Bishops: Don't villainize migrants

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United Methodist bishops have joined other Methodist bishops in calling on their congregations “to be agents of God’s mercy to migrants.”

The United Methodist Council of Bishops, meeting this week, joined with Methodist bishops in Mexico and El Salvador in responding to the caravans of people traveling from Honduras to seek asylum in Mexico or the United States.

“These migrant sisters and brothers have been villainized,” the bishops’ statement said. “Yet as we have sought to minister to them along their perilous journey, what we have seen on the whole is human beings of great courage and deep faith who have placed their lives in God’s hands.”

More than half of those making the weeks-long voyage across three countries are women and children. Most of the people in the caravan are from Honduras, where United Methodists have a mission initiative. Some are from Guatemala. Both countries are among the most violent places in the world.

Bishop Elias G. Galvan, who has led The United Methodist Church in Honduras, told the Council of Bishops that the city of San Pedro Sula — where the caravan started — is known as “the murder capital of the world.” The city is also home to four United Methodist congregations that try to help.

“Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala face very similar conditions,” Galvan said. “There is great poverty, high levels of violence and endemic corruption. The only option many people have in those communities is to leave their country.”

He said that church leaders in the affected countries felt it important to speak a word on behalf of migrants during this crisis. The Council of Bishops unanimously affirmed the statement.

While at one point the caravan swelled to an estimated 7,000 people, those numbers have since dwindled. Some have grown weary or disillusioned and accepted bus rides back home. Mexican officials have detained and deported others.

The Associated Press reports that, according to Mexican authorities, 3,230 migrants from the caravan have requested refuge. Of those, some 480 have given up waiting and agreed to return to their home countries.

Yet faced with deep poverty and violence at home, a number of Hondurans told the AP that they expect to attempt the arduous journey again in search of safety and a better future.

Both Mexico and the United States have laws that allow immigrants to seek asylum within their borders as well as laws protecting security. Under U.S. law, people without documentation have been able to go to a U.S. port of entry and apply for asylum if they can show they would face persecution based on their race, nationality, religion, political views or membership in a targeted social group.

The Trump Administration announced new immigration rules Nov. 8 that administration officials say allow the president to deny asylum to anyone who enters the country illegally. However, immigration experts expect those rule changes to be challenged in court.  

In their statement, the bishops said they respect their nations’ laws but question whether their governments are fully implementing laws granting asylum.

“We stand together in demanding that the governments of our countries treat these migrants in ways that recognize and respect their God-given humanity, and with compassion and dignity,” the bishops’ statement said.

The statement specifically called on President Donald Trump “to cease characterizing our migrant brothers and sisters in derogatory and fear-inducing ways.”

However, the bishops emphasized that churches have a crucial role to play in caring for migrants.

Galvan pointed to an example where that has already happened. When a Honduran United Methodist on the caravan fell seriously ill, Methodists in Mexico helped him recover.

During the Council of Bishops meeting, the episcopal leaders heard other examples of how United Methodists are helping migrants and other displaced people around the globe — in Germany, the Philippines and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Bishop Gabriel Yemba Unda of East Congo spoke of how conflict in the region continues to force people to flee their homes.

“Thousands of people have been displaced in my area, leaving their homes with their belongings — whatever they can carry on their heads,” he said through an interpreter. “They have to leave because of war, because of the ravages of malaria and most recently because of the attack of the Ebola virus.”

He said United Methodists in his area are working with church members in Tennessee and California to aid the most vulnerable — women and children.

Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño, chair of the United Methodist Immigration Task Force, described how United Methodist bishops in Texas rallied church members to take a stand against the separation of families on the border.

That public stand led the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection to meet with a United Methodist team led by the Texas Conference’s Bishop Scott Jones.

“The commissioner was so moved by the witness of that team that two weeks later, we learned from the commissioner’s office, that he was in Honduras trying to better understand the root causes of migration,” Carcaño said.

United Methodist churches also work with partners such as Church World Service to help refugees resettle in the United States. Church World Service is also working with the United Methodist Committee on Relief to provide assistance to shelters along the U.S. side of the border.

Carcaño told her colleagues that experts expect forced migration to be the world’s reality for decades to come.

“Poverty, violence and increased climate change will force people to move,” said Carcaño, who also leads the California-Nevada Conference. “We pray that our joining efforts not only with United Methodists across our worldwide church but also with our ecumenical family, the interfaith community and people of good will … would result in an attitude of welcoming.”

She added that this is the time to affirm that the work of the church is to extend grace and mercy to the sojourner.

“Indeed, when we welcome the migrant,” she said, “we welcome Jesus himself.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.


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