter and quickly deported. With the hope of finding his family again, he chose to lie about his Central American nationality, was mistaken as a Mexican, and was dropped off at a bridge over the Rio Grande. After 6 months of effort, and having desperately crossed the river illegally 5 times, he was living in this impoverished but hospitable church. He had not found any leads on the location of his wife and child and felt deeply depressed.
From Scripture: Read the letter Paul writes to Philemon. Much is unclear about details, but obviously Philemon has a legal right to exercise over Onesimus. Onesimus must have broken some law and his social status as a slave gives him no recourse for mercy. What is the powerful argument that Paul dismisses and what is the argument that Paul lands on? How does Paul refer to Onesimus, and what does he ask Philemon to do? If Onesimus is Paul’s heart, reflect on who is Christ’s heart.