Border Crisis 101: Answering Your Biggest Questions About the Immigration Crisis at the Border
By Christin Wright-Taylor
On April 7, our team of eight Wesleyan pastors and leaders landed in El Paso, Texas. Led by Dr. Rev. Jo Anne Lyon, we were there to meet the pastors and humanitarians ministering to the needs of the migrants seeking asylum at our borders, the border patrol agents processing these families, the immigration legal representatives working with the families, and of course, to hear from the asylum seekers themselves.
Our guides for this border encounter were Sami Di Pasquale, Executive Director of Ciudad Nueva Community Outreach, and Adam Estle, Director of Field and Constituencies for the National Immigration Forum and liaison for the Evangelical Immigration Table.
If you have been watching this crisis on the news and felt overwhelmed by the obvious need but stymied by questions about what is actually happening and why, let me share with you what our team learned on the front lines.
Where are these migrants coming from?
The current mass migration is coming primarily from three countries in Central America: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.
These families make their way up through Mexico, assisted by smugglers (known in Spanish as “coyotes”), until they make it to several key cities along the border of Mexico and the US. All urban areas along the border are receiving these migrants to varying degrees.
Why Are they Fleeing?
Gang Violence: many gangs are more powerful than the police or politicians in these countries. They have a sophisticated recruitment system which targets children around the ages of 9 – 12. They recruit young boys to be drug dealers and young girls to be girlfriends. Should the children and their families refuse to join the gangs, they are targeted and killed.
We met one father, L~, from Honduras, who had this experience with the gangs in his home. L~ is highly educated and had a solid income in Honduras. However, his 11-year-old daughter was approached by the gang as she walked to school. When L~ approached the gang and asked them to leave his daughter alone, the gang returned to L~’s home and riddled it full of bullets. L~ and his family were able to escape, but they have been fleeing for their lives ever since.
These gangs are not only sophisticated in their recruitment, but well-coordinated across cities and countries. In order for L~ and his family to truly be safe from this gang and other affiliated gangs, they need to escape Central America and Mexico all together.
Poverty: While Honduras and El Salvador are terrorized by gangs, the main issue in Guatemala is its searing poverty; however, gangs are becoming more of an issue here as well. It’s hard for us as North Americans to understand the depth of scarcity these families experience. This poverty goes hand in hand with the next contributing factor:
Lack of Opportunities: Even with a college degree, the economies are so destabilized that it is nearly impossible to find work. If you do find work, you often have to pay a portion of your salary as a “war tax” to the gangs who run your neighborhood.
I met A~, a young mother with a three-year-old daughter, named G~.
A~ is a college-educated elementary school teacher. Yet, she was unable to find any work in Guatemala. They were so poor; she could not even buy shoes for G~. The need was so extreme she felt she had no other choice but to leave her home and head north.
U.S. Policy: It may be hard for us as North Americans to look squarely at this last contributing factor to the immigration crisis, but it is important that we do.
Our own policies, both domestic and foreign, are imbricated in the destabilization of Central American economies and government. Our political and economic interests are so tied up in Central America that the US Ambassador is often the most, or the second most, powerful person in these countries.
North America and Central America are inextricably connected, whether we in the United States feel it day-to-day or not. For that reason, we are not able to wash our hands of the contributing factors to this current immigration crisis.
Certainly, the factors listed above have existed for decades, so many are asking why at this moment in history is this crisis bubbling up?
It’s hard to pinpoint why this immigration crisis is accelerating now, but scholars, politicians, and humanitarians have posited a few ideas, not the least of which is the current administration’s rhetoric regarding immigration.
Estle, explains that ironically, Trump’s hardline rhetoric about immigration and the border (building a wall, closing the border, zero tolerance) may be contributing to the fervor. Information about his policies has filtered down through the coyotes and social media, sending a strong message to families that now is the time to try and get into the U.S. before Trump’s policies are put into place.
What Happens at the Border?
Many migrants attempt to request asylum in an orderly fashion, at ports of entry, which is the preference of the US government. However, due to the large number of asylum seekers and a meager metering system employed by Customs and Border Protection due to lack of processing and detention space, many migrants seek asylum between the ports of entry.
