From handing out hygiene kits to providing legal briefings, United Methodists are working to ease the crisis of unaccompanied minors and others from Central America coming into the United States in sharply escalated numbers.
But church leaders find the extent of the need sobering.
“It’s deepened my prayer life significantly,” said San Antonio Area Bishop James E. Dorff. “You know, in most crisis situations, you can determine that there is an end point. And I’m not sure where that is with this.”
Recent months have seen a flood of Central Americans — primarily from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — making their way across Mexico and into the United States, apparently motivated by violence in their home countries and the perception that U.S. immigration laws and policies will allow them to settle here.
Unaccompanied minors detained for a border crossing come under the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. That office expects to end fiscal year 2014 with 60,000 such referrals, compared to fewer than 14,000 in fiscal year 2012.
While media attention has focused on unaccompanied minors, there’s also been an influx of children traveling with a parent.
“There are really two situations, and two categories of need,” Dorff said.
An offer of hospitality
Typically, the parents and children are briefly detained, given an immigration court hearing date, and released. Most will soon move on to try to connect with a family member in the United States, but they arrive at the border tired, dirty and with little in the way of clothes or food.
U.S. law & unaccompanied Minors
Many unaccompanied minors detained while trying to cross the border fall, at present, under the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate unanimously and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.
The 2008 human trafficking law, named for a famed British abolitionist, requires that children from countries not bordering the United States, including those in Central America, be given added legal protections before facing potential deportation. The bipartisan law requires that the children be allowed to appear at an asylum hearing and consult with an advocate, and it recommends that they have access to counsel to represent them and “protect them from mistreatment, exploitation, and trafficking.” The law also directs the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to place the minors “in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child” and to explore reuniting them with family members.
President Barack Obama has asked Congress to give the U.S. Department of Homeland Security more authority to send children back to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador more quickly. Reuters reported July 10 that U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner has expressed support for changes to the immigration law that would let the United States deport children from Central America as quickly as it does those from Mexico. Some families were deported back to Honduras on July 14. But on the same day, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said that it was “likely” that immigrant children facing mortal danger in their home countries would be allowed to stay in the United States.
That’s an opportunity for United Methodists eager to help.
“The basic thing we’re doing is offering hospitality, in a way that is needed by the traveling Central American women and children who are coming through,” said the Rev. Paul Harris, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Laredo.
Harris and members of his church are part of the Laredo Humanitarian Relief Team, and are working as well with Laredo’s Holding Institute, a community center that is a United Methodist Women National Mission Institution.
One of three local welcome centers for the new arrivals, the Holding Institute is offering showers and donated clothes.
Two other UMW affiliates — the Neighborhood House of Calexico in Calexico, Calif., and the Houchen Community Center in El Paso, Texas — are also serving as front-line centers for helping the parents and children. United Methodists have been providing Houchen with health kits and socks, said the Rev. Lourdes Calderon, pastor of Cornerstone United Methodist Church in Albuquerque, N.M.
Tobin Park United Methodist in El Paso is gearing up to be the fourth such welcome site in that city and in nearby Las Cruces, N.M.
“If it wasn’t for us, all these people would just be released on the street,” said Rick Snow, a real estate broker and missions chair of Western Hills United Methodist in El Paso, who agreed to be site coordinator at Tobin Park.
Elsewhere, such as in the Rio Grande Valley cities of Brownsville and McAllen, Texas, Catholic churches and ministries have taken the lead as welcome centers. United Methodists and others are providing volunteers and donations of shoes and other clothing.
“Everybody’s pulling together, all up and down the border, doing everything they can, and that is really a tremendous blessing,” Dorff said.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief has been a major supplier to welcome centers, providing 18,000 health kits in McAllen, Laredo and Brownsville, as well as making an initial $10,000 grant to the Southwest Texas Annual (regional) Conference.
“The churches have really been rising up and providing hospitality,” said Greg Forrester, UMCOR’s coordinator of U.S. disaster response. “We’re looking for ways to support them in that effort.”
Meanwhile, United Methodist Women made a $7,500 grant to the Holding Institute for air-conditioner repairs and other emergency needs, reported Yvette Moore for UMW’s Response magazine.
Helping unaccompanied minors is proving much more of a challenge. The influx has prompted the opening of emergency detainment centers, such as at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas.
But access is restricted.
“We have some of our United Methodist people who are working with others to see about what kind of assistance we can provide, but it’s really been pretty much a closed operation,” Dorff said.
