Travels to El Paso: clergy visit the border crisis

Posted on July 21, 2014

[Editor’s note: The Rev Richard Smith, vicar at St John the Evangelist, San Francisco, spent part of last week with clergy from around the U.S. in El Paso, Texas, visiting a border patrol station, detention center, and Annunciation House — a refuge for immigrants.]

A few days before I was invited to El Paso, I had learned about Gilberto Ramos, the Guatemalan teenager who had died of heat stroke in the Texas desert a short distance from the U.S. border. Like many teenage boys from Guatemala, he had left his mountain village for the U.S. to make money. His mother had epilepsy, and he wanted to help pay her medical bills.

When they searched Gilberto’s body, they found inscribed under his belt buckle the phone number of his older brother waiting for him in Chicago. Around his neck they found the rosary his mother had given him when she hugged him goodbye in Guatemala. 

This story haunted me because my own son, one year younger than Gilberto, was born not far from him, in the mountains of Guatemala, in a house like his with a dirt floor, no running water, and a corrugated metal roof. It was not hard to imagine that things could have been different, that this could have been my kid.

So when the PICO National Network asked me to accompany NALEC, a national organization of Latino clergy, to the El Paso detention center, how could I say no? 

It is to this detention center, known as Station 1, that record-breaking numbers of captured immigrants, most of them children, are flown from the Rio Grande Valley to be medically examined and have their basic data collected. From there they are bused to various centers to begin deportation proceedings.1

For clergy, the purpose of the visit was to provide any pastoral support we could to these no-doubt exhausted and likely traumatized moms and their kids. We also wanted to get a clearer picture of how communities like ours can prepare to receive folks like them should they arrive at our doorsteps in coming days.

After several weeks of conversation with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), we finally arrived at the center to some unexpected news: By some coincidence, the families had just been processed and removed from the center. We would not have the chance to visit them after all. Instead, we would be given a public relations tour by congenial officers of a squeaky clean facility devoid of any immigrants, no photos allowed.

The officers showed us cupboards with newly purchased clothing and disposable diapers and toiletries, the garage where the buses arrive with incoming detainees, the tables where immigrants are fingerprinted and photographed and their data collected, the holding cells in which they spend most of their time, the makeshift cots they sleep on, and the medical examining area where doctors regularly visit. We heard about the challenges in moving the recent influx of immigrants through the many bureaucratic hoops within a mandated 72-hour timeframe. (Just since May 2014, this facility alone has processed 2700 immigrant families.)

Would the immigrants have had their own perspective on what they experienced in this center? We may never know.

To escort us on this public relations tour, DHS sent the Rev. David Myers, the Department’s liaison for faith-based and neighborhood partnerships. Myers said he understood our frustration, both with the Immigration system and with our not being able to visit the families. Unfortunately, he could not assure us that the kids and their families would be given a fair chance to receive asylum in this country.

In the conversations prior to our visit, NALEC leaders had suggested to DHS that, instead of visiting the El Paso center, we take the bus north to the newly opened detention center in Artesia, New Mexico. No, they had been told, there would be no families there either, and besides, that center was so new staff wouldn’t be up-to-speed to receive us.

As we later learned from two sources, this was not true. In fact, at the very moment we were getting our PR tour in El Paso, the Artesia center was filled with 400 women and children. And that center had just received a delegation from DHS, including Secretary Jeh Johnson himself who chose his visit there to announce the newly opened facility’s real purpose: “This facility ... represents proof that indeed we will send people back.”

Artesia, a small town with not nearly enough lawyers to help the detainees with their cases, was already becoming the site of what one immigrant rights veteran called “a deportation mill.” It was not just clergy, but also other professionals and the media who were being shut out.

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the Department’s lack of transparency. Back home in San Francisco immigrants had told me of family members being virtually “disappeared” in immigration detention centers, sometimes for months. More recently, immigrants have told me about the hilieras, the “ice boxes” that are now getting media attention. In these ice boxes they were held, sometimes for days, in very cold temperatures with their fingers and lips turning blue, their skin cracking from the cold. To date, no independent party has had sufficient access to the detention centers to verify these stories. Some have described it as a blackout.

We left the detention center and headed to Annunciation House. This Catholic refuge for immigrants has made El Paso a welcome alternative to other cities on the front lines of the border crisis.

Because of the lack of facilities for holding families in deportation proceedings, immigration officials recently began releasing them on their own recognizance with a notice to appear at a later date. But then, in cities like Tucson and Phoenix, they reportedly left those families stranded at a local bus station. Indigenous immigrants who could speak neither Spanish nor English were especially lost.2

But in El Paso things turned out differently. At the beginning of the surge, instead of simply dropping newly released families at the bus station, the El Paso Border Patrol wisely asked Annunciation House for help.

Annunciation House now teems with young mothers watching their lively children play games, read, and do art projects. They have good meals and showers and cots in a comfortable and clean temporary shelter.

Annunciation’s director, Ruben Garcia, relayed a few stories he’s heard from the recent guests. He mentioned the sign posted on an elementary school telling the teachers that unless they handed over their annual bonus checks to the local gang, one child would disappear each day. And there was the Honduran mom who told him “In the last 10 days, they’ve killed ten children in my barrio. The youngest was eight years old. How can we live this way?” 

Garcia added that, because many families in these dangerous situations have themselves received no direct threats from the gangs, they do not legally qualify for asylum in the U.S. Immigration simply deports them back to the dangerous situations they fled.

Gathering what they had learned, both from their own work as well as from the morning’s events, the clergy, mostly Evangelical and Pentecostal, held a press conference that afternoon. They spoke from their traditions about the values of justice and compassion. They mentioned the moral imperative to focus first on the needs of the children and not to deprive them of their rights to a fair hearing for asylum. They spoke of the need for an overall increase in funding for the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. And they mentioned the need to keep intact the existing law that protect children from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador who may be victims of trafficking, sexual assault, or persecution.

At the end of the day, at a spirited Evangelical / Pentecostal worship service at a large Latino church, NALEC president the Rev. Gabriel Salguero talked about Esther, the Jewish queen willing to risk her own secure position, even her life, to rescue her people. Paraphrasing the words of her cousin Mordecai, Salguero wondered aloud with us, his hearers, about the border crisis: “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to El Paso for just such a time as this.” 

Later, after praying for Gilberto and other victims of this crisis, Salguero posed another question, paraphrasing an ancient Rabbi: “If not now, when? If not you, who?”

  1. Unaccompanied children follow a protocol different from adults. Prior to their deportation proceedings, they are sent to special centers under the care of the Department of Health and Human Services or a contracting agency. From there they are placed with sponsors — preferably parents, family members, or family friends, but in the absence of these, to licensed foster parents. Deportation proceedings are begun after the child is released to a sponsor.
  2. In many of these cities, faith communities have come to the rescue, meeting these families at the bus stations, offering them places to stay, showers, meals, fresh clothes, a safe place to sleep, and bus tickets to help them on their way to waiting relatives.