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Foreigners and strangers or members of God’s household?

U.S. policy has thrust immigrants into precarious, life-threatening situations

by Susan Krehbiel and Jennifer Lockard, Mission Mosaic | Special to Presbyterian News Service

A Tijuana church’s courtyard that was once used to hold coffee hour is now a place for asylum seekers to do laundry and to socialize. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Whatever your opinion of U.S. immigration policies, many people — such as those attempting to enter through our southern border — are living in precarious, life-threatening situations. In response, people of faith continued to provide life-saving services that uplift the human soul and reaffirm individuals’ dignity.

These transformative personal experiences allowed us to be faithful allies, to advocate for the individuals we met, to speak to those in power on their behalf and to educate others about the need for welcoming policies.

2019 was another year of frequent changes to official U.S. asylum and refugee resettlement policies and procedures. Despite government-mandated deterrents, nothing prevented the ongoing arrival of families and children from around the world seeking asylum at the U.S./Mexico border.

Similar to 2018, the majority of newcomers originated in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, all of them fleeing widely recognized humanitarian emergencies caused by decades of poverty, failed government policies, broken families, lack of protection for women and children, and violence that continues to plague the region.

When considering the changes to U.S. policy, it is crucial to understand where our government’s legal obligations and commitments lie. U.S. and international refugee law state that asylum seekers have the legal right to seek protection from persecution and violence and should not be detained for seeking refuge. Also, it is the government’s duty to ensure that there is meaningful access to the asylum process. Nevertheless, as the number of asylum seekers has grown at the southern border, instead of developing proactive mechanisms to ensure an orderly asylum process, the U.S. government has implemented policies to deter people from seeking asylum:

  • Ongoing separation of families, including young children from their parents
  • Closure of ports or limiting asylum processing to 12 or 20 per day, referred to as “metering”
  • Criminal charges for entry or smuggling their children — forcing them to go to federal court in addition to immigration court
  • Sub-standard detention conditions at border stations
  • Drastic changes to asylum screening and criteria for court referrals
  • A “Remain in Mexico” policy that deports people to Mexico to wait for their asylum case to be heard in immigration court
  • “Safe third country” agreements with Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

An asylum seeker must prove a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a specific social group. In 2019, the federal government transferred the responsibility for the initial asylum screening at the border, known as “credible fear interviews,” from asylum officers to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents and law enforcement, and issued new directives to disallow certain types of asylum claims. Not surprisingly, the rate of rejected credible fear claims has skyrocketed.

Perhaps the most devastating policy change in asylum policy during 2019, however, has been the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), referred to familiarly as “Remain in Mexico.”

Adopted in January 2019, this program returns asylum seekers who have been inspected at any U.S. port of entry to Mexico while they await their legal proceedings. With few exceptions, asylum seekers are sent back to situations in Mexico where they are at risk of extreme violence, exploitation and even death, most often at the hands of cartels.

Recent data shows that not only is the number of migrants threatened with and victimized by violence larger than usual, these threats and attacks continue to climb the longer an asylum seeker remains in Mexico. Shelters and churches in the northern Mexico border cities report that attacks against the asylum seekers and disappearances are common. By enforcing the MPP in this manner, the U.S. is failing its commitment to “non-refoulement,” the international human rights principle that no one should be returned to a place where they will face cruel treatment or severe harm.

Tents inside Fellowship Hall of Iglesia Embajadores de Jesus (Ambassadors of Jesus Church) shelter families. (Contributed photo)

Returning to Mexico also means that asylum seekers are largely cut off from the attorneys who can help them apply for and receive asylum. The protocols regularly result in family separations at the discretion of border authorities. These separations most often see the adult returned to Mexico and their children sent to U.S.-based children’s shelters. Ongoing family separations lead to widespread trauma for the children, who are forcefully detained for extended periods of time with no knowledge of what has happened to their parents or family members. Once they get to court, children have also been forced to choose between their parents — potentially seeing the rejected parent immediately deported — further adding to their suffering.

In September 2019, the U.S. government brokered “safe third country” agreements with Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In lay terms, these multilateral agreements force asylum seekers to apply for asylum not in the U.S. but in some of the most dangerous countries in the world. For example, any asylum seeker who passes through Guatemala — other than Guatemalans — may be transferred back to Guatemala to present their asylum claim. Those effectively trapped in Honduras by the safe third country agreements will find themselves in a country where two-thirds of its roughly 9 million people live in poverty and experience widespread gang and gender-based violence.