One United Methodist group that has been able to help at Lackland is National Justice for Our Neighbors, which provides legal assistance on immigration issues.
Julie Flanders of the group’s Austin office worked previously for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, which is doing in-take legal work with unaccompanied minors held at Lackland, and briefing them on the legal process.
Through her contacts with the refugee center, Flanders secured for National Justice for Our Neighbors an invitation to help with the effort at Lackland. Beginning in August, bilingual lawyers from that organization’s other affiliates will be coming to San Antonio to assist.
“When this crisis hit the news, everyone here said, `How can we help?’” said Rob Rutland-Brown, National Justice for Our Neighbors executive director. “We’re in a unique position to do that now.”
Flanders already has spent two days recently at Lackland, working with unaccompanied minors. Nearly all, she said, came by bus or riding on top of a train.
“The baseline, the minimum, is that they traveled a long way and didn’t have a lot of food on the journey,” she said. “The average kid has suffered a lot to get here.”
Dorff and the Rev. Laura Merrill, superintendent for the McAllen District of the Southwest Texas and Rio Grande Conferences, were part of a small group of United Methodists who got to visit July 11 with unaccompanied minors at a processing center in McAllen.
“There were the kids whose eyes welled up the minute we started talking, and there were the kids whose blank expressions never left their faces,” Merrill said. “Then there were the young ones who brightened and smiled — beautiful children.”
Los Angeles Area Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño was among a group of religious leaders who on July 8 visited the Oxnard, Calif., detention facility, where about 575 children between the ages of 13 and 17 are held.
“We were not allowed to speak with the children, but they did greet us with ‘Buenos Dias,’ and ‘Good morning,’ and with many smiles,” the bishop said in a teleconference. “They were clean and dressed in casual clothes and tennis shoes and looked just like U.S. children. They appeared healthy and happy.”
She said many in Oxnard community are ready to help the children in various ways including foster care, but government rules do not allow for that kind of aid.
A plea for understanding
United Methodist leaders are urging financial donations to UMCOR and other relief efforts. Churches wanting to provide material donations or send volunteer teams need to do their homework, to see what’s really helpful.
But bilingual volunteers, especially, are needed at some welcome centers.
“People can come,” said Harris, the Laredo pastor. “We have a way of housing temporary teams, six to 20 people, here at First United Methodist. And there are plenty of hotels in town.”
The United Methodist Board of Church and Society is urging United Methodists to contact their members of Congress and ask that they not, in response to the crisis, repeal provisions in the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.
Overturning or weakening that law, which Congress approved unanimously, would increase the chances that minors are deported to life-threatening situations, the agency maintains.
The agency has concerns that President Obama’s request for $3.7 billion in federal spending to deal with the crisis is skewed toward border enforcement that’s unlikely to work.
“The immigration system will become more orderly when we begin dealing humanely with immigrants and address the root causes of why people are fleeing their countries of origin,” said Bill Mefford, Church and Society’s director of civil and human rights.
Many churches and conferences are having prayer vigils regarding the border crisis. Carcaño, for example, joined Bishop J. Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles in calling for July 18-20 to be an Interfaith Weekend of Compassion and Prayer for Unaccompanied Minors.
Merrill hopes United Methodists will pray but also educate themselves on the conditions the immigrants are fleeing as well as U.S. laws.
“I think as United Methodists we try to understand things of some complexity, and to understand them deeply,” she said. “I hope we take the opportunity to try to learn and read and not just believe the sound bites.”
While President Obama and Congress are under pressure to find ways to slow the influx, the increased numbers of Central Americans here already have church leaders planning for a long-haul assistance effort.
Perhaps the best evidence is Dorff’s decision to create a new position, director of United Methodist immigration ministries in South Texas. He is applying to UMCOR for help with funding.
“We’re creating it in order to provide some assistance and direction and coordination, because of the issues we’ve been presented with,” Dorff said.
Going into that job immediately will be the Rev. Javier Leyva, whom Dorff described as a “blessed saint” for agreeing to go back to the Rio Grande Valley.
“I just moved him less than a month ago from the Valley to San Antonio,” Dorff said. “But the more I looked and saw and realized, the more I just knew we needed to have our very best person down there to work fulltime in immigration ministries.”
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. UMNS writers Kathy Gilbert, Heather Hahn and Linda Bloom contributed to this report. Contact Hodges at (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com