Rio Grande bishop: U.S. asylum crisis ‘a moral issue, and not a complicated one’

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Asylum seekers arrive in Tijuana, Mexico, in November 2018. Photo: Daniel Arauz/Flickr

“Two basic factors are exacerbating each other. The first is that the system was designed to catch and detain illegal migrants, not legal asylum seekers; adult men, not families and children. The second is that there have been thousands more people presenting themselves for asylum, and the sheer numbers are overwhelming the capacity of the system,” Episcopal Church Bishop Michael Hunn says. “Unaccompanied children who arrive at the border are refugees, and they deserve immediate care as refugees.”

In the 2016 presidential election, the United States’ southern border became an intense focus of debate, with promises from then-candidate Donald Trump to “build a wall” across the border. “As far as the wall is concerned, we’re going to build a wall. We’re going to create a border. We’re going to let people in, but they’re going to come in legally,” Trump said in October 2015.

Since Trump’s election to the presidency, the U.S.-Mexico border has become a subject of international scrutiny and concern, as asylum seekers from Central America—especially Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—have fled north to escape violence in the region. Trump’s policies regarding the asylum seekers have become increasingly strict—and large questions have loomed about the treatment of children who made the journey alone or were separated from their parents upon arrival.

In the last week, two stories have captured the attention of international media: scathing reports from lawyers sent to investigate the well-being of children in migrant detention centres, and the disturbing photo and story of two drowned asylum seekers from El Salvador—Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria—which appeared in Mexico City’s La Jornada. In a photo of the bodies, Valeria is seen lying next to her father, her small arm encircling his neck.

In the meantime, commentary has swirled around President Trump’s policies on the border and whether the detention centres amount to “concentration camps,” a term used by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Others have disagreed, calling such phrasing irresponsible and inaccurate. Indeed, in the United States, vast disagreement exists over the nature of the crisis along the country’s southern border—and the risks and rewards of immigration, in general. Assessing the situation from afar is difficult.

To help Canadian Anglicans better understand the crisis, the Anglican Journal’s Matthew Townsend reached out to Michael B. Hunn, bishop of the Episcopal Church’s diocese of the Rio Grande and former canon to Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. Hunn’s emailed response follows. It has been edited for style and clarity.

What roles are the Episcopal Church and the diocese of the Rio Grande playing in the asylum seeker crisis?

The diocese of the Rio Grande encompasses 40 per cent of the border between the United States and Mexico in the far-west part of Texas and the entire state of New Mexico. Our diocese is about 50 per cent Republican and 50 per cent Democrat. Our congregations contain both Border Patrol agents and undocumented people.

Since late January congregations throughout our diocese have been partnering with the Border Patrol and local towns to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to people seeking asylum in the United States. The asylum seekers present themselves at the border asking for asylum in the United States because they fear returning to their home countries. Usually they fear for their lives because the drug wars in their countries are such that young men are forced to join gangs or the military. Young women are raped, or threatened with rape, in order to compel their brothers to join the gangs.

Seeking safety for their children, many parents are either sending their children north towards the United States or traveling in large caravans seeking safety by claiming asylum in the United States. It is an awful thing to contemplate a parent so desperate that they are willing leave their homes with only what they can carry to face uncertain weeks on the road in hopes of the possibility that the United States might let them start again here with nothing. When they leave their homes behind, they don’t know if they will ever be back, they don’t know if they will make it to the United States and, even if they make it here, there is no guarantee that they might stay. The uncertainty they face on the road is markedly less scary than the violence they face at home.

The United States Border Patrol system is set up primarily to catch, detain and then deport adult men who come north looking for work. The system is built as a series of “detention centers” which are, in effect, prisons. The system is not at all prepared to deal with children or families. The general treatment which people receive is as if they were criminals, rather than as if they were refugees fleeing trauma in their home countries. Prisons are designed to punish, but families seeking asylum need safety, shelter, food, clothing and medical care.

Two basic factors are exacerbating each other. The first is that the system was designed to catch and detain illegal migrants, not legal asylum seekers; adult men, not families and children. The second is that there have been thousands more people presenting themselves for asylum, and the sheer numbers are overwhelming the capacity of the system. These two factors mean that the Border Patrol and Homeland Security departments are unable to house and care for the people who are seeking asylum.

Up until a week ago, when people asked for asylum at the border, they were taken to a U.S. government office and interviewed. If there was “credible fear” that they would be harmed if they returned to their home countries, they were allowed to stay in the United States with a sponsoring American family until their asylum claim could be heard in court. They were given an ankle bracelet to monitor their movements and a court date when they should reappear in court and allowed to travel to their sponsoring family.

Since late January, the Episcopal churches in our diocese have collaborated with interfaith and ecumenical partners to help provide shelter, food, clothing, medical care and hot showers to the asylum seekers. The Border Patrol would bring busloads of families to El Paso, Deming, Las Cruces or Albuquerque, where they were lovingly greeted by an interfaith group of volunteers.  For two to four days they would be sheltered and given food and clothing before being taken to the bus station and sent to their sponsoring families. We saw frightened and lethargic children get off the bus. Their parents were exhausted and covered with grime from sleeping outside for days or weeks. In 24 hours they were all smiling and the children were playing.

