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“While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” —Luke 24:51

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November/December 2009

Washington Report to Presbyterians

International Debt Relief

by Catherine Gordon

For more than ten years the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in coalition with the broader faith community, has been advocating for debt relief for the world’s poorest countries.  Thanks to the efforts of people of faith and conscience everywhere, rich countries — as well as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund — have agreed to cancel the debt of impoverished countries around the world through the Heavily Indebted Poor Country Initiative (HIPC).  Debt cancellation has given these countries a promising new start, and the chance to reinvest in their own infrastructure, healthcare, and education.

Since the HIPC Initiative was created in 1996, donor countries have committed more than $90 billion in bilateral and multilateral debt cancellation to promote economic development and poverty reduction in the developing world. However, this vital progress has been threatened by the activity of “vulture funds” that exploit the most impoverished countries at the expense of both their citizens and countries like the United States that support international debt cancellation. Vulture funds acquire the defaulted sovereign debt of poor countries, and then refuse to participate alongside responsible creditors in international debt relief initiatives.

What are 'vulture funds?'

Portions of a country’s debt or sovereign debt can be traded in much the same way that domestic mortgages are transacted between banks, with little to no impact on the debtor nation. However, in recent years a number of private investment funds have begun to view countries that qualify for debt cancellation as a lucrative target, because a country that has its debt cancelled then has money to pay other debts.

Vulture funds are hedge funds that purchase debt for pennies on the dollar, while actively preying on countries that are likely to default on loans. Using tactics including extortion and litigation, these vultures then demand full payment on the debt. In some cases, vultures have asked for interest payments dating all the way back to the original date of the loan, not from the date it was purchased by the vulture.

What countries have been targeted?

Poor countries across the developing world are facing vulture lawsuits. The vulture fund Donegal International claimed $55 million from Zambia for a debt it purchased for $3 million.  Another vulture fund, FG Hemisphere, is currently pursuing litigation in Washington, D.C. against the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country plagued by civil war, demanding fines of up to $80,000 a week because the country has not disclosed the location of all of its assets everywhere in the world.  Other vulture targets include Cameroon, Ethiopia, the Republic of Congo, Honduras, Nicaragua, Sierra Leone and Uganda. A 2008 report by the International Monetary Fund stated that vulture funds were engaged in claims seeking a total of $1.47 billion from HIPCs.

What can you do?

The Stop VULTURE Funds Act, H.R. 2932, introduced by Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), would stop vulture funds from profiteering from poor country debt.  Vulture Funds would no longer be allowed to get more than the amount for which they bought the debt, with a cap on annual interest at six percent.  In Zambia money intended to help children go to school was taken by a vulture fund. If the Act had been in place, the vulture fund would not have been able to sue for huge amounts of money like it did, and it would not be able to charge double or triple digit interest rates and go after the original amount of the debt.

The Stop VULTURE Funds Act takes away the ability and incentive for vulture funds to make exorbitant amounts of money from the most impoverished. The bill would also require private creditors to disclose much more information about their own business practices before they can sue a poor country in U.S. courts, including how much they paid for the debt in the first place. Requiring more transparency will shine a light on these underhanded dealings, stopping vulture activity by simply showing the true, exploitative nature of the problem to the public. The Act sends a clear message to vultures that U.S. citizens will not tolerate the misuse of their tax dollars and court systems to harm poor countries.

Use this sample email as a guide and contact your member of Congress today!

Hunger in America

by Anna Rhee, consultant

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.
                                    I John 3:17-18

Christian teaching and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) statements and policies frequently emphasize the essential Christian responsibility to care for the poor, hungry, and disadvantaged in our society and around the world.  A Social Creed for the 21st Century — adopted by the 218th General Assembly in 2008 — states:

In the love incarnate in Jesus, despite the world’s sufferings and evils, we honor the deep connections within our human family and seek to awaken a new spirit of community, by working for abatement of hunger and poverty, and enactment of policies benefiting the most vulnerable.

