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A perilous journey: helping today’s asylum seekers


Presbyterians help provide a place of welcome for migrants

By Sarah Deardorff Miller | Presbyterians Today

Asylum seekers begin walking in the early morning hours, hoping to cover as many miles as they can each day. They walk the long distance in hopes of a better life for their families. Sean Hawkey/ACT Alliance

Central American migrants start as early as 4 a.m. on their trek northward. Many begin with prayer, asking God to keep them safe and provide them peace and comfort in this frightening journey. Mothers and fathers carry sleeping children on their backs or in strollers, hoping to cover as much distance as they can in a day. If they are lucky, they may catch a ride in a passing truck or receive something to eat from good Samaritans in a local village.

They come because, they say, they had no choice. They are people like Deana Quczada, who fled Honduras with her daughter after she was beaten and spent a month in the hospital for her father’s alleged involvement with local gangs. Others, like Alejandro Garcia, a 22-year-old fruit seller from Honduras, is traveling with his 1-year-old daughter, fleeing because gangs were extorting money, making life in Honduras dangerous for both of them. 

They know the risks: Robbery, rape and death are not uncommon along this trail to the United States. According to data compiled by the United Nations, between 60 percent and 80 percent of women and girls are raped while migrating. Many take contraceptives prior to the journey — a prevention of pregnancy, but not sexually transmitted diseases. Some also risk being sold into prostitution or human trafficking. Many migrants journeying through Mexico are kidnapped. The Mexican National Human Rights Commission reported that in the first six months of 2011, more than 11,000 migrants were kidnapped. Once the migrants are captured, criminals demand ransom from their families. If the ransom is not paid, those held hostage may be killed, tortured, abused or sold to sex traffickers.

Parents are also terrified that they will get separated from their children on the journey through Mexico and into the United States. Some are aware of the harrowing separations that have taken place in the United States. Some have heard only vague reports of the risk of separation. But the reports do not deter them. They see no better alternative.

While a small number are coming for better work opportunities, most are coming for safety. A study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees found that 85 percent of women heading north come from neighborhoods controlled by criminal armed groups, and that 64 percent cited rape, assault, extortion and other threats as their main reason for migrating to the United States. 

Coupled with poverty, poor education and lack of health services, the decision is clear. They must trek northward if they want any chance of safety and dignity.

“There are kids who can’t go to school anymore because they are being threatened by gangs or organized crime. These parents don’t want their children to think that their life is about staying indoors or walking outside and facing death. So why not take this journey where there is the possibility of getting to something better in the end?” said Teresa Waggener, attorney for the PC(USA)’s Office of Immigration Issues. “Isn’t this what Mary and Joseph did when they fled with Jesus or what Jochabed did when she placed Moses in a reed basket and placed him in the Nile? Aren’t all parents hopeful for a better life for their children?”

Welcoming the stranger

In light of these brothers and sisters making painful and dangerous journeys, many in the United States — including Presbyterians — have been deeply moved. In November, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), issued a statement urging national leaders to change their stance on those seeking asylum in this country.

“This administration’s plans for those on their way go against this nation’s global agreements and asylum laws, and our call, as followers of Christ, is to welcome the newcomer and love our neighbor,” said Nelson. “To inflict harm on our siblings in Christ, to attempt to make us believe we must fear them, is not who we are called to be.”

When it is time to rest for the night, there are no shelters for asylum seekers. Many children curl up in blankets and sleep alongside roads and streets. Sean Hawkey/ACT Alliance

In response to the caravan of migrants that began journeying to the U.S. border in the fall, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) sent grant money to ACT Alliance Latin America.

“The PDA grant is part of an ecumenical response to allow partners to travel with the caravan to assess basic needs and respond to the most urgent cases with food, water, temporary shelter, protection,” said the Rev. Susan Krehbiel, PDA associate for refugees and asylum.

Krehbiel says that since June 2018, PDA has provided $50,000 in grants to presbyteries in the southwestern United States to support local churches and partner organizations that are providing food and temporary shelter for asylum seekers.

