It has become standard practice among some Christians at this time of year to point out that the Holy Family was also subject to the indignities faced today by the world’s migrants and refugees. According to the the United Nations Refugee Agency, there are currently 68.5 million people who have been displaced from their homes, and 25.4 million of them are refugees, searching for a new country to call their own. A significant percentage of the world’s refugees, including more than 6.3 million from Syria, have fled from somewhere in the Middle East, just like Mary and Joseph did with the Baby Jesus.
But while that analogy between migrants and the Holy Family is well-intentioned, in many ways the realities for migrants today are much worse than the hardship the Holy Family experienced—and not just in developing countries, where 85 percent of the world’s displaced are hosted, but here in the United States.
Migrants within the United States are being rounded up, not only for criminal felonies (as the Trump administration initially suggested would be its priority), but simply for being undocumented. It happens when they drop their kids off at school, at worksites, while visiting their children at a military base, even while awaiting surgery for their 2-month-old infant.
Many children have also been separated from their parents, almost 15,000 as of last week, according to NPR; something baby Jesus did not have the misfortune to experience. The tent camp outside El Paso alone has about 2,800 children. CBS Dallas-Fort Worth noted its population is larger than all but one of our nation’s 204 federal prisons.
Though they certainly knew what it was like to find their lives in danger, the Holy Family would find many of the trials undocumented migrants and refugees are asked to endure today incomprehensible.
“The way I have been treated makes me feel like I don’t matter, like I am trash,” one child told NBC in July.
Though they certainly knew what it was like to find their lives in danger, the Holy Family would find many of the trials undocumented migrants and refugees are asked to endure today incomprehensible. Abraham Joven, director of the Diocese of San Bernardino’s Advocacy & Justice for Immigrants Program, describes going to bond hearings at the Adelanto Detention Facility and seeing detained men and women dressed in jumpsuits. “The communication right from the beginning is that you’re a criminal,” he said, when most have committed no crimes beyond arriving in the United States without documentation.
The court is actually in the detention center; detainees are walked from their beds to the courtroom. There are metal detectors, and no one is allowed to bring anything into the court, “not even a pencil or piece of paper to keep track of anything that happens in there.”
And in contrast to standard U.S. courts of law, detainees are not guaranteed attorneys. They can seek one out, but that presents a catch-22. Getting an attorney requires using the phone, and the detention center phone charges make that nearly impossible.
“The communication right from the beginning is that you’re a criminal,” he said, when most have committed no crimes beyond arriving in the United States without documentation.
One detainee explained the dilemma to Mr. Joven: “I make, like, a dollar a day doing work here and it costs $4 to make a phone call. So you can imagine how much work I have to do just to make a call.” (Detainees cannot receive incoming calls.)
“Imagine trying to fight a case where you don’t have access to documents that might be able to clear you, you have limited access to people outside, and you’re not provided with an attorney,” asked Mr. Joven. “You’re supposed to be presumed innocent; your liberty is not something we toy with in America. At least that’s the ideal.”
At Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso, Texas, executive director Melissa Lopez notes further complications in the manner the government is interpreting the law on asylum seekers. Petitioners who are denied asylum in the past would be allowed to gather more evidence for a chance to re-apply; now they immediately face deportation proceedings, Ms. Lopez said.
The result is that organizations like Ms. Lopez’s are forced to be much more cautious about which cases they put forward. That has made the people it serves feel more alone and less understood. “Sometimes people feel like we don’t want to help them, when we’re just trying to be really cautious about putting people in harm’s way. People think we’re callous.”
At the time of the 2016 election, many, not only outside but within the church, insisted that immigrant advocates’ predictions about the impact of policy shifts authored by the Trump administration were vastly overblown, Mr. Joven recalled. “We were dismissed as paranoid, as folks that were maybe a little too close to the situation—which is what I think a lot of people like to tell people of color when they talk about race in America.”
But those pessimistic predictions have proven, if anything, insufficient to the reality; On Dec. 12 the administration announced plans to begin deporting Vietnamese immigrants convicted of crimes, even those who fled to the United States before the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam in 1995, breaking not only longstanding practice but treaty obligations.
When previously those supporters said “give him a chance,” Mr. Joven said, now they assert, “He might have done some bad things, but nobody’s perfect. We have to forgive.”
“But we Catholics have a process for forgiveness,” he said. “It involves repentance and a penance. We’re asking the oppressed to carry the sins that have been given and to provide forgiveness to someone who is unrepentant and has not paid a penance. It’s like we’re holding these powerful figures to a lower standard.”
“For me,” said Ms. Lopez, “working here really is God working in my life.” She came to Migrant and Refugee Services by accident; she was finishing law school and needed a job. “After I started, I found out my dad was a client back when it first began.”
But the barrage of anti-immigrant rhetoric today makes her work harder than it should be. “We’re privileged to be able to do this work and at this time when the need is so critical,” she said. “But it is difficult when you face so much criticism for just trying to help people.”
“I would just appreciate folks to listen,” said Mr. Joven. “Even if they don’t believe me, to maybe just [hold and listen.]
“I had my first daughter last October,” he said. “And I came back after paternity leave and received a phone call from someone looking for legal advice. Her husband had been detained, and because he had been detained they lost their car and they were short on rent. And she was a new mother.”
“Her child was born two months before mine,” Mr. Joven said. He pauses for a moment; I can hear the emotion in his voice.
“There are names,” he said, pushing on. “There are real stories behind the numbers that you see.”