In the face of an imploding immigration system, an exploding political debate and a deadlock on reform in Washington, it was religious leaders who rallied to form a humanitarian response to the surge of unaccompanied children crossing the border to the United States this summer.
The number of migrants crossing the border began its steady rise in 2011, but it escaped the Obama administration’s notice until spring, when the rise became a wave.
By September, 66,127 unaccompanied children and 66,142 Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran families had crossed into the Southwest, mostly into the Rio Grande Valley. The flood contributed to a backlog in U.S. immigration courts of nearly 400,000 cases.
Nowhere was the religious leadership more apparent than in McAllen, Texas, where churches and local government forged an effective and compassionate response to the crisis.
A city of 140,000 situated in the Rio Grande Valley, McAllen has a large Hispanic population and a sizable number of undocumented immigrants trapped at nearby U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints. Its residents are accustomed to seeing migrants.
By mid-May, however, the city’s bus station was crowded with women and children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. After a dangerous journey through Mexico and a crowded, uncomfortable confinement by the Border Patrol, many of the exhausted and frightened migrants were discharged from detention centers and dropped at the bus terminal with a ticket to join family members in faraway cities while they await deportation hearings.
Two women from McAllen reacted to the desperate conditions by putting out a call for donations on Facebook. Soon, they set up tables of clothing, food and diapers for the migrants. By June 10, the terminal was overflowing.
Then, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling called on Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities for help. Under the leadership of Catholic Charities, city and county officials, several humanitarian and religious institutions, and hundreds of volunteers were mobilized. They quietly and graciously organized an effective response.
Sacred Heart Catholic Church provided its parish hall; the city and county set up air-conditioned tents with showers, medical services and cots; the city provided the families transportation from the bus station to the shelter; and the local food bank collected and organized donations.
The city’s Calvary Baptist Church took responsibility for collecting, washing, drying and folding the new arrivals’ laundry, returning some 20 loads every day. The volunteers organized donations of clothing, shoes and toiletries, cooking meals and receiving each arriving family. By the end of July, the shelter was meeting the basic needs of more than 6,000 families during the few hours between being released from the Border Patrol processing center and boarding their bus to head north.
Even as the flow of arrivals has slowed, McAllen’s “open arms” reception continues. Sister Sherry Barrett, a nun from the Daughters of Charity order, spends countless hours in the bus terminal waiting to meet the arrivals and escort them to the city trolley for a short ride to the shelter.
At the shelter, the families receive an unexpected greeting. When they walk in the door, staff and volunteers line up and clap, “Bienvenidos! Bienvenidos! Welcome!” After a brief intake, a volunteer escorts each family through the reception process. They get a meal, clothing and supplies, a long-awaited shower, a rest and a legal briefing, before returning to the bus station — where Sister Sherry meets them again. Their journey continues with a backpack containing toiletries and snacks, a yellow manila envelope with immigration documents and a date to appear in court.
Yet, their future remains uncertain. This summer, as immigration courts proved dysfunctional, the Obama administration tried to quell the political blowback by issuing new procedures aimed at fast-track deportations, its so-called “last-in, first-out” approach.
As ordered by the Department of Justice, families are now sent directly to new detention centers. Mothers and unaccompanied children are pressured — some say coerced — to sign voluntary departure agreements, often without access to legal counseling. The new procedures have been widely criticized by civil and human rights advocates, overwhelmed immigration judges and attorneys, who insist that all immigrants have the right to humane treatment and due process.
On Sept. 3, 41 faith leaders criticized the policy of placing children in detention in a letter to President Obama. They insisted all children have legal representation — as required under a 2008 anti-trafficking law — and the right to reunite with families.
“Politics has trumped the children,” Jim Wallis of Sojourner lamented, “and we are here to say as people of faith that is not acceptable.”
Now that the president has deferred action on long-overdue reforms until at least November, the burdens placed on the faith community, nonprofits and local government will remain indefinitely. For these groups, the crisis endures.
Meanwhile, the city of McAllen can be proud of its response. “We are doing the right thing,” Teclo Garcia of the city manager’s office said, “and we will continue doing it.”
With migrants still crossing the border, and immigration reform still going nowhere, continue they must.
(Linda Garrett is a senior policy analyst on El Salvador for the Center for Democracy in the Americas.)
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