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.
America was a free country. There, freedom is everything. Growing up, that was the picture I had. America was the country where you’re free to do whatever you want.
It all changed when I turned 16. I woke up excited, ready to go to the DMV and get my driver’s license like all my friends were doing -- and then my parents told me that I was here illegally. I was undocumented. Reality sunk in. America was not a free country for me.
Last week would have been the 71st birthday of my mother who was tragically killed abroad 15 years ago. Because of my undocumented status, I still have not been able to visit her grave site. This experience is all too common in the undocumented community. This is one of the many reasons why, despite the fact that I am an American by default, I struggle with my connection with this country and with the very concept of citizenship.
My mother brought me here legally when I was 9 in 1985 after fleeing our home country of Senegal following a painful estate dispute once my biological father passed away. She found work as a diplomat at the United Nations, and I came here as her dependent. I then attended high school at Georgetown Preparatory School in Washington, D.C., and thus switched to a student visa. I continued my education in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania for two years but had to leave because I couldn’t afford the tuition. My mother was in Zimbabwe then and I couldn’t afford going to join her. Unfortunately, neither my diplomatic visa nor my student visa statuses count towards getting a Green card. When I left school, my status lapsed, and I became undocumented. Three years later, my mother was killed — a victim of domestic violence. With no “home country” to go back to and no way to adjust my status, I had to adjust myself to a life in the shadows.
"Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” —Mark 9:37, NRSV
I was raised in a family with strong beliefs in our faith. It is because of my faith that I continue to strive for a better future and do good to others. This is why I’m so passionate for my advocacy in education, regardless of gender, race, and immigration status.
When I lived in Mexico, I thought about America every day. To me, America was a country of freedom, a country where every dream could come true. My grandparents waited 12 years to get their visas. The wait was agonizing; every year we faced poverty and struggle in Zacatecas. With every year, my dreams of a better life in America got farther and farther away. The feeling of hopelessness was overwhelming and pushed me to attempt suicide.
In that moment, I turned to faith. My family came to my aid and helped me through. Knowing how desperate for opportunity I had become, my parents reached out to my aunt in the United States. Together, they saved enough money to pay for my visa application. I finally had a chance at a life outside of our small family farm.
It was the summer of 2009 when I finally arrived in America. I was 16.
My sons, Issac and Felipe are my pride and joy. My wife and I go to church with them every Sunday, and we spend our free time at the movies or enjoying a walk through downtown Chicago. We also take road trips, one of which brought us to New York City where we visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
I brought them there because I wanted them to see
the most important American monument in person. The Statue of Liberty is the icon of freedom and a historic welcoming signal to immigrants.
Chicago is my home. It's been that way for the past 17 years. I'm a maintenance worker at a residential building and a member of SEIU Local 1. I'm kind of living the American dream. I say "kind-of" because my undocumented status has prevented me from pursuing better job opportunities. I had the chance to become an assistant engineer at my building but declined the offer because I'm scared of losing the job if my bosses discover that I'm undocumented.
Earlier this week Jose Antonio Vargas, joined by ten other undocumented immigrants, announced the 1 of 11 Million campaign in Washington to urge the delay of deportations for the millions of documented immigrants in the United States. Vargas is founder of Define American, a national organization that uses stories to shift the narrative on immigration in America, and hopes to influence the executive action debate.
The campaign plans to tell the personal stories of 11 people who come from diverse backgrounds and whose experiences reflect many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country. By providing a snapshot of our complex, outdated, and unpredictable system, advocates hope that changes announced by Obama will address the needs of communities nationwide.
St. Paul once reminded the argumentative folks in the ancient Corinthian congregation that they were as people gazing dimly into a mirror (1 Corinthians 13:12), hardly able to make out their faces staring back at them. His point was simply that the things we think we “see” really well in this life we actually see and understand rather poorly. And misinterpreted reality is the result.
The past several years have seen the release of two excellent films aimed at helping the Christian community understand immigration and the need for immigration reform. Gospel without Borders, produced by EthicsDaily.com, and the just-released The Stranger film by the Evangelical Immigration Table, are two great presentations Christian groups and others should view and discuss.
LUCHA Ministries, the faith-based group that I work with in Fredericksburg, Va., recently screened The Stranger film for about 50 people in our community. Like Gospel without Borders, this film features vignettes of families and individuals crushed by our nation’s merciless and nonsensical immigration system. Both also interview religious and secular advocates who affirm the need to fix the system in a way that respects human life and dignity, guarantees secure borders, and creates a pathway to citizenship.
I watch these films and listen to their appeals and wonder why we can’t get immigration reform done. It all seems so obvious. Perhaps Paul gives us some insight here. Perhaps it’s because, like all things including immigration reform, what we think we see has little to do with reality.
American Jesuits are pushing members of Congress who were educated at the Catholic order’s schools to pass aid for thousands of refugee children who have surged across the border in Texas in recent months, calling proposals to swiftly deport them “inhumane and an insult to American values.”
“I ask you, as a leader, a parent, and a Catholic, to uphold an American tradition of which we are all proud,” the Rev. Thomas Smolich, head of the U.S. Jesuit conference, wrote to House Speaker John Boehner and 42 other House members who graduated from Jesuit high schools and colleges.