The U.S. State Department’s travel advisory for El Salvador to American citizens suggests that people “reconsider travel [to El Salvador] due to crime … murder, assault, rape and armed robbery are common.” It is widely accepted by human rights groups that these agreements will create a considerable humanitarian crisis in Central America because not only are none of these countries’ infrastructures strong enough to handle the influx, forcing asylum seekers to remain within reach of their persecutors hints firmly at a death sentence. The U.S. has long been seen as a global leader in the resettlement of refugees. However, this continues to be jeopardized with the removal of asylees from the southern U.S. border to Guatemala in late November 2019. As of this writing, deportations to Honduras and El Salvador scheduled for January 2020 are on hold while those governments decide how best to proceed.

A young girl awaits her family’s asylum trial in Agua Preita, Mexico. (Contributed photo)

Closing off the U.S. to refugees is not limited to how we treat people at our southern border. The number of refugees worldwide has reached the highest level since World War II, approximately 26 million individuals. Yet U.S. refugee admissions continue to decline, putting thousands more in danger as they wait for the U.S. to resettle them. Like those forced to wait in the “no man’s land” at our physical border, these refugees are living in host countries who give them limited permission to stay while they go through the U.S. resettlement process. In many cases, family members of refugees already resettled are forced to wait years for permission to be reunited with their loved ones.

In September, the U.S. government took another decisive step back from addressing this global humanitarian need when it set its fiscal year 2020 (October 2019 to September 2020) admissions goal at 18,000 people, the lowest resettlement target since the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act. This severe reduction in resettlement has led to the widespread closing of U.S. resettlement programs and forced thousands of refugees ready to travel to wait indefinitely.

Reframing the “other”: humanizing those at the border — and beyond

It is natural to feel overwhelmed when trying to make sense of the ever-evolving list of changes to U.S. asylum, deportation and resettlement policies. How do we — as a community, a Church and a nation — care for the vulnerable? What does this even mean for U.S. Christians in the face of federal efforts to turn away refugees and asylum seekers? Being called to welcome doesn’t mean ignoring the existence of borders or the need for security measures. It means finding a way to see Jesus in the faces of the women and children, to be a nation of welcome to those who are fleeing conflict and despair.

A church in Tijuana has three-story bunkbeds in a basement dormitory. (Contributed photo)

In fact, the interfaith collaborations happening at the border focus on doing just that: offering services that recognize and honor the dignity of each person who comes through their doors, even in the midst of chaotic circumstances. Shelters on either side of the border are responding to a deeply felt call to welcome the strangers in their midst, to minister to their needs and to stand with them in their pursuit of safety for their families. Indeed, all of these organizations find themselves in a pivotal moment: this call to ministry with asylum seekers is not short-lived, despite many financial and political challenges. As a pastor in Tijuana said, “When people ask me how we can do this ministry, I tell them that God will provide. And when again they ask ‘How?’ I again answer, “God will provide.”

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has repeatedly heard from those who have ministered to our brothers and sisters along the border in 2019 that there is a physical, spiritual, emotional and even political awakening that occurs through such encounters. Migrant journeys are long and hard, their destinations unknown and unfamiliar, and their reception by government officials uncertain and, in many ways, unwelcoming. And yet it is the people who serve who are humbled when the offer of shoelaces, bars of chocolate, a shower, and a clean, warm towel is met with tears. That a friendly face, a smile, a kind word or gentle touch can provide someone with identity, dignity and human connection after such a harrowing trek is an incredible Holy Spirit moment. In situations like these, it doesn’t take long to move beyond the labels of immigrant and refugee and simply see the faces of dislocated and desperate humanity.

Asylum seekers must appear at a tent court in Laredo, Texas, under the “Remain in Mexico” policy. (Contributed photo)

And then, if we find a way to wrap our minds around the inconceivable hardships that were overcome in order to arrive in the U.S., it becomes that much more difficult to fathom the experiences of those forced to return to their country of origin after building a life in the U.S. over the course of 20 years. Yet that is what is happening to those from many countries, including those from El Salvador. Reintegration is hard work. Starting over is all the more difficult when the return was involuntary.

