By Tammy Alexander
This article first appeared in PeaceSigns, the magazine of the Peace and Justice Support Network.
For a list of resources related to Central American migration to the United States, visit MCC Washington’s resource page. If you are interested in a discussion guide to help think through immigration and its connections to the Bible, check out Mennonite Church USA’s new, free curriculum, Radical Hospitality: Responding to the Issue of Immigration.
“Last night 71 mothers and small children from Central America were dropped off by Border Patrol with nothing at our Tucson Greyhound bus station… there is so much work to do…”
—Tina Schlabach, Community Minister, Mennonite Church USA, May 27, 2014
This was the untenable situation last month in Tucson, Arizona. Overwhelmed by the recent flood of immigrants coming across the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, U.S. immigration officials have been transporting busloads and plane flights of immigrants, not only to Arizona, but to states as far north as Minnesota and New Hampshire.
Adults are typically placed in detention until they can be deported. Those traveling with children are processed and released (if parents are together, the father is typically detained while the mother is released) with a requirement to report to immigration officials within 15 days. Most detention centers have stopped detaining families due to allegations of human rights violations. The only family facility, in Pennsylvania, is full.
Children traveling alone – termed “unaccompanied minors” – are supposed to be transferred to shelters within 72 hours and held there until they can either be reunited with family members in the U.S. or placed into foster care. However, many have extended stays in Border Patrol custody where they are placed in cold rooms without blankets and often receive little food or water. Many are placed in shackles at some point during their stay.
In recent years, there has been a huge increase in immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Many are coming to the U.S. to reunite with family or to escape extreme poverty. According to a recent study,more than half are fleeing violence. Honduras has had the highest homicide rate in the world for the past four years, with an estimated 40 percent of the country controlled by transnational drug cartels and street gangs.
Some have called for a public education campaign in Central American countries to stress that there is no “amnesty” for children or families arriving in the U.S. today and that parents should not encourage their children to make the dangerous journey north. Such campaigns may have some benefit, in that there are many unscrupulous “coyotes” or, people-smugglers, taking money from families with the promise that they can stay in the U.S.
But many parents feel they have few choices: their children will either join a gang and be killed, or refuse to join a gang and be killed. As one writer recently put it,“Central America today is every child’s nightmare. The monsters aren’t in their closets or under their beds; they’re on every street corner”(referring to the drug cartels and street gangs). As a result, the number of unaccompanied minors coming to the U.S. has doubled in each of the last threeyears and is expected to exceed 60,000 this year.
It is important that we urge Congress to pass an immigration reform bill, and to address the root causes of migration. These root causes include the violence and extortion by local gangs that operate in almost every neighborhood in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. They also include our own U.S. trade policies, foreign military assistance, and the failed “War on Drugs.”
Additionally, we should pray for, support and, when possible, join the volunteers, lawyers, and relief workers assisting migrant families and children in detention centers, shelters, bus stations, and foster homes. They are doing the work Jesus called us to do, to show hospitality to the stranger and to care for the most vulnerable among us.
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:3-5)