“We must welcome the refugee, the victim of trafficking, the child who has been abused or abandoned,” Smolich wrote in the July 29 letter. “Let us follow in the footsteps of Jesus when he said, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’”
Since last fall, more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have flooded across the U.S.-Mexico border, mainly in south Texas, most of them from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
The migrants are often driven out by endemic violence in their home countries and drawn to the U.S. by prospects of better economic opportunities or the chance to reunite with their families.
But the influx has created a humanitarian crisis that has become a political wedge issue.
1. Visualization: Casualities in the Israel-Palestine Conflict
Washington Post is keeping a regularly updated tally of the deaths in the current conflict. The stunning visualization paints a grim picture.
2. I Need Feminism Because…
A Tumblr using the hashtag #WomenAgainstFeminism made the Internet rounds last week. Sojourners' writer Catherine Woodiwiss offers her take: "In a perfect world, women can choose to be whomever they want. But there is not yet a country on earth in which that is actually true. That is why we need feminism."
3. Religious Conservatives Embrace Pollution Fight
From The New York Times:"This week’s hearings on the new E.P.A. rule gave [conservatives] an opportunity to make their argument that climate change hurts the world’s poor through natural disasters, droughts and rising sea levels, and that it is part of their faith to protect the planet."
4. Wife Beating Gets a Standing Ovation in Baltimore
"… the sheer gall it takes to celebrate fans’ adoration of a man who beat his fiancee and mostly got away with it indicates the larger problem: The NFL is too big to fail."
5. The New Face of Hunger
One-sixth of Americans don't have enough food to eat. This powerful photo essay chronicles the stories in three parts of the country. Click through the gallery for the moving images.
6. New Baby Doll Is Anatomically Correct, And Moms Are Freaking Out
"An outraged mom recently shared a photo of an anatomically correct baby doll on Facebook. I don't get it. When did it become taboo to talk about body parts with our kids?"
7. WATCH: What Would Happen if People in Poverty Received Tabloid Treatment?
A new campaign from a Canada-based service organization puts real people struggling with poverty in the place of the Kim Kardashians of the gossip-mag world. Check out the video and magazine mock-ups.
8. What's the Story of Your First Days in America?
From visiting McDonald's to questioning Southern hospitality, the fascinating series First Days documents immigrants' transition into the U.S.
9. Are You Too Proud of Your 'Natural' Lifestyle?
"While I certainly sympathize with concerns over chemicals and additives in our food, with the degradation of the environment, with the overprescribing of antibiotics and the soaring cesarean section rates, I’m keenly aware that many of the advances now freely scorned by those proudly adhering to ‘natural’ lifestyles are the very thing that make a flourishing, healthy life possible for so many people."
10. A Few Times Vandalism Did the World Some Good
While we're totally not advocating vandalism … the " … or Love the Neighbor as Thyself" response was pretty great. See all of these heroes-of-the-questionably-legal sort at the link.
More than 100 faith leaders and immigration activists were arrested today during an act of civil disobedience outside of the White House. The activists were calling on President Barack Obama to take executive action to immediately stop deportations and to deal with the crisis of unaccompanied minors at the border.
"We have come to Washington, D.C., to tell to President Obama and Congress that kicking out suffering immigrant families and unaccompanied children is not the answer,” Bishop Minerva Carcaño, the United Methodist Bishop in Los Angeles, said. “Immediately stopping the deportations and extending due process to children escaping the violence of drug cartels, gangs and poverty is the just way to respond."
Other participants in the protest saw the struggle for immigration reform as part of a larger struggle for justice.
"As someone who has benefited from the courage and civil disobedience of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, I cannot stand idly by as I see unjust immigration laws damage our communities and our nation,” Rev. John L. McCullough, President and CEO of Church World Service, said. “It is a moral imperative that we take action now, particularly after the House Republican leadership has miserably failed to enact immigration reform that the majority of Americans roundly support."
Most Americans say the waves of children crossing into the United States from Central America are refugees fleeing danger at home. And they say the United States should support these children while reviewing their cases, not deport them immediately.
Democrats (80 percent), independents (69 percent), and Republicans (57 percent) favor offering support to unaccompanied children while a process to review their cases gets underway.
Most major religious groups say the same, including white evangelical Protestants (56 percent), white mainline Protestants (67 percent), minority Protestants (74 percent), Catholics (75 percent), and the religiously unaffiliated (75 percent).
(The survey sample of 1,026 adults was not large enough to capture the views of smaller religious groups, such as Jews, Muslims, or Mormons).
“It makes a difference that we are talking about children facing violence and harm,” said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI. “The value of keeping families together cuts across all party lines.”
What might happen if we were to look at the two goods of protection and hospitality not as competing goods in a world of scarcity, but as complimentary goods in a world of abundance? I think we might come up with new solutions that no one has yet imagined.
In June, reporters for The Washington Post described deplorable detention conditions of the border patrol station in McAllen, Texas.
“The sick are separated by flimsy strips of yellow police tape from the crying babies and expectant mothers. They subsist on bologna sandwiches and tacos, with portable toilets and no showers, and their wait can last for days," they wrote.
Soon after, President Obama declared a “humanitarian crisis” at the Mexico-U.S. border, citing a massive increase of undocumented children from Central America crossing the border. Without enough resources to house and care for the tens of thousands of children while they wait for an immigration hearing, the border patrol has been overwhelmed.
When Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson visited the station in May, he asked one young girl, “Where’s your mother?”
“I don’t have a mother,” she replied tearfully.