Catholics respond to migrants’ humanitarian crisis

Across the United States, Catholics have stepped in to help the unprecedented numbers of children without parents flooding the border, despite protests, threats, and government reluctance to give access to detained children.

Immigration officials have detained nearly 60,000 children without their parents at the southern border since October, more than double the number picked up the year before. Until 2011, an average of 7,000 a year was apprehended; government officials now estimate 90,000 will be picked up in 2014 and 130,000 next year. Most are not from Mexico, but from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and are fleeing violence and crime in their home countries.

In Apopka, Fla., northwest of Orlando, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur’s Hope CommUnity Center has been operating program they call Adelante Caminante, which supports children released to friends or relatives by immigration officials while they await deportation hearings. Adelanted Caminante, which roughly translates as “go forward, traveler,” lets the children meet others in the same situation and teaches them life skills such as how to use American money and to navigate the city bus system.

“We’ve been doing it for a while now, and there hasn’t been any controversy,” said Sr. Ann Kendrick. “Our reality is when the child comes here, they’ve been in detention and have been released to someone who knows them or claims them. We’ve been quietly doing that and had a lot of positive response – a lot of people wanted to volunteer. We actually had more volunteers than we could handle.”

But that reality changed when a local television station reported – incorrectly – that the Hope CommUnity Center was a receiving point for unaccompanied minors and was housing children. That led a website to say that the center was bringing in hundreds of undocumented, unaccompanied children to the area, Kendrick said.

“That brought the threats,” Kendrick said. “There were protest threats, threats that they’re going to investigate our finances, people saying we’re destroying the fabric of society. There were malicious Facebook posts on our page.”

Even worse than the threats, Kendrick said, is what’s behind them.

“It’s based on hate mongering and lies,” she said. “It’s simply untruths.”

And the biggest untruth, Kendrick said, is that these children have broken the law.

“These kids aren’t running from the law, they’re throwing themselves into the arms of the authorities,” she said. “They don’t try to get past the border fence – they get to the border and throw themselves into the hands of the Border Patrol.”

And they’ve been doing that in such numbers that government agencies are overwhelmed: An airplane hangar at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, has been converted into temporary housing for children, operated by B.C.F.S, formerly known as Baptist Child and Family Services, to house children while officials try to find relatives to take them in while they wait for their legally required deportation hearings.

In Los Angeles, the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project has been offering legal help to indigent and low-income immigrants for nearly 15 years as part of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, but now is so overwhelmed in helping children detained by immigration officials that it is not taking any other cases. With several other rights groups, Esperanza has filed a complaint with Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security alleging mistreatment and abuse of minors detained by the Customs and Border Patrol. The groups documented the allegations between March and June of this year.

“Approximately half of the children [interviewed] described the denial of medical care. More than half reported experiencing some form of verbal abuse, while approximately one in four reported physical abuse ranging from sexual assault to punching, kicking and use of stress positions as punishment,” the complaint filed on behalf of 116 minors says. “Approximately 70 percent of these children were detained by CBP beyond the 72-hour statutory limit.”

Fr. Sean Carroll said he has not seen those issues, but has only been granted limited access to the children held in a warehouse by Border Patrol in Nogales, Ariz. Carroll is executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, started in 2009 by Jesuit groups and the Catholic dioceses on both sides of the border.

Carroll was able to visit the center, but was not allowed to speak to any of the children held there or take pictures. He said the Red Cross has volunteers working there and the children’s physical needs appear to be met.

“What’s less clear is how they’re doing spiritually, psychologically and emotionally,” Carroll said. “We can’t even get in to say Mass.”

It’s difficult to stand by and not be able to help, he said.

“Many have been through very traumatic experiences – extortion, abuse,” Carroll said. “Many become traumatized. We’re in a position to help and we’re being told we can’t, so it’s hard.”

And when people try to help, they’re often met with outright hostility. The New York Times reported that protesters marched against a proposed shelter in Vassar, Mich., and that some of them were armed with semiautomatic rifles and handguns.

But Sr. Ellen Rinke, the pastoral administrator of St. Francis Cabrini Parish in Vassar, said the reaction can be overcome. Church leaders from several denominations signed a statement backing the shelter.

“I hope we can focus on the humanitarian crisis, and we might set the tone for the nation and show how people can come together,” Rinke said. “What we need to do now is to respond with compassion.”

While those with the angriest response may get the most attention, she said, there is still opportunity for something greater.

“We have to look at the reasons people are saying ‘No.’ Is it out of greed? Out of fear? We need to overcome that and concentrate on the Gospel,” Rinke said. “This crisis is calling all of us to collaborate with one another. Let’s show Congress what it’s like to work together.”

As traumatic as the children’s journey was, what they were leaving behind was even worse, said Sr. Kathleen Erickson. Erickson traveled from the Sisters of Mercy in Omaha, Neb., to Honduras as an international election observer and spent five weeks there again in May and June.

About 200 children have been placed with relatives in Nebraska, according to reports, and though the Sisters of Mercy aren’t working directly with them, Erickson said she has seen firsthand what the children escaped.

The Sisters of Mercy in Honduras are raising two girls – one, the niece of one of the sisters, was taken in after her mother was kidnapped out of her home by people in army fatigues and never seen again.

“What the people live with is constant being on guard,” Erickson said. “You never go out and just walk in the neighborhood. It’s always vigilance and being careful. . . . On Mother’s Day we heard men had broken into a house and shot two boys from the same family. All you can think is the horror for that mother. It’s such a heavy kind of atmosphere.”

To send the children back to their homes, Erickson said, isn’t certain death, but it would be placing them in great danger. In the meantime, she said, people aren’t sure what they can do about the situation.

“Many people in the U.S. want to help with immediate need, but the really hard work is to look at why this is happening and do some soul searching about what part our country might play in the situation,” Erickson said.

And the need is not just for the unaccompanied minors: Entire families that are able to flee the violence are doing so in record numbers.

Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, has been working with immigrants since 1978, but has never seen what is happening now. Border Patrol is so overwhelmed it has been sending plane loads of people to other southwest cities for processing; Border Patrol officials reached out to Annunciation House in early June to help 270 immigrants that were being released awaiting deportation hearings.

Then Border Patrol called and said another 270 were on their way. And then another plane load. And then another. And then five more.

Fortunately, an entire network of organizations leaped to help, with a church offering its community center, a religious order offering an unused wing of its nursing home, and hundreds of people offering donations and volunteering.

Sr. Janet Gildea said the Sisters of Charity, just across the border in Las Cruces, N.M., has worked closely with Annunciation House for years. And though the group has only received families and no unaccompanied minors, they have been through the same experiences and fled the same horrors.

(She has been writing about her work for Global Sisters Report.)

“Many of them have been directly threatened by gangs. They’ve been extorted or threatened that they’ll be kidnapped. They tell them, ‘Sell drugs for us or we’ll kidnap your family.’ They’ve seen family members or friends kidnapped or killed,” Gildea said. “It’s worth the risk of the journey.”

And the journey is a risky one: Many hop freight trains, riding a thousand-mile gauntlet of thieves, extortionists and worse. Reports are emerging of girls and women taking contraceptives before starting the journey because they assume they will be raped at some point before reaching the United States.

“These are young women with toddlers in their arms who have made this journey because they’re so desperate,” Gildea said. “I don’t think they’re under any illusion about how difficult it will be or what the odds are, but they’re willing to risk it.”

[Dan Stockman is national correspondent for Global Sisters Report. He was a reporter at daily newspapers in Michigan, Illinois and Indiana for nearly two decades before joining GSR in 2014. Follow him on Twitter @DanStockman or on Facebook at]

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