Most returnees (the term they have chosen for themselves) have left family members behind in the U.S. without a parent or wage-earner. For some, there is no longer any home in El Salvador to go back to; others experience unsuccessful family reunions, leaving them twice displaced. Deep disappointment, anger, depression, fear and a sense of failure are all too familiar emotions. If these negative feelings are not addressed, they become paralyzing.

In April 2019, with support from PDA, the Reformed Calvinist Church of El Salvador (IRCES) embarked on a new ministry with returnees in partnership with a mutual help association called the Red Nacional de Emprendedores Retornados (RENACERES — which means “rebirth”), and the Salvadoran Institute of the Migrant (INSAMI). RENACERES develops employment opportunities through the establishment of enterprises led by and for returnees. After an initial intake by RENACERES members — familiar with life in the U.S., bilingual and bicultural, and most importantly, with an empathy born out of shared life experiences — new returnees are referred to a range of support services. INSAMI counselors and medical staff provide medical screenings, basic medical treatment, individual and group counseling, and referrals to specialists. IRCES steps in with transitional shelter services for returnees with no place to live while they develop longer-term plans while volunteers provide pastoral and psychological support. RENACERES, INSAMI and IRCES see productivity, physical and mental health, spiritual and emotional accompaniment as interrelated to the well-being of any individual. As they are supported by this network, returnees do not travel alone in their bewilderment and grief. There is hope and promise — even if they can’t see it at first.

Powerful revelations like these are driving the devotional response within our connectional church. We are bombarded every day with inconsistent information regarding immigration and resettlement — so much of it contrary to U.S. legal precedents — putting people in harm’s way. People with hopes and dreams just like ours, for a roof over their heads, a safe place to build their lives with a job that provides enough to support their families. Because we recognize that the government’s rulings on immigration and resettlement do not legally strip them of their personhood, PDA will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to all refugee families with basic needs, legal orientations and family reunification assistance even as we advocate for more humane treatment by the U.S. government.

A Refugee’s story

Hager Ahmad, second from left, shares her story as part of a panel at Davis & Elkins College in West Virginia. The panel included representatives from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Church World Service. (Contributed photo)

“When you can’t communicate, everything is terrifying and confusing. At least in Sudan I could understand what was going on around me or ask questions. All I knew that day was suddenly the faces that were always happy were not smiling anymore. The news said it was Muslim terrorists. We didn’t know what was going on, but at the time I couldn’t even ask questions.”

Hager Ahmad, a Sudanese refugee, spent several years as an asylum seeker in Lebanon. When she arrived in August 2001, she and her small family were the first refugees in Waynesboro, Virginia — and then Sept. 11 happened. For a long time, people’s stares in the street let her know they were frightened of her, which made her frightened of them. The situation left her in despair, and she worried about her family’s decision to come to the U.S. Finally, she decided she was not going to fall into this trap any longer.

“Suddenly I thought, ‘As refugees, we are here, but we still don’t feel like we’ve arrived. We need a way to communicate.’ And since then, I’ve been open to questions about my culture and faith. I know I can make a difference.”

Her impressions of refugees’ experiences in the U.S. are mixed. “Some Americans think we are here to steal jobs or go on welfare, but most refugees are trying to put themselves back together after horrible suffering and just want to work hard to keep a job, whatever it is. Still, compared to when I got here, Americans are more open-minded and willing to make sure newcomers are accepted seamlessly into their neighborhoods. That’s important because immigration doors are closing so quickly.”

Eager to facilitate understanding between Americans and refugees, Hager has been trained as a public speaker and advocate, sharing her experiences as both a woman and a refugee. She is involved with multiple organizations in and around Waynesboro, one of which is Bridges, which conducts an intercultural community potluck and dance every three months at which people of all faiths socialize, learning about one another’s cultures in a relaxed setting. She is also the founder and president of the Sudanese Community of Harrisonburg, Virginia, an organization of 13 families and 45 individuals that supports refugee families. Finally, as a certified medical interpreter and Arabic translator, Hager has worked with Church World Service, teaching Americans how to respond in a culturally appropriate manner to refugees in their community.

The move from asylum seeker to resettled refugee is an exhausting, disconcerting process that can take many years to navigate, usually while stuck in a dangerous place. For more information about U.S. refugee resettlement, click here.

This article comes from the current edition of Mission Mosaic, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance’s annual report. Read the full report here.

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