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I Was a Stranger and You Welcomed Me: A Catholic Response to the Border Crisis


Mark Gordon - published on 07/10/14 - updated on 06/07/17

What to do about the 52,000 young people who have crossed our southern frontier?

As most Americans know by now, something extraordinary is happening on our border with Mexico. Some 52,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed illegally into the United States since the fiscal year began in October, which is twice the number apprehended in 2013 and three times the 2011 total. Most are from Central America – 11,400 from El Salvador, 12,700 from Guatemala, 15,000 from Honduras – with another 12,000 from Mexico. And that’s in addition to tens of thousands of other children accompanied by mothers and sometimes fathers.

According to immigrants themselves, they are fleeing to the United States to avoid violence inflicted by the deadly street gangs that have all but taken over El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Young people in those countries are routinely intimidated into joining the gangs, and those who resist recruitment are frequently killed or their families attacked. So they flee.

The United States isn’t the only country seeing an increase in these refugees. The relatively gang-free Central American nations of Panama, Belize, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have also been struggling with the influx. Along with Mexico, these countries have reported a 432% increase in migration from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras since 2009.

According to US law, unaccompanied minors can’t simply be turned around and immediately deported, which is what usually happens with adults. Instead, they are temporarily detained in a network of over 100 family shelters while the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notifies any relatives they may have here, or arranges for placement with foster families. They are then permitted to stay while their cases proceed through the legal system. Much the same treatment is accorded to mothers with minor children.

In this case, the Obama Administration’s hands are tied. The present system was established by the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and the Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Act of 2008, both signed by President George W. Bush.

What is so remarkable about the current crisis is that the crush of immigrants is stretching resources and tempers to the breaking point in the American Southwest. According to HHS, their network of family shelters can accommodate about 6,000 people at any one time. With ten times that number of immigrants, those shelters have been overwhelmed, leading to cramped and unsanitary conditions. In response, the federal government has been using other facilities – schools, military installations, even prisons – as temporary shelters.

One such facility is located in Murietta, CA, an inland town about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego. On July 1, local citizens carrying signs reading “Illegals Out” blocked roads and hurled insults as buses full of mothers and children attempted to make their way to the Border Patrol processing station in that city. Fearing for the safety of the immigrants, officials rerouted the buses to San Diego. Rumors spread that more buses would arrive on Friday, July 4. Pro- and anti-immigration activists converged on the town and though no buses arrived, clashes between the two groups resulted in the arrest of six persons.  

For their part, the Catholic bishops have called on the government and indeed all Americans to exercise compassion and patience for children and families in detention. That theme continued this week during the National Migration Conference, co-sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services (USCCB/MRS), the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) and Catholic Charities USA (CCUSA).

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