Unprecedented numbers of children detained crossing the border

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Jul 8, 2014
Immigrants from Central America arrive at the local refugee center in McAllen. One is carrying travel information to where various relatives live in the United States. Photo: Trish Motheral

Immigrants from Central America arrive at the local refugee center in McAllen. One is carrying travel information to where various relatives live in the United States. Photo: Trish Motheral

[Episcopal News Service] Sixteen boys aged 14 to 17 gathered July 6 around a map of the Americas, each writing his first name on a sticky note and placing it first next to his home country, with the majority landing on Guatemala, followed by Honduras.

Then, the Rev. Susan Copley asked the teenagers to move the sticky notes to the next place they are going. Some said they would be staying with relatives in New York; others were headed to Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Maryland and California.

One month earlier, on June 5, Copley and volunteers from her church began visiting the unaccompanied minors at Abbott House, a regional community-based human services agency headquartered in Irvington, New York, a small, Hudson River Valley town just south of Tarrytown, where Copley is the rector of Christ Church and San Marcos Mission.

In addition to making weekly visits, where they play games with the boys and conduct an abbreviated Eucharist in Spanish, church members pray for the children and mobilize to support them. In one afternoon, its English- and Spanish-speaking congregations raised $1,000 to buy shoes for the children, some of whom arrived at Abbott House without any footwear.

Not only is it about providing the children with “positive exposure to people who care about them,” by inviting different members of the Christ Church and San Marcos community, it helps to counterbalance some of the negativity that accompanies their stories, said Copley.

Since early June, the record numbers of unaccompanied minors crossing the southwestern border – primarily from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – and the associated humanitarian crisis have been in the news, with politicians shifting blame, and protestors making headlines.

With the exception of unaccompanied minors from Mexico and Canada, who can be returned home immediately under a 2008 U.S. immigration law, unaccompanied minors must be taken into U.S. custody and given a deportation hearing, which can take years. An unaccompanied minor is defined as a person under the age of 18 who is separated from both parents and is not under the care of a guardian or other adult.

To accommodate the influx of migrant children, the government has set up makeshift shelters at military bases and has contracted with transitional homes, like Abbott House, where children can be cared for before being released to a relative, with whom they’ll stay until they can get an immigration hearing.

Abbott House provides unaccompanied minors with room and board, case management, individual counseling, medical and educational services, recreation and leisure activities, acculturation, legal services, transportation and access to religious services, before they are placed with relatives or in foster care, according to a June 4 press release.

Churches respond on the border
In a July 3 appeal to the Diocese of West Texas, Bishop Gary Lillibridge described the humanitarian needs in his diocese, particularly in the border towns of McAllen and Laredo.

St. John’s Episcopal Church in McAllen, with assistance from Episcopal Relief & Development, has joined a larger effort, the McAllen Faith Community for Disaster Recovery, a group of churches and government agencies that have come together to respond to the crisis, in assisting with meals and laundry for individuals and families sheltering inside and in tents around Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

St. John’s began preparing backpacks of hygienic items, with travel-size soaps, shampoos, and conditioners, a comb, a toothbrush, and other items, as well as packs of nutritional snacks, such as peanut butter crackers and cereal bars.

“We will hold ‘packing parties’ at the church every Sunday and Wednesday and put together as many packs as we can, and we will assemble these packs as long as they are needed,” said the Rev. Nancy Springer, assistant rector of St. John’s.

Similar efforts are taking place in Laredo, where parishioners at Christ Church are assembling backpacks, also containing hygienic and nutritional items, to deliver to the children and families flowing into their city.

And in Arizona, where women and children were reportedly dropped off at bus stations in Tucson and Phoenix, the church also has joined interfaith efforts to respond.

The crisis in Central America’s Northern Triangle, however, is not just about children but about adults and families as well. In recent weeks, tens of thousands of women with children and other family units fleeing the pervasive violence of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have arrived in Texas and Arizona, as a recent Episcopal Public Policy Network immigration advocacy update explains.

“When women and children flee their homes in these numbers it signals a humanitarian crisis, not a security threat,” said Katie Conway, the Episcopal Church’s immigration and refugee policy analyst. “Episcopalians across the country have responded to this crisis with compassion and loving service and we are calling upon the president and Congress to do the same. We believe that the United States is capable of meeting this challenge without compromising our values or our safety, and without turning our backs on vulnerable mothers and children seeking peace and protection.”

(On June 25, Conway, and Alexander Baumgarten, director of the Episcopal Church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations, submitted testimony to Congress concerning the crisis on behalf of the church.

In March, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed its concern for the increasing number of children crossing the border “propelled by violence, insecurity and abuse in their communities and at home,” and called on government agencies “to take action to keep children safe from human rights abuses, violence and crime, and to ensure their access to asylum and other forms of international protection.”

UNHCR based its concern and its call to action on a 120-page report “Children on the Run,” based on interviews with more than 400 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico held in federal custody. The report indicates that many of the children believed they were unsafe in their own countries and would be picked up by authorities who would evaluate their need for international protection along the way.

The report also stated that many of the young people interviewed were part of “mixed migration” movements, which include both individuals in need of international protection and migrants looking for work.

“It’s critical to note that the vast majority of these children may actually be asylum seekers,” said Deb Stein, director of Episcopal Migration Ministries. “To talk about deporting them back to the very dire circumstances from which they fled for safety without the opportunity to seek protection is to ignore their rights under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, to which the U.S. is a signatory. This gets lost in the heated rhetoric of deporting them simply because they entered the country illegally, when in fact it is not illegal to request asylum.”

