The past two years in the US have seen the political divisions in the country coming into sharp relief. Those who wonder if it is possible to cross the chasm between those with opposing political views may find hope in stories of people who have found a way to create common ground. One of those stories is about a network of churches serving children separated from their parents when the parents enter the US seeking asylum.
Tucson Arizona is a city where nearly a million people live in the greater metro area. Arizona has a history of action to contain illegal immigration. For example, it was one of the first states to mandate that law enforcement offices run background checks on people based on a reasonable suspicion about their status. Tucson is also within the Southwest District of the United Methodist Church.
Eighteen months ago, or about the time of the start of the current administration in Washington, the District Bishop contacted his district superintendent, the Reverend Dottie Escobedo-Frank, about children being separated from their parents when the parents seek asylum in the US. The district decided to do something to help the children, and Reverend Escobedo-Frank was called upon to help organize the effort.
While the asylee problem has received national attention the past few months, it goes back much further. The number of children coming to the border started rising in 2011 and became a crisis in the spring of 2014. That year (2014) more than 68,000 children were at the US/Mexico border.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE as it is commonly known, was overwhelmed by the dramatic increase in young people seeking asylum. Children would be documented by ICE and then dropped at the local bus depot to find their way to a relative in the US while their asylum case was processed. Churches began to step in to help by providing food, shelter and assistance in getting to a relative. The children they cared for often appeared “stunned” or in shock from their experience. Some had been three days in detention without food. The churches would feed and house them and let them know they were free to leave.
Seeing this assistance as valuable, ICE approached the churches in Tucson and asked for their help. Churches had already been helping children, but with the dramatic rise in the number, they organized and setup a facility. The result was The Inn Project. ICE would process the families and then send them to the church run facility. This cooperation between churches and ICE ended when the policy changed to putting the children in detention rather than releasing them, and then recently changed back.
The story of one family seeking asylum helps put this in perspective. About six months ago, a mother with a toddler from Honduras saw her husband murdered by a local gang in Honduras. The gang told her that she and her toddler were next to be killed, so she immediately left her village. She believed her life, and more importantly, the life of her child, were in imminent mortal danger. Taking nothing with them, they started walking toward the US border.
Walking from village to village, they encountered people who exploited them as well as people who helped. “There are good and bad people everywhere”. They would ask for help as they went, depending on people along the way to provide food and shelter. After walking for three months they arrived at the Tucson Port of Entry, which is the legal entry point for people seeking asylum.
After three days in detention the mother and child were released to the church. Rev Dottie describes the mother as, like other parents she sees in the program, “hypervigilant”. After three months of being exposed to the constant threat of danger people learn to be very alert to any threat, especially with a child. During those three months the mother slept very little and was at the point of physical and emotional exhaustion. Finally, when she entered the church shelter, she was able to relax, sleeping for three days straight.
The people seeking asylum usually come with a contact phone number to a US relative or friend. They see this number as their life line and often have it written on their clothes or skin. If they enter through a port of entry the process had been to document their entry and then release them until the time of their court appearance. Since they are legally in the country, and since the court date is the first stop toward being a legally documented asylee. They then are released on their own recognizance. Once they are released by ICE they must fend for themselves and the contact phone number becomes their link to help.
There have been reports separation is not a new policy but a continuation of the prior administration’s policy. This is untrue according to PolitiFact. Lately the process has become more punitive. While children and parents were at times briefly separated under the previous administration, it was an exception, and people were quickly reunited. Separation is now a feature of the process. Asylees are now required to wear an ankle monitor until they appear in court and are processed more like criminals.
According to Rev Dottie, the people seeking asylum are not criminals and not a danger to the US. Quite the opposite, they are motivated to protect their children and make extreme sacrifices to give their children a chance. “They are the cream of the crop of humanity” according to Rev Escobedo, meaning they are motivated by love of children and family, devout in faith, trusting in God, and resourceful in finding a way to get to the US.
The group caring for the asylees in Tucson is a network of churches with one church providing shelter in their church gymnasium and others providing material help and volunteers. The facility can handle up to 50 people at one time and is often full. Reverend Escobedo sees the volunteers as having an experience that changes them. When the volunteers meet and spend time with the asylees then they get to know the people as more than what they hear in the news. They see the suffering, the commitment of the asylees, and get to know them as fellow human beings in need. The experience changes how people think about what they hear in the new.
Getting volunteers was not an easy process. It was important to be clear that housing asylees is not against the law. Asking volunteers to go against the law would be an entirely different proposition. Still, it is not a simple thing to do volunteer, and it is not a short-term program. The program takes money and supplies, especially for the church providing housing. Still, the rewards are great, and the number of volunteer participants is growing.
While the program is supported by the denomination, funds are needed for food, clothing, and travel expenses. More information about this church network can be found at the project Facebook page https://b-m.facebook.com/theinnprojecttucson/ and at these links: