[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.