The partners include Casa Alitas in Arizona, run by Catholic Community Services in partnership with the Mennonite Central Committee. Casa Alitas is a shelter for asylum seekers who have been released from detention. Most are trying to make their way to other family members in the United States, Krehbiel says.

At Casa Alitas men and women receive food, clothing, a shower and help with figuring out their transportation to other parts of the country. Without Casa Alitas, many of these asylum seekers would be dropped off at a nearby bus station with little money or knowledge about what to do or where to go.

The Rev. Dr. Sallie Watson, general presbyter of Mission Presbytery in San Antonio, has seen what people go through to get to the United States and the risks they take. Many, she says, arrive exhausted and needing basic things like a shower, food and hygiene items.

The trauma of detention

Once in the United States, most families attempt to claim asylum through the legal system, and wait with relatives and friends while their claims are processed. Detention, however, is common, as is separation.

Volunteers in San Antonio, have seen firsthand the trauma inflicted by the government’s “zero-tolerance” policy on the children who have been separated from their parents. 

Lenna Baxter, co-chair of the Interfaith Welcome Coalition (IWC), one of the organizations the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) partners with, says, “We have had to change the way we approach families, especially the children, because they are frightened of strangers.”

She told the story of a young boy clinging to his mother at a bus station where they were met by an IWC volunteer. When the volunteer offered a teddy bear to the boy, he recoiled. Immediately attuned to the child’s reaction, the volunteer gently set the teddy bear on a vacant seat nearby and turned her attention to the mother and then to others. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the child slowly reach for the teddy bear and pick it up. 

The IWC, established in 2014, began as an organization to serve Central American families who were transiting through San Antonio after being released from the border. Soon after, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) established two new family detention centers in Texas. In recent months, the IWC has reached out not only to families arriving directly from the border but also to those released from detention. In both situations, IWC volunteers are ready with a welcoming smile, backpacks with supplies, a warm blanket and a stuffed animal, Baxter says.

Responding with Christ’s love

Ed Sackett, disaster recovery coordinator for Mission Presbytery, believes that not helping asylum seekers is in “direct conflict to what we are told to do” as Christians. 

“There are an awful lot of people wanting to quote the Ten Commandments, but not enough wanting to quote the Beatitudes,” he said. He added that “most of the people who are trying to come across as asylum seekers have been tortured and tormented, and are having to escape due to violence and drug cartels.”

The asylum system in the United States reflects international legal protections that emerged after World War II — a time when many in the world recognized that the large number of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany constituted an urgent humanitarian crisis. While there are flaws in the current asylum system — including huge backlogs and a lack of judges — the system itself has generally received bipartisan support in recent decades.

Sackett wants to see churches focus on loving the stranger and respecting U.S. law, which allows people the right to claim asylum.

Local churches are responding to the biblical mandate to “love one another” in various ways. First Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, recently provided 60 backpacks filled with necessities for refugees who have been released and will be on the road to continue their journey to meet friends and family. Still others, like St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church in Tucson, have opened their doors and set up rooms as overflow sites for those released by ICE.

While these measures are helpful, Sackett reminds people not to forget those who are also living in colonias, makeshift developments in the United States near the border. Many of these colonias, he says, have no services — no running water, no sewer systems, no electricity or infrastructure. “Many migrants live in these areas,” Sackett said. “The conditions are so terrible, it would be hard to believe they are in the United States.”

One mother, who shared a two-room house with bare walls and studs began crying when Sackett and others from the presbytery visited recently. “I feel like a terrible mother, having my children live like this,” she said. “But what else can I do?”

Sarah Deardorff Miller lives in the New York City area and consults on refugee-related issues for the International Rescue Committee and the United Nations. She teaches at Columbia University and the University of London.

Rick Jones, director of communications for the Office of the General Assembly, and Susan Krehbiel, associate for refugees and asylum for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, contributed to this article.

Learn more

Miles from the border, Memphis church helps refugees

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson

A mother from Central America, traveling with her children, takes time to rest in southern Mexico. The journey is not only long and arduous, but also filled with many uncertainties. Sean Hawkey/ACT Alliance

The Rev. Will Christians of Shady Grove Presbyterian Church in Memphis, Tennessee, thought that 50 chairs set up in the fellowship hall would be enough for a community meeting on the growing crisis at the border.

