What to do about escalating numbers of asylum-seeking families
There is plenty of work to be done at the border that does not include building a wall, according to Dylan Corbett, the executive director of Hope Border Institute.
“We spent most of 2018 talking about militarizing our border and imposing draconian enforcement policies,” he said in an interview with America. “We should have been mobilizing for a humanitarian solution.”
The federal government is two weeks into a partial shutdown. While President Trump has said he will veto any funding bill that does not include $5 billion for a border wall, Democrats in Congress have promised to fight wall construction.
Despite the impasse, the number of border apprehensions is actually down, Mr. Corbett said. While the Trump administration has noted an increase from 2017 to 2018, illegal border crossings have been on a downward trend since 2000.
Illegal border crossings have been on a downward trend since 2000.
But the number of families that are seeking asylum is on the rise, Mr. Corbett said. Even if they cross the border illegally, they readily surrender themselves to immigration enforcement to claim asylum. U.S. Customs and Border Protection simply does not have the capacity to process the influx of families, Mr. Corbett said.
“People sleep in shifts because there is not enough space,” he said of the detention facilities. “They have poor access to nutrition. Going to the bathroom in private is not an option. There’s no health care.”
Seven-year-old Jakelin Caal, a Guatemalan girl who crossed the border with her father, died while in the custody of Customs and Border Protection on Dec. 6. Felipe Alonzo Gómez, an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy, died on Christmas Eve. Both showed signs of influenza, including vomiting, while in custody.
Perhaps, Mr. Corbett speculated, their deaths led Immigration and Customs Enforcement to release hundreds of asylum seekers at an El Paso bus station in December without informing humanitarian groups in the area. Normally, ICE contacts a network of 18 shelters to receive the asylum-seeking families. Annunciation House, an organization that has served vulnerable people in the El Paso-Juarez border community for more than 40 years, coordinates with the various shelters to find space for the released asylees.
Many are released into the community with ankle monitors after their initial cases are processed. They are given court dates in cities near families or friends throughout the United States. Humanitarian groups are expecting to receive 500 asylum seekers a day.
When ICE released about 100 asylum seekers at a bus station on Oct. 26, leaders at the Diocese of El Paso’s Centro San Juan Diego scrambled to accommodate them. The diocesan center, dedicated to the arts, cultural and faith formation for middle school youth, is about a mile from the Greyhound Station. So the asylees just walked over, led by Ruben Garcia, the director of Annunciation House.
“It was beautiful,” Veronica Rayas, the director of the Centro San Juan Diego, told America. “The police escorted them. The fire department assessed their medical conditions.”
Since that day, the cultural center has also been dedicated to receiving asylum-seeking families.
“Many have not eaten well for weeks,” Ms. Rayas explained. Soup comes first and more substantial meals follow.
A family—typically a parent and one child—will stay at the center for 24 to 48 hours. That is long enough for them to shower, get new clothes and make phone calls. The center offers them a warm place to sleep while they arrange bus fare to other cities. The kids will often make friends with each other and play games during their stay.
The center is a stark contrast to the frigid detention centers, Ms. Rayas said. When everyone is packed together in those conditions, it is easy to see why people get sick, she said.
For the bus ride, the center gives the family a “go bag”—with food, water, a blanket and a coloring book. “They’re all so nervous as they’re leaving,” Ms. Rayas said.
Even if families cross the border illegally, they readily surrender themselves to immigration enforcement to claim asylum.
“We see this high number of people, but it doesn’t mean it’s planned,” she said. “Some come because they had a teenager killed by a gang, so they take their other children that same day and head north.”
Asylum seekers from the Northern Triangle countries—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—had to make a choice between joining organized crime or being a victim of it, Ms. Rayas said. The idea that they are coming to the United States to “game the system” or find “loopholes” is absurd, she said.
“These families don’t really understand the process,” Ms. Rayas said. “They might feel in some way like they’ve made it [once they are at the center], but at the same time, they are wearing ankle monitors. None of them have defended themselves in court before. They may not realize they could be deported back to their home countries in a few months.”
At the parish level, people are gathering food, making sandwiches and collecting clothes, according to Joe Boland, the vice president of mission for Catholic Extension. The group provides financial support to both Annunciation House and the Centro San Juan Diego in El Paso. In 2018, Catholic Extension established a family reunification fund to help children and parents separated through the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance immigration enforcement policy.
“This is an important moment for the Catholic Church in the United States,” Mr. Boland told America. “Even if we weren’t an immigrant church, it would be important as a Christian people to reach out to those on the margins. They’re not invaders or fakers or takers. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Some of the harsh rhetoric surrounding immigration comes from misleading caricatures, according to Ms. Rayas.
“People think [migrants and asylum seekers] come to take from our country,” she said. “But the truth is that we have an opportunity to enrich our country through their presence.”