Beginning in October 2011, the U.S. Government began noticing a dramatic rise in the number of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which by fiscal year 2013 had gone from 4,059 to 21,573. As of June 15, 2014, the number had reached 51,279 for this fiscal year. Since 2009, UNHCR has been recording an increase in asylum claims from the same three countries.

Episcopal Migration Ministries, The Episcopal Church’s Justice and Advocacy Ministries, and Episcopal Relief & Development are working together to connect Episcopalians interested in creating and/or sharing information, resources, and mutual support for immigration advocacy and ministry.

— Lynette Wilson is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service. Laura Shaver, communications officer for the Diocese of West Texas, contributed reporting.


Comments (11)

  1. Ann Fontaine says:

    Thanks for this reporting Lynette

    1. Brian Vaughan says:

      Yes, Thanks! Great to hear how faith communities are responding to the needs of children in what is a humanitarian crisis. Gets through the political maze!

  2. James S. Trager says:

    A mess created by policy statements from the government that the U.S. will not deport underage illegal immigrants. What was probably intended as rhetoric by the While House was interpreted in central American countries as a free pass to send teenage children to the U.S. And had these children tried to stay in Mexico they would have been deported by a Mexican government that routinely deports central Americans who cross their southern border illegally. Finally, responsibility for securing our borders rests with our government, which has dismally failed to do so, thus also dooming any attempts at immigration reform or compromise during the current administration.

  3. Catherine Turner says:

    Okay, Nick. Sure. Even the President has said most of them will be sent back. In the meantime, we in the church need to exercise a little practical-minded compassion to see that these children and young people have their basic needs met while they are here. Seems we had a Leader somewhere back in history who mentioned doing this for “the least of these . . . .”

    1. Catherine Turner says:

      Amen, Nick.

    2. Kathy Adams says:

      But Nick, they are escaping horrors that we have no conception of. Why can’t we offer them protection and peace (as the Bishop said) as long as they need it? Can we really justify – laws or not – sending children back into a life-threatening and wholly horrible environment??

  4. Manuel "Manny" Vazquez says:

    My sister in Christ, I came to the USA as a refugee from Cuba at age 23, with only the clothes in my back and absolutely penniless. My former wife was 9 months pregnant and my first son was born 40 hours after we came to the country.
    We worked our way up and raised six children. Recently, my first-born made a hateful remark about immigrants that only come to this country to join the welfare ranks. I HAD TO REMIND HIM HE IS A WELFARE CHILD, since when he was born, the hospital bill was paid for by the charity of the people of the United States. When we first arrived I had to beg for diapers at Gesu Church in Miami. I worked in a car wash ten hours a day, seven days a week for $25/wk. under a blazing Sun that caused blisters over my body and I was paidmy $25/wk check out of the tips, so I was a white slave. We had to go to a line where used clothes were passed out. The man in front me was a medical doctor, the one behind was another professional. The red necks would honk their horns while we were at the line and said derogatory remarks, telling us to go find a job instead of begging for clothes.
    We worked our way up rather quickly and joined the mainstream of society.
    Did you ever hear about the “collective unconscious”? Your remark may very well be hiding your prejudices.
    Manny Vazquez
    St. James the Apostle Episcopal Church, Conroe, TX

    1. Catherine Turner says:

      Peace be with you, Manny. You are an adult who came as a refugee with your wife. This country needs good people like you. Your wife needed immediate care for childbirth and your young family needed further assistance to help you get on your feet. I’m glad you got it.

      My concern is for the welfare of the children & under-18 young people who are here without an adult. Some people want them taken back across the Mexican border and dumped, immediately. Dumping children across the border in the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts with a sandwich and a bottle of water would be a death sentence, especially so because many do not even come from Mexico. These children need safety, basic necessities and the warmth of human kindness until they can be returned to a parent or other family member.

      I can’t speak for other people’s motives, but mine is for the safety and welfare of this continuing surge of children here alone.

  5. Wayne Kempton says:

    In 2007 the Episcopal Diocese of New York passed this resolution at its annual convention: [8] Resolved, That the Episcopal Diocese of New York , acknowledge that the large-scale immigration of workers and their families to the United States is a complex historical, global and economic phenomenon that has many causes and does not lend itself to simplistic or purely reactive public policy solutions.
    That we stand together in our faith that everyone, regardless of national origin, has basic common rights, including but not limited to: 1) livelihood; 2) family unity; and 3) physical and emotional safety. We witness the violation of these rights under current immigration policy, particularly in the separation of children from their parents due to unjust deportations, and in the exploitation of immigrant workers. We are deeply grieved by the violence done to families through immigration raids. We cannot in good conscience ignore such suffering and injustice.
    2007 Pledge of Support for the New Sanctuary Movement
    [9] Resolved, That we in the Episcopal Diocese of New York, commit ourselves to:
    1. Support the New Sanctuary Movement and;
    2. Promote the New Sanctuary Movement within our Denomination, congregations and among our other allies.

    I would suggest that Episcopal Church congregations take in these children and refuse to turn them over to deportation authorities.

  6. Jerry Lyle says:

    During WWII, children were brought into this country and were “fostered” around the country. What is happening now, is no different than before, except people are viewing these children only as illegals, trespassers, etc., instead of the children that they are. Our response ought to be in love and compassion, even if they will be sent back home. Why would our response be anything other than what it is???

  7. Isabel Addison says:

    The plight of these children touches my heart. I believe this is a crisis of international proportions and the churches are in a position to help. The faith community crosses all borders and I believe could appeal to other countries , especially in South America to assist in giving new safe homes to these children. Surely the United States is not the only safe and charitable country in the world. I do believe we should help these children but we are having a hard time taking care of our own citizens in need. Does anyone think there is some other helpers out there that would share in this effort to help them? Could the churches assist to find other safe havens for them?

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