Americans are enduring hard economic times — the longest recession since the Great Depression and a massive crisis of long-term unemployment. There are some tentative indications that the economy is slowly improving but, if there is a rising tide of economic recovery, it is not lifting all boats. Hunger is increasing in America.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) takes an annual food security survey and analyzes the data in order to report on the effectiveness of Federal, State and community food assistance programs. Using a representative sample of the U.S. civilian population, the survey measures levels of hunger and food insecurity in America by household composition, race/ethnicity, income and region.     

The newly released report, Household Food Security in the United States, 2008, reveals that hunger in America rose 3.5 percent from 2007 to 2008 — the largest one-year increase since the USDA initiated food security surveys in 1995.  In 2008, more than 49 million people lived in households that lacked consistent access to adequate nutrition, 13 million more than in 2007.

Bread for the World is among the anti-hunger advocacy organizations that have reviewed the USDA report.  It says that:

More than one in seven American households, or 14.6 percent of American households, suffered from food insecurity in 2008. Almost one in four children in our country lives on the brink of hunger. According to the report, in 2008, 16.7 million children, or 22.5 percent were food insecure — 4.2 million more than in 2007.

The safety net for the poor and hungry in America is a combination of federal food and nutrition assistance programs, the largest of which are:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously called the Food Stamp Program,
  • National School Lunch Program,
  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and
  • direct support of community-based food pantries and emergency kitchens, most of which are affiliated with faith-based organizations and supplemented by the USDA’s Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).

According to the USDA report, 55 percent of the food-insecure households surveyed in 2008 said that in the previous month they had participated in the National School Lunch Program, SNAP and WIC.  About 20 percent of food-insecure households obtained emergency food from a food pantry at some time during the year, and 2.6 percent ate one or more meals at emergency kitchens in their communities.

A report entitled Estimating the Risk of Food Stamp Use and Impoverishment During Childhood, published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association, emphasizes the stunning reach of hunger in the United States.  Its findings include: at some point before their 20th birthday, 50 percent of all children in the United States will have received SNAP benefits;

  • 90 percent of black children will be in a household that uses food stamps.  This compares to 37 percent of white children,
  • nearly one-quarter of all American children will be in households that use food stamps for five or more years during childhood,
  • 91 percent of children with single parents will be in a household receiving food stamps, compared to 37 percent of children in married households,
  • looking at race, marital status and education simultaneously, children who are black and whose head of household is not married with less than 12 years of education have a cumulative percentage of residing in a food stamp household of 97 percent by age 10.

Hunger also has a distressing reach into the elder community. The Meals on Wheels Association of America Foundation (MOWAAF) finds that between 2001and 2005:

  • over 5 million seniors — 11.4 percent of all seniors — experienced some form of food insecurity,
  • those with limited incomes, under age 70, African Americans, Hispanics, never-married individuals, renters and persons living in the south are all more likely to be at-risk of hunger,
  • 50 percent of all seniors who are at-risk of hunger have incomes above the poverty line,
  • those living alone are twice as likely to experience hunger compared to married seniors and
  • seniors living in non-metropolitan areas are as likely to experience food insecurity as those living in metropolitan areas.

MOWAAF projects that in 2025, 9.5 million senior Americans will experience some form of food insecurity, about 75 percent higher than the number in 2005.

In the Gospel of Matthew, in the 25th chapter, we are told:

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? ... And the King will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.

The United States is a land of plenty, even in an economic downturn, where no one should go hungry.  God calls the people of God to compassionate care for one another — family, friend and stranger. In this season of expectation and wonder, it is important to remember those who are less fortunate and in need, to reach out with a sharing spirit, and to support programs and policies that aim to end hunger and build wholeness.

Welcoming the Sojourner

By Nan Arnold, intern

… the strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Leviticus 19:33-34

Throughout the scriptures God consistently reaffirms the idea of strangers being welcomed into heart and home. Indeed, in the New Testament as well, Jesus says that we must welcome the stranger, for “what you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me” (Matthew 25:40). The God of the displaced, the exploited, the down trodden, the oppressed, the undocumented and the migrant calls on Christians to welcome the strangers among us.

