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Catholics on the Front Lines at the Southern Border

Guatemalan child being deported


Brian Fraga - published on 06/25/14

Trying to address food, shelter, clothes and medical care needs, but also spiritual and psychological support after harrowing journey.

Hundreds of children and teenagers from Central America – unaccompanied by any adults – cross the Rio Grande in south Texas almost every day to surrender themselves to the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents.

"They’re saying, ‘Save me.’ These aren’t people on the run, trying to escape or sneak across the border in the darkness of night," said Kim Burgo, senior director of disaster response operations for Catholic Charities USA.

Burgo said CCUSA is partnering with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other Catholic agencies to provide temporary shelters and social services to the thousands of unaccompanied young migrants who have been crossing the border in recent months. Since October 2013, more than 48,000 child migrants have been caught at the border. The government expects 90,000 minors to cross the border this year and another 140,000 in 2015.

"This really is a humanitarian crisis," Burgo told Aleteia. "They are coming in droves because of the violence, the drug wars, the gangs, the extreme poverty. They are coming in droves to save their families."

The overwhelming majority of the young migrants are from Central America’s "Northern Triangle" – Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The minors tell Border Patrol agents they left their home countries because of the extreme violence perpetuated by drug cartels and gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street. Immigration advocates say the gangs forcibly recruit the boys, and pressure the girls for sex, on the threat of death or violence to their families.

"We hear stories of gangs trying to recruit a neighbor who didn’t want to join, so they killed him," said Melissa M. Lopez, the executive director of Diocesan Migrant Refugee Services in El Paso, Tex.

A United States Conference of Catholic Bishops delegation visited Mexico and Central America last year and said it found violence to be the "overriding factor" to explain the mass youth migration.

"We would say the difference-maker here is the increase in violence over the last three to five years, driven by the gangs and narco-traffickers in the region who prey upon young kids in their homes, on the streets, in their schools. It’s hard to escape them. They are so pervasive in those communities," said Kevin Appleby, the director of the USCCB’s Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs.

A combination of other factors, which Appleby described as a "perfect storm," is also contributing to the youth migration, according to the USCCB analysis.

Families are sending their children north for economic and educational opportunities because of the extreme poverty and government corruption in Central America. Family reunification is another reason since many of the young children and teens have at least one parent and other relatives already living in the United States. The violence and lack of opportunities have resulted in the breakdown of poor families.

"The research shows that being victims of violence and victim of corruption increases your intent to migrate," said Mary Small, the assistant director for policy at Jesuit Refugee Services.

"If your brother has been murdered, and you go to the police, rather than help you, they demand a bribe. You quickly learn the government is not willing to help you," Small told Aleteia.

Critics of President Barack Obama’s immigration policies say the violence and corruption in Central America are simplistic answers to explain why the numbers of unaccompanied minors have dramatically spiked in the last two years.

"The statistics tell us something different. Logic tells us something different," said Marguerite Telford, the communications director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank that calls for a stricter immigration policy.

Telford told Aleteia that the perception in Central America is that the unaccompanied minors are welcome in the United States, and that they will be allowed to stay even if they arrive without legal documents. She noted the numbers have skyrocketed since Fiscal Year 2012, when the Obama administration issued its Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a directive that federal authorities show prosecutorial discretion for individuals who migrated to the United States as children without legal permission.

Prior to 2012, an average of 20,000 migrants – 6,000 of them children – from countries other than Mexico were apprehended by Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Valley. In 2012, that number spiked to 50,101 apprehensions, and almost doubled to 97,783 apprehensions last year. In Fiscal 2014, authorities predict there will be more than 126,374 apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley.

Administration officials say that DACA does not apply to the minors who are now crossing the border, but Telford said the specific policy details are not reaching people in Central America.

"They’re coming here because they’re seeing people being allowed to stay, receiving benefits and going to public schools," said Telford, who describes herself as a practicing Catholic who disagrees with bishops who say the current "humanitarian crisis" is an argument for comprehensive immigration reform (which some critics see as amnesty).

"They’re basically saying that if you don’t allow amnesty and allow every poor person to come into this country, then you’re not a good Catholic," Telford said. "I find it outrageous that the Church is using donations to lobby on this political issue. People in the pews are not for amnesty. All the money they’ve spent have not budged the percentage of Catholics who support amnesty."

The polarized immigration debate is making it difficult for Catholic Charities USA to collect donations to meet the young migrants’ needs.

"If a hurricane were to hit, money would be pouring in for Catholic Charities’ operations," Burgo said. "But because this is not a natural disaster, and people can be so polarized over the issue of migration, we’re not seeing the donations coming in."