In late June, the church was asked to host the meeting by a local advocacy group, Indivisible Memphis. Christians, who was familiar with the group and who, along with others, was troubled by the headlines about children being separated from their families, knew that providing the space was the right thing to do. However, he was wrong about the number of chairs needed.

Within 24 hours of posting “Border Action Meeting to Support Asylum Seekers” on the church’s Facebook page, Shady Grove discovered that more than 1,000 people had clicked “interested.”

By the night of the event, the church parking lot overflowed onto the street, and seating for the 450 people needed to be moved from the fellowship hall to the sanctuary, which seats 300.

“It was a huge turnout,” Christians said.

The turnout underscored for him that the border crisis goes beyond faith traditions, as those attending the meeting were from all walks of life, faith and beliefs.

“This is about human decency,” Christians said. 

The informational evening featured speakers sharing stories and statistics about those crossing the border to the United States and offered ways that people can help. One of those ways was for communities to reach out to refugees who have been released and are making their way to family and friends.

“Some want to run to the border to help, but there are those right in our communities that need help,” Christians said.

When the pastor recently heard of those released from detention centers in San Antonio who were traveling through Memphis, he organized teams to meet them at the local bus depot with items that might be needed, such as baby clothes, feminine hygiene products and toothpaste.

“Many times they are released with just the clothes on their backs and some crackers in their hands,” Christians said.

For Christians, though, the call to help others doesn’t end with a handout.

“It’s not about giving them a Band-Aid. What matters is addressing the systemic issues,” he said.

For Christians and the folks at Shady Grove Presbyterian, getting to the heart of today’s social ills involves working with the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH). As the name suggests, the 2-year-old organization is working to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God, in and around Memphis.

One such task, Christians says, is working with local police to help them recognize — and accept — consular identification cards. These are cards issued by some governments to citizens living in other countries, but police often dismiss the cards as not valid.

As churches seek to help refugees, Christians advises congregations not to do it alone.

“We need to work with other organizations and pull together, and we can’t be afraid of being political,” he said.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.

Inside a detention center

By Rick Jones

U.S. flag shown through a chain-link fence with a migrant's hand holding the fence.In late fall, Amanda Craft, manager of advocacy with the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) Office of Immigration Issues, and Teresa Waggener, OGA’s immigration attorney, were allowed to see firsthand how men and women are living and coping in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in El Paso, Texas.       

“There was a mixture of folks in the facility. Some had just been arrested along the borders, others were in the asylum process, and others had resided in the United States for many years and were in removal proceedings,” said Craft. “However, it was shocking to see the colored jumpsuits detainees wear, to witness the restrictive rhythm of their existence, to understand that this was a punitive holding facility.”

The visit was conducted by an ICE official as well as the facility spokesperson. Craft and Waggener say the tour guides put a “positive spin” on how the residents are treated at the facility.

 “They have a cafeteria, and the people here receive meals totaling 3,500 calories a day,” said Waggener. “They have a law library to look up their legal case. They have religious observances, as well as a recreational center.”

Despite the “bells and whistles” presented to the team, Waggener says it didn’t change what they saw.

“This, being a federally run facility, is probably one of the better immigration detention centers, as it is not for profit. Therefore, it is probably true that the medical care and food are better. It is probably less likely that people will suffer abuse at this facility,” she said. “But people in this ICE prison have lost their liberty. There are tall fences with concertina wire surrounding them. Everywhere we went, we were buzzed in through heavy, magnetized doors. As a former public defender, I can tell you it is just like every state prison I’ve ever been in.”

Waggener expressed concern about the people inside the facility and their access to due process.

“While in the booking area, we learned that each individual could have 40 pounds of personal items kept for them in inventory, just the size and weight of a carry-on item that could be taken with them if they were deported on a flight with ICE Air,” she said. “It seemed as though deportation was a foregone conclusion. This concern was solidified for us later, when we met with attorneys who serve the El Paso area. They showed us the Executive Office of Immigration Review statistics for this facility. Only 2 percent of asylum seekers prevail.”

Rick Jones is the director of communications for the PC(USA)’s Office of the General Assembly.

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