boy looking through window

— CBP photo by Eduardo Perez

Families and children from around the world, the majority from Central America, continue to arrive at the U.S. southern border to seek safety and hope. Under the “zero tolerance” policy, even people showing up at an official port of entry are being treated as if they are trying to sneak into the country. The increase in people leaving El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in the past 6 years has been recognized as a humanitarian emergency in these home countries, rooted in decades of poverty, failed government policies, broken families, lack of protection for women and children, and violence that continues to plague the region.


While the June 20th Executive Order reversed family separation, of the 2,634 children separated from their parents at the U.S. border, approximately 400 parents were deported without their children. Attempts to find these parents are necessarily extensive and reunification could take years. In addition, the order criminalizes the act of seeking asylum, replacing family separation with expanded family detention on military bases and other government property, potentially indefinitely. The order also seeks to modify the 1997 Flores settlement, a legal agreement that bars the detention of migrant children for more than 20 days. Furthermore, the door is left open for the government to force parents into a painful “binary choice:” choose to stay in family detention with their child for what could be years as the case proceeds or allow their children to be removed to a government shelter so other relatives or guardians can take custody.


Meanwhile, the border is almost closed off to those seeking protection from the U.S. Border officials tell people that arrive at an official port of entry to seek asylum (the only proper way to make such a request if you are outside the U.S.) are being told to “come back later.”  Such actions put increased pressure on our Mexican neighbors to provide humanitarian assistance while people wait. The scene varies from one border section to another, in one area a large group is visibly waiting while in another, they scatter in search of shelter from the 101F weather. 


Central American asylum seekers continue to face challenges within the Immigration Court system, often charged with entering the U.S. illegally even though they are able to establish a “credible fear” to apply for asylum. In an attempt to further limit asylum rights, the President has called for the rejection of asylum claims based on domestic violence and gang-related violence—two of the areas frequently cited for asylum claims from the Northern Triangle of Central America. There are reports of young adults with credible fear claims who have been detained for years; results of their asylum claims are mixed, with some being deported and others awaiting a court date to make their claim 2–3 years after arrival.


The continued influx of new refugees (asylum seekers) as well as increase in immigration enforcement (such as raids) adds more cases to the immigration court docket, further slowing the process for those seeking asylum. The “Operation Streamline” system seeks to lessen this load through “bulk processing” in the federal district courts. As many as 80 migrants are arraigned, found guilty, convicted and sentenced simultaneously for “improper entry” (a misdemeanor) in as little as 25 seconds per individual. As such, these migrants are deported before they have any meaningful way to assert their need for protection.  Even so, the number of immigration deportation related cases awaiting decision reached a new record in August—764, 561 cases[1]. The number of defendants within each case varies, spanning individual adults, parents with a minor child (if they arrived together and aren’t separated), or unaccompanied and separated children.


Where is the opportunity in all of this?

Media focus on what is happening at the border has brought attention to overall detention and deportation practices. This has caused many to ask what they can do to make a difference in the system in a meaningful way. The most important way to offer assistance is to continue to advocate for policy change. By staying up to date on what is going on at the border, you can speak with friends and family in a way that keeps it in the forefront of their minds. We need to move the conversation from being about a “border emergency” to one dedicated to the long term need for individuals and opportunities for churches to engage with the immigrants in their local communities.  How do we take appropriate steps to make that connection? How do we discuss what is happening now in relation to our long history of immigration and its broken systems? Read the Action Alert from the Office of Public Witness.

The media has also brought attention to many nonprofits in the border’s immediate area who benefit from generous financial support. Many of these organizations find themselves with “immersion” volunteer experiences in a wide variety of support roles: doing laundry; managing donations; assisting with transport of immigrants; hosting volunteers from other locations; providing legal support, etc.

Read "Called to Help" on the PDA blog.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) has been responding in cooperation with mid-councils and congregations along the border, the Office of the General Assembly's Office of Immigration Issues, the Office of Public Witness and our ecumenical and interfaith partners working with refugees and immigrants. PDA has already begun approving small grants to Presbyteries that are working in coalitions and with local non-profits to help families reunite, to meet basic needs and to provide “know your rights” orientations to those seeking asylum. Churches and individuals can help this effort by giving to DR000095 U.S. Refugee Emergencies.


PDA will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to families with basic needs, legal orientations and family reunification assistance even as we advocate for more humane treatment by the US Government.

[1] According to TRAC a court data analysis program at Syracuse University, there were 764,561 cases pending at the end of August 2018, a 41% increase over the number of cases pending at the end of January 2017 (542,411)

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