Despite the political debate, officials from several Catholic social relief agencies say the minors crossing the border have immediate humanitarian needs such as food, shelter, clothes, and medical care, not to mention intense spiritual and psychological support after the harrowing journey north through Mexico. Some children who ride the trains north are killed or maimed if they fall or are pushed off the trains. Many migrant children are also at the mercy of human smugglers, commonly known as "coyotes," who are increasingly affiliated with the cartels. The young girls are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse and rape during the trek.

"Imagine walking with all the way from Central America by yourself, or with a smuggler you don’t know, with the violence and rape you may be subject to," Appleby said. "It’s a desperate situation. They wouldn’t be coming if it wasn’t worse where they live."

"The scars of the journey definitely don’t go away. As we develop a rapport with them, we hear about the difficulties, about the people they saw get hurt along the way, perhaps friends who didn’t finish the journey," said Lopez, whose agency provides immigration legal services in West Texas and Southern New Mexico.

However, the Obama administration’s policies, and the bishops’ public statements on immigration, aggravate the humanitarian crisis, Telford said.

"I don’t understand why they don’t see the trickle effect of telling people, ‘Come up, we welcome you,’" Telford said. "People die because you say that. Kids are orphaned because you say that."

Still, several Catholic Charities agencies across the country are helping to provide legal representation for the young migrants, who, after they are processed by Customs and Border Protection and placed with relatives or caretakers, undergo deportation proceedings in the immigration courts. In some cases, the minors may have legitimate grounds for asylum, but their fate depends on the individual judges.

Burgo said Catholic Charities USA is partnering with FEMA to identify temporary shelters to house the migrants, who are too numerous for the Border Patrol stations to accommodate. By law, the Border Patrol is required to process undocumented migrants within 72 hours before handing them over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. But the Border Patrol stations and ORR shelters have been overwhelmed, resulting in the migrants staying several days, if not weeks, in facilities without food, beds, or bathrooms.

"There have been horrific stories of kids being denied medical care in these Customs and Border Protection stations. There are no real standards in those stations that govern how the migrants are to be treated," said Small, of Jesuit Refugee Services.

Many children have been relocated to military bases or large warehouse-type facilities. FEMA, with the assistance of Catholic Charities USA, has been looking for new shelter facilities, often in Catholic settings.

"Catholic dioceses across the country have empty convents. They might have an empty school, an empty retreat center, or another empty building that could be used as a facility," said Burgo, who recently visited one such temporary Catholic Charities shelter at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, which is located on the Rio Grande. Sacred Heart Church is located two blocks from a bus station where young migrants, including women with children, are dropped off by Border Patrol.

"Many people try to take advantage of them at the bus shelter. The Sacred Heart center offers a respite, a place of care and compassion," Burgo said. "These women and children will come to the center, receive a hot meal, a hot shower, and opportunities for a full medical exam. Some of the children are coming with very little clothing, so we give them some clothes for them to regain a sense of their dignity."

The Sacred Heart shelter helps an average of 200 migrants a day, and has served more than 3,000 people. The volunteers also help the migrants obtain bus tickets to reunite with relatives or caretakers who will take them in while their deportation cases are pending in the courts.

"People have a right to migrate, to find a place that is safe and offers security for their families," Burgo said. "They also have the right not to migrate. Their countries of origin are their homes, but if they do not feel comfortable in their homes, they are going to migrate."

Richard Jones, Catholic Relief Services’ deputy regional director for Global Solidarity and Justice in Latin America and the Caribbean, told Aleteia that people have as much a right to stay in their homes as they do to migrate.

"We have to foster opportunities for people at home, for education, to create jobs, and to establish safety. The United States will spend over $2 billion just to process the minors. It would be good to invest that money into development so people wouldn’t have to migrate," said Jones, who has spent the past 24 years in El Salvador. He said the violence in the region has reached epidemic proportions in recent years.

"More than 80 percent of cocaine headed to the United States through Mexico now comes through Central America. The cartels are fighting for who controls the routes. It’s not so much government corruption per se as it is the gangs wanting to control territory, and that is creating this forced displacement of peoples," Jones said.

Despite the violence back home and the trauma they experience while traveling north, the unaccompanied young migrants still have an inner joy and hope for a better life, Lopez said.

"They’re incredibly resilient. It’s amazing to see, despite everything they’ve gone through, they’re still enthusiastic to learn everything we have to tell them about our immigration system," Lopez said. "I think it really gives us a very strong sense of wanting to help them. We see the kind of hope they have."

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