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Refugees from Central America provide 'gifts' of grace

Faith-based volunteers grateful, yet concerned about possible changes to Child Protection Law

July 29, 2014

Presbyterians and faith partners in El Paso provided some 2,000 refugees with food, clothing, shelter — helping them with transportation to relatives in the U.S. —Paul Seebeck

EL PASO, Texas

As Central American refugees — families and unaccompanied children — continue to flood the South Texas border, immigration officials have changed where they are sending them.

In June and July, hundreds of refugee families were flown to El Paso, Texas, for processing. Some 2,000 women and children were released to the faith-based Annunciation House, where they received shelter, clothing, food, and help with arranging transportation to relatives living in the United States.

But