Hunn

All that changed a week ago when the U.S. government’s “stay in Mexico” policy took effect in our diocese. Now, if a person claims asylum in the United States at the border and they pass their credible fear interview, instead of being allowed to wait for their court date in the United States, they are put on a bus and dropped off in Juárez, Mexico. There is no organized shelter system in Juárez, no sponsoring families to care for the asylum seekers as they await their court date in the United States, there is no network providing food, shelter and clothes for people who have literally fled for their lives. We understand the families are asked to wait for 45 days in Juárez before their court date but they have nowhere to stay.

In the past week, we are beginning to see an increase in people illegally crossing the border sneaking in under the guidance of “coyotes,” members of drug cartels who are trafficking human beings across the border. My concern is that legal asylum seekers are becoming illegal immigrants out of desperation when they are forced to “wait in Mexico” for their court date.

The diocese of the Rio Grande, and our Borderland Ministries, are trying to figure out how do we continually get the humanitarian aid where it is needed—whether on this side of the border or in Mexico.

We are working with a priest from the Anglican diocese of Northern Mexico who looks after three churches in the city of Juárez, Mexico. We understand that he is currently sheltering 80 people in one of those churches. We are trying to figure out how we can get the supplies we have stockpiled for asylum seekers here in the United States across the border to him in Mexico.

As a bishop within the church, how do you view this crisis? Descriptions vary widely. What do you see?

As the bishop of the diocese of the Rio Grande, I see this as a moral crisis. Jesus was very clear that we should welcome the stranger, and the Bible makes it clear time and time again that we should welcome the alien and the stranger among us.

Jesus wanted the little children to come unto him, and he had severely harsh words for anyone who would “put an obstacle in the way of these little ones.”

This is not a political issue. It is not a partisan issue. It is a moral issue, and not a complicated one.

Under no circumstances should children be held in prison-like conditions. Children do not need only food and shelter—they need art, and play, and exercise, and community. Over all, children need a safe place to grow up. If those children are not safe in their home countries, I believe the United States should welcome them with open arms, loving arms and treat them as we would our own children. This is not what we have been seeing.

I think it is important for us to be clear about our language here. Asylum seekers are people who have fled their home countries out of fear for their lives who are claiming legal asylum in the United States. Unaccompanied children who arrive at the border are refugees, and they deserve immediate care as refugees. People who cross the border illegally in order to bring drugs into the United States or to traffic in human beings, the sex trade or as arms dealers are in a completely different category.

Have you seen centres/camps/refugees on the ground?

A couple of years ago, I visited a “family detention center” in Texas. This was long before the current crisis. At that facility women and children were being housed in what was built to be a prison. There was chain-link fence, and everyone was staying in cell blocks. The staff of that detention center were making every effort to allow the children to play, but it still felt very much like a prison to me. Chain-link fence separated the playground from the cell blocks. This was at a time when the system was not being overrun, and I still had moral questions about the detention of families in prison-like conditions. For example, that detention center only held women and children. If a boy was over the age of 14, he was separated from his mother and taken to be housed with the men in a separate facility. If a father and his child were crossing the border, the child was sent to the women and children facility, while the father was set to the men’s detention center which was miles away. This was deeply troubling to me.

Now what is happening is that even those detention centers are full, and so the U.S. government is building tent cities in the desert in order to house the overflow. They are also housing refugee children in Border Patrol stations, which were never designed to be “detention centers.” We are hearing that Homeland Security and the Border Patrol do not have the resources to provide for the families and children in their custody.

The diocese of the Rio Grande is reaching out to the Border Patrol to try to provide resources: food, clothing, soap and toothbrushes, but the Border Patrol is refusing all help getting resources to the children in need. There is also a reluctance to allow non-Border Patrol agents into these facilities. I was personally told by the Border Patrol at the El Paso Sector that no Border Patrol station would accept any donation.

The term “concentration camps” has been used by some. What do you make of this?

To me the issue is that people who are legally seeking asylum in the United States, having fled trauma in their home countries, are being imprisoned as if they were criminals. This is happening because our border/prison system was designed to incarcerate illegal immigrants, and we are now using that system to handle families seeking asylum and unaccompanied refugee children.

I think we need a robust system to help discern which people are legitimate asylum seekers and which people are crossing the border with criminal intent. I think these two groups need to be treated differently. Again, I believe no family or child should ever be held in prison-like conditions.

How can Canadian Anglicans pray for the work being done in the States—and are there tangible needs?

The diocese of the Rio Grande desperately needs your prayers. And we could also use your support.

You can follow my Facebook page or my YouTube channel for video updates and information about the ministry that we are doing. And you can spread the word about what’s happening. Of course you can also directly support the efforts of the Rio Grande Borderland Ministry by contributing on our website www.dioceserg.org.

The situation on the ground is changing rapidly, and we are trying to adapt. What is clear is that as long as there are thousands of people fleeing their Central American homes out of fear of violence, there will be a humanitarian crisis farther north.

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Matthew Townsend
Matthew Townsend has worked in editorial, journalistic, and web development roles with a variety of organizations, including the The Living Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester, NY, and the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida. He is a member of Episcopal Communicators and has consulted with a variety of ecumenical organizations, including Atlantic School of Theology, the Presbyterian Endowment Network, and the Associated Church Press.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for providing all the details. You are in my prayers! My heart goes out to the children and your church communities.

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