United States: reflections from the southern border
22 July 2014

Fr Richard Sotelo SJ celebrates Mass for female detainees at the Service Processing Center for detained undocumented immigrants in El Paso, Texas. (Christian Fuchs / Jesuit Refugee Service USA)
We commend the people of faith from communities all over the US who are welcoming these refugees, unaccompanied children, and vulnerable migrants into their homes, their churches, and their hearts.
El Paso, 22 July 2014 — Jesuit Refugee Service International Director Fr Peter Balleis SJ visited the Jesuit Refugee Service USA Detention Chaplaincy Programme in the border city of El Paso, Texas, and shares a reflection of his experience with the staff and the undocumented migrants and asylum seekers held in detention at the El Paso Service Processing Facility.

She was young, perhaps in her early twenties. She carefully unpacked her humble belongings in her travel bag, handed them over to the officer who put them all in a numbered box. Then she received some sandals of the right size and a bundle of her new clothes.

She disappeared and returned after 10 minutes dressed in the new clothes, all blue with a big EPC written on each piece. She handed over in a plastic bag her last belongings, the last pieces of her individuality. She joined the other women in blue and they left for their temporary home in the centre. It is a daily procedure that hundreds, thousands of them have gone through as they passed through this centre.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in El Paso reminds me of a refugee camp. But in the US such a facility is called a detention centre; it is for undocumented immigrants, some of whom will be deported over the border back to Mexico to neighbouring Ciudad Juarez, one of the most violent cities in the world. There are others held here from other parts of the world; depending on the outcome of their asylum cases they may be deported back to their home country.

The 'camp' hosts 800 men and women who are waiting for their case to be decided and for their probable deportation. It is a routine of a daily procedure, all clean facilities, friendly officers doing their duty, people following the orders. The barbed wire fences are disturbing nonetheless.

Jesuit Fr Richard Sotello, Sr Mary K and Mrs Britto spend a good part of each day behind the barbed wire fences attending to individual requests of the detainees. They run the chaplaincy programme, provide religious services, arrange for those who fast during Ramadan to get their meals before sunrise and after sunset, as well as attend to the letters and petitions of the inhabitants.

Nothing extraordinary, nothing which changes someone's future chances of avoiding deportation. But the little things, being attended to and understood can make a big difference in a person's life, a life which has been stripped of everything from the past and of free choice for the future.

When people are stripped of everything in their life, what is left is their faith in God, which is not just true for people in prison and detention.

The ICE facility in El Paso is built for adults. It is not suitable to host the thousands of minors and families who have come over the border in recent weeks. I met some of them in the temporary shelter run by Mr Ruben Garcia and the Annunciation House volunteer organisation.

It was such a different picture of children and their young mothers eating a decent meal served by volunteers sitting with them at the table, talking and listening to their story. In most cases, they shared horrible stories of life in fear of the criminal gangs at home in Honduras; they put their lives into the hands of coyotes, or smugglers, paying thousands of dollars, travelling on trains and buses to reach the US – Mexico border, only then to be put in detention.

Many of them would not do it again but others would do it again and again. They have a well-founded fear for their life and in particular the lives of their children, especially the boys.

As noted in JRS USA report, Spotlight on Increased Migration from Central America, migration from the northern triangle of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – has risen steadily as violence has increased. Youth gang violence has intensified in the last decade, and as drug trafficking routes have shifted to Central America, violence associated with the drug trade has risen as well.

Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, it is de facto a country at war, a different kind of war, a social war. Children and teenagers are subject to assaults and intimidation from gangs, and are being forcibly recruited by gangs who have 'join or die' policies. According to a survey by the UN refugee agency (UNCHR) of 404 Central American children detained at the border in 2013, 58 percent had potentially valid claims for international protection.

The US is facing a serious crisis at its southern border with Mexico, a crisis which hit the headlines in recent weeks. This year, the US government has already taken more than 52,000 unaccompanied children into custody, and estimates that the final number for the year may exceed 90,000. But the system was designed for only 8,000 unaccompanied children each year. As soon as a child is taken into custody, deportation proceedings are immediately initiated.

Simultaneously, at least for now, if a family member or other responsible sponsor can be located, the child can be released to their custody while he/she awaits the assigned court date, often more than two years away. If a sponsor cannot be located, children remain in government custody or are placed in foster care. While the US has increased immigration enforcement resources enormously over the last decade, the legal system that processes cases has been underfunded, resulting in a serious backlog of 366,000 cases and an average wait time of more than 570 days.

The number of asylum seekers has significantly increased to 36,000 in 2013; a similar increase happened in many other countries in the world and is not specific to the US. Globally an increase of refugees and internally displaced persons has hit a record high of 51 million, the highest number of people on the move since World War II.

In addition to the unaccompanied minors, a significant number of women – mothers with young children — continue to arrive to seek asylum. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) currently has only two facilities to detain families, so the solution — for the majority of women traveling with small children — has been to allow them to join their relatives in the US while they await their court date.

This approach, when carried out in close collaboration with church agencies and other community organisations, has been very successful. Mothers and their children are being hosted in some shelters, where they receive medical and psychological care.

Staff at the shelters help them contact family or friends, who usually buy a bus or plane ticket so that the newly arrived migrants can come join them while their case is being processed. The host families take care of them, and the pending decision on whether they are eligible for any form of humanitarian relief to stay in the US is transferred to a court near where they will be hosted.

So far, the lack of family detention facilities has forced DHS to fall back on a more humane and family-friendly solution to this crisis. But, of course, those opposing immigration and giving protection to these minors and families with children find something wrong in this and see it only as a pull factor, inviting more families and minors to come to the US this way. They want more detention facilities to be established to host families. What about the children and their right to education?

Unfortunately, plans to open more family detention centres are moving ahead. JRS USA recently started providing chaplaincy services at a new family detention centre in Artesia, New Mexico.

Catholic bishops take another stand and speak for the people and their right to protection. JRS USA advocates for a continued emphasis on what is in the best interest of all children.

We encourage the US to not take away protections for unaccompanied children, but instead to screen adequately all trafficking and asylum claims to determine whether the children are in need of international protection. We urge the authorities to ensure each child be provided with legal representation or at the very least individualised screening by a legal advocate. We oppose the expansion of family detention, and encourage the use of alternatives to detention, in order to protect children and families from the harm caused by incarceration.

We commend the people of faith from communities all over the US who are welcoming these refugees, unaccompanied children, and vulnerable migrants into their homes, their churches, and their hearts.

As we continue to pray for the safety and well-being of so many children and young families, many fleeing horrible violence in their countries of origin, we also pray for the leaders in Central America, Mexico and the US who are making decisions that will determine the ability of these families to gain access to protection and assistance. We pray they will be generous in their compassion.

Peter Balleis SJ, JRS International Director