The coyote looked over the motley huddle of migrants assembled on the banks of the Rio Grande. It was nighttime, and the group was about to attempt a crossing on flimsy rafts.
“If any of you are Christians,” he announced, “now’s the time to pray.”
Perhaps the comment was intended as sardonic, but to Mariela, an evangelical Christian among the group, it was an invitation. A 29-year-old Honduran, the survivor of a brutal rape at the hands of a drug trafficker and years of abuse by a vicious husband, Mariela had made the harrowing journey northward with her two sons, ages 4 and 7. She asked the group to join hands in a prayer circle. As she prayed, she looked up and noticed a gorgeous moon overhead. A week later, on the other side of the border, exhausted, traumatized, but alive, Mariela told me about the moon. When she saw it, she knew that God was protecting her and her boys.
Last month, I heard dozens of stories of women like Mariela, stories of unspeakable violence and perilous escape. I was volunteering with a pro bono legal team that assists women who have fled Central America and are requesting asylum in the United States. The women — all of them mothers with children — are in a family detention facility in south Texas. They are fleeing conditions of violence that have pushed homicide rates in Central America to the highest in the world. Gangs and drug traffickers have turned neighborhoods into war zones. Homes are another theater of brutality: Violence against women is rampant and goes unpunished by complacent authorities. But what I also learned is that many of the refugee mothers are devout evangelicals. Donald Trump’s proposal to vet immigrants based on religion and values has animated many supporters, including the Christian right. But in Trump’s America, on which side of the wall do these refugee mothers belong?
The prevalence of evangelicals such as Mariela among Central American refugees reflects the explosion of evangelical Protestantism in historically Catholic Latin America in recent decades. The three countries currently hemorrhaging refugees — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — are also home to the highest proportions of Protestants in the region. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, 41 percent of Hondurans, 41 percent of Guatemalans, and 36 percent of Salvadorans identify as Protestant. Theirs is not a casual faith. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of Protestants in these countries say religion is “very important in their lives,” that they pray daily and attend church weekly. Most identify as evangelicals or Pentecostals. In contrast, about a quarter of the population of the United States identifies as evangelical Protestant.
It is not surprising, then, that many of the Central Americans at the detention center were devout evangelicals. When I asked a Guatemalan mother who had walked the entire length of Mexico with her 9-year-old daughter how she had known where to go, she smiled at my naiveté. God had guided her, she told me. A Honduran mother who witnessed two men shot to death while shopping with her toddler could express only gratitude that God had blinded the perpetrators to their presence in the store (witnessing gang crimes is frequently a death sentence). After the rape, Mariela recounted, she had found God, and her evangelical brothers and sisters had helped her overcome depression. Recently, however, the drug trafficker had resurfaced and threatened to kill her. And so Mariela found herself on the banks of the river, in a prayer circle with her two sons, under a brilliant moon.
Trump has suggested that immigrants be subjected to ideological tests to determine whether they “share our values.” It is a supreme irony of the refugee crisis that as deeply religious evangelicals, many Central American asylum seekers probably share values that are closer to those of Trump’s evangelical supporters than are those of Trump himself.
The anti-immigrant right has cast politics as a battle between us and them, Americans and foreigners, the righteous and the criminal. Family detention provides a glimpse of who is actually crossing the border. Rather than the “rapists and murderers” of Trump’s now infamous characterization, they are frequently the desperate victims of such crimes. They are fiercely protective mothers, devout evangelicals, as well as employees and petty entrepreneurs, neighbors, civic organizers and many other things. The tragic folly of the wall lies not in the fact that it won’t work but in the extent to which it will, keeping out people whom most Americans would probably welcome into their churches, schools, workplaces and communities.
When I asked Mariela if she was nervous about her upcoming interview with an asylum official, she shook her head. God knows I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t need to be, and I put myself in his hands. When I told her that in the United States some religious conservatives want to keep out refugees like her, she was unperturbed. I will pray for them, she said.