In fact, the 218th General Assembly passed several resolutions and actions that will contribute to the church’s role in seeking justice for the sojourners within our midst. As Congress gets closer and closer to passing comprehensive immigration reform, this deep understanding of welcoming the stranger will be vital to the church’s discussion concerning the issue. Immigration laws determine who may enter and reside in the United States, how long each person may stay and when they are required to leave.  Current U.S. immigration law states that any immigrant residing in the country under permanent resident status or who has naturalized citizenship can apply for visas for their immediate family members (spouse, children, siblings, parents).  Yet, under this current system, a backlog of petitions has developed and has resulted in a slow and inefficient process, with families sometimes being separated for decades. 

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has joined a broad group of other denominations, religions, and faith-based organizations to develop an interfaith platform on humane immigration reform. Its principles are embodied in the Reuniting Families Act (S. 1085), introduced in May 2009 and co-sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).  The late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was also a co-sponsor. The bill was introduced because, unless there is substantial reform of the immigration system in this country, the situation will only worsen as families continue to be separated and the backlogs increase. 

The platform supports family unity by advocating:  a procedure for undocumented migrants to earn legal status and citizenship; protecting workers rights, offering ways of entry for new migrants, facilitating immigrant integration into American society, restoring due process protections and reforming detention center policies, and aligning the enforcement of these immigration laws with humanitarian values.

S. 1085 would:

  • Recapture immigrant visas lost to bureaucratic delay by allowing unused employment-based visas and family-sponsored visas from 1992 to 2007 and in future years and letting them “roll over” to the next year.  This would reduce the current visa backlogs and would exempt immediate relatives from the cap on the number of immigrant visas,
  • Reclassify spouses and minor children of lawful permanent residents as immediate family,
  • Change per-country immigration limits from seven to 10 percent of total admissions to address the fact that some countries have long backlogs of visa applications,
  • Increase the government’s discretion and flexibility in dealing with provisions that bar particular individuals from leaving and re-entering on a visa, therefore encouraging family unity,
  • Allow immediate relatives, family-sponsored immigrants, and recipients of employment-based visas to collect on a filed visa petition or be able to adjust their status on the basis of a petition that has been filed before the death of a sponsoring relative and
  • Exempt certain Filipino World War II veterans from the immigrant visa limit.

Ultimately, this bill would help foster strong communities within the United States as families increase the success of assimilation and quality of life, by allowing immigrants to add more fully to the social and economic development of this country

Immigration Detention Centers in the United States

By Nan Arnold, intern

The T. Don Hutto Family Detention Center in Texas was faced with civil suits in 2007 for forcing children of detained immigrant families to wear uniforms, denying them toys to play with, and limiting their recreation time to one hour per day.  The situation in Hutto has improved since these lawsuits but there are still allegations about lack of nutrition, substandard food, lack of medical care, inability to access legal services, and unsanitary conditions.

Within the last few years there has been an increase in detentions and deportations of undocumented migrants in the United States.   Although most Americans do not even know where detention centers are located, how they are managed, and the impact they have on the community, detention centers are where most undocumented workers are placed after Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids.  These facilities are under the jurisdiction of federal officers; but because the US has more detainees than it can house in federal facilities, it contracts for this function with local jails and for-profit prisons.  This can cause people detained for improper documentation to be housed with those who have committed serious crimes.
In addition, most detention facilities cannot house children, including nursing infants, which places many children in the state’s custody.  Also, immigrant detainees are often shuffled around from prison to prison, which prevents visitation with family and makes family reunification difficult.  While detention centers are where most migrants are held before their deportation, there is no evidence that this is the most effective or best way of addressing their undocumented status.  In addition, there are many alternatives to detention centers that are seldom used.

At the 218th General Assembly, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) passed a Resolution on Immigration Detention Centers which advocated for alternatives to detention, some of which are available at a fraction of the cost of detention.  Ankle bracelet monitoring, intensive supervision and posting bond are some of the less expensive alternatives that could help maintain family unity and normalcy, create better access to legal services, and be less of a burden on the system. 

Congregations and organizations have developed detention center visitation programs offering pastoral care and support to immigrant detainees and their families.  In addition to starting visitation programs to local detention centers, church members can voice their apprehensions to Congress concerning the treatment of families and migrants in detention centers within this country.