[Episcopal News Service] At the fourth annual Border & Migration Ministry Summit, hosted by Episcopal Migration Ministries and the Diocese of West Texas, experts talked about how the already complex situation along the U.S.-Mexico border is changing by the day, and Episcopalians involved in mission work along the border shared updates on how they’ve adapted their efforts to help migrants and refugees.
During the March 30-21 virtual conference, presenters talked about everything from the causes of migration to the shifting demographics of migrants to the labyrinth of logistics involved in accompanying migrants through their journeys. The conference also included discussions about the theology of migration and perspectives on how changing parts of the U.S. immigration enforcement system might benefit everyone involved.
The summit “was an inspiring reminder that there are dynamic migration ministries happening all around the country,” said Kendall Martin, senior communications manager for EMM. “Episcopalians are serving asylum seekers at the border, running shelters and respite centers, sponsoring asylum seekers and newly arrived Afghans, fighting the injustices of the immigrant detention system, and advocating for the protection and rights of all migrants. The summit offered an invaluable opportunity for individuals engaged in migration ministries to share their work, lift up opportunities to get involved, and open the doors for collaboration.”
Experts on migration provided the context in which Episcopal ministry work is taking place, painting a picture of a desperate array of circumstances in Latin America and elsewhere colliding with an inadequate and inhumane system in the U.S. In the 1980s through the 2000s, undocumented migrants attempting to cross the border were primarily single Mexican men seeking work, said Cris Ramón, a consultant working on immigration issues with The Episcopal Church’s Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations. Today, he said, “we have a far more complex and diverse flow.”
“What you’re seeing now is a truly hemispheric set of migration events that I think … are going to require a whole new set of immigration policies,” Ramón said.
Over the last five years, the numbers of families and unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the border have increased dramatically, and since 2014, most are not originally from Mexico. In fiscal year 2021, the U.S. Border Patrol reported more than 1.6 million “encounters” with migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border – instances in which migrants were immediately expelled at the border or apprehended and detained in the U.S. This was by far the highest annual total on record, more than four times the number of the prior fiscal year.
Of those 1.6 million encounters, 36% involved families or unaccompanied minors, 63% involved non-Mexicans and 42% involved people from the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The Northern Triangle is one of the most dangerous places on Earth, racked with gang violence, political instability and extreme poverty, all of which have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and climate change. And although their numbers remain small, migrants from Haiti and Cuba have increased sharply over the last three years as both countries face political and economic strife.
Meanwhile, there is a record number of backlogged cases in U.S. immigration courts: 1.7 million as of February 2022, with an average wait time of nearly two and a half years.
Compounding the problem is the fact the “constant shifting legal landscape all along the border,” said Troy Elder, missioner for migration ministries in the Diocese of San Diego. “Immigration law and policy has the shelf life of milk.”
That was underscored by a major legal development that unfolded during the conference. Of the myriad immigration policies mentioned during the summit, the most discussed was Title 42, an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued under the Trump administration at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Citing the pandemic as a reason to prevent people from entering the U.S., Title 42 allows the government to expel migrants back to their home countries immediately upon apprehending them. This means they do not have a chance to request asylum – a legally protected process in which people who have entered the U.S. can ask to stay because it is too dangerous in their home country. While documented people are no longer banned from entering the U.S. on public health grounds, the Biden administration has kept Title 42 in place, effectively blocking asylum-seekers.
On March 4, a federal judge ruled that the government could not continue expelling migrants without ensuring they would not be sent to a place where they would face persecution. The Biden administration has been offering exemptions for unaccompanied children since January 2021.
On March 30, during the first day of the summit, news broke that the Biden administration planned to lift the Title 42 restrictions in May; the CDC officially announced on April 1 that the restrictions will end on May 23.
In the meantime, Episcopalians have continued to assist migrants and refugees at the border despite the restrictions. Elder said two parishes in the Diocese of San Diego have been making monthly trips to Mexican border shelters to help asylum seekers with children or serious medical conditions – or those who would face a specific threat if returned to their home country – fill out exemption forms to present at the border.
Elder also showed a video of trips by members of the two parishes to border shelters, where they worked on improving the infrastructure, administered sacraments and threw Christmas parties for the children. Churches farther from the border have helped by offering English classes via Zoom for adults in the shelters; under another new program, they give adults in the shelters debit cards that they can use while waiting in Mexico, which parishioners can add funds to.
The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations offers a range of resources for Episcopalians interested in advocating for the church’s positions on migration.
In the Diocese of West Texas, border towns like Brownsville and McAllen have seen huge numbers of migrants make it into the U.S. intending to reunite with family elsewhere in the country, only to get stuck in the area with no easy way to move on. The diocese’s Immigration & Refugee Ministries program, established in 2019, assists migrants directly in many ways, including providing food and personal supplies, offering short-term housing for those released from detention with no family or sponsor to stay with and organizing volunteers who could host migrants in their homes.
Partnering with local Lutherans, the diocese has opened a day shelter in San Antonio – which is now an official United Nations-recognized border shelter – where migrants can rest, eat and get help with travel arrangements; they have purchased a van to take the migrants to the airport, bus station or overnight shelter. Volunteers also help welcome and orient migrants in Brownsville through Team Brownsville, which provides basic humanitarian aid in shelters and at the bus station and airport.
Representatives from the dioceses of Arizona and the Rio Grande also shared updates on their border ministry work, which includes working in shelters, supporting chaplaincies at detention centers and developing pastoral relationships with Border Patrol agents.
Keynote addresses closed both days of the summit. Immigrant advocate Karen Gonzalez interpreted the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi through the lens of contemporary migration, noting the similarities between the two women and many of the migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border. Their migration story ends in success, but if it had happened today, the outcome would have been very different, Gonzalez said.
“In this little Book of Ruth, we see what happens when citizens and non-citizens, males and females come together to work for the flourishing of their communities. Everyone benefits; everyone is blessed. Ruth becomes a blessing to this community, and they in turn bless her by working her into their community as well,” Gonzalez said.
“I love that story. But reading it, it’s very difficult not to ask myself, ‘What would happen if Ruth were to arrive today at the U.S.-Mexico border? Would she be allowed in? What would happen to her? What would happen to Naomi without her?”
In the closing keynote address, the Rev. Nancy Frausto, director of the Latinx Studies program and lecturer at the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, reminded participants not to act as “saviors” to the migrants. Frausto, born in Zacatecas, Mexico, immigrated to the U.S. as a child and is the first Episcopal priest to benefit from the federal DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program.
“We need to enter this ministry humbly, knowing that our primary partners are the migrant community,” Frausto said.
“Too often, we treat our migrant family as defenseless, voiceless caricatures without seeing their full humanity. We forget to see their strength, their courage. We must honor them fully in our partnership with them for the liberation of all.”
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.