Once migrants request asylum, border agents conduct a thorough assessment of to determine if these families have a credible fear of returning to their home country. From there, the families are detained or sent to a shelter to wait for your day in court.
However, this current crisis has so overwhelmed the holding facilities and shelters, that border patrol and ICE have either immediately deported families before they have the opportunity to meet with a judge, or they put ankle monitors on asylum seekers and send them into the interior of the US to stay with family members until their court date arrives.
In addition, our current administration created the Remain in Mexico plan (also called the “Migrant Protection Protocol”) which sends asylum seekers to Mexico to await their court date. The majority of these migrants are not from Mexico and do not have any contacts in Mexico.
As a result, the churches and shelters in Mexico have risen to meet the need, sheltering families sent back across the border along with those who have yet to cross to the north.
On the second day of our trip, our team crossed into Juarez to visit Casa del Migrante, a well-established mission run by the Catholic church, tending to the needs of migrants.
Traditionally, migrants stay at Casa del Migrante for a week or two before setting off on their journey again; however, this current migration crisis combined with the Remain in Mexico protocol, has brought everything to a standstill at the shelter.
Now migrants are being returned to Juarez to wait up to 2- 3 months for their court date. There are simply no more beds left to take in new migrants, says the Coordinator of the Human Rights Center, Ivonne Lopez de Lara.
“We would take more but we believe in caring for everyone with dignity, and we don’t believe we would be able to take care of more well. So, we have to turn them away.”
Can’t They Just Come in the Right Way?
The truth is, asking for asylum at the border, is legal. However, US asylum laws are very narrow and not all of those arriving will meet the legal standard for asylum, even in cases where they have a legitimate fear of harm in their country. Others might qualify if they were represented by a competent immigration attorney, but they do not have the resources to hire one and there are not enough pro bono attorneys to assist everyone.
Others, who may be fleeing poverty but not persecution, will not have a strong case for asylum. Ideally, when there are employers eager for workers in industries throughout the United States at a time of historically low unemployment, there would be an option for an individual fleeing poverty and eager to work to request an employer-sponsored visa in their country of origin, but the stark limits on employer-sponsored immigrant visas for individuals who are not classified as “highly-skilled” make it impossible in most cases for these individuals to be granted an immigrant visa to come fill a job.
What Should We Be Thinking About as we Contact Our Congressional Representatives?
During our meeting with Border Patrol Community Engagement, agent Q~ instructed us to contact our Congress representatives and ask for more personnel at the border, updated technology, and better facilities. We can also insist that our policies protect children, including limiting the use of detention, and that we encourage policies to address the root causes of migration – violence and poverty – in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
What Can We Do as a Church?
Perhaps the single biggest takeaway from our border encounter has been that the Church is the hope for this immigration crisis.
More than the government, more than policies, more than economy, the Church is the answer to the great need not only driving people from their homes, but greeting people at the borders.
Pastors and churches in Central America are faithfully ministering to their communities to help bring transformation. These churches often feel invisible to the US American church and are hungry for our partnership and our prayers.
Along the borders, it is the churches that are rising to meet the migrant families, tending to their physical needs, praying with them, loving them, and treating them with care.
Pastor Maribel, whose little church in El Paso has been accepting 40 – 60 migrants a day for the last month and a half, tells us, “You’ll see the transformation, how they change from when they get off the bus to the time they leave, because here they are treated like humans, like children of God.”
We can send money, yes, but we can also send e-mails, make phone calls, and pray. We can let them know that we see them, we hear them, and we are standing in solidarity with them as they carry forth the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth by ministering to the vulnerable families caught in this immigration crisis.
Christin Wright-Taylor is a missionary kid born and raised in the Wesleyan church. She lives in Southern Ontario with her MK husband and their two school-aged kids. She is a writer and a professor of writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Sojourners. She has also published two books with Wesleyan Publishing House. Currently, she is a PhD student at University of Waterloo studying composition and rhetoric. You can read more about Christin and her writing at www.christintaylor.com.
Photo by Ashley Jennings, used with permission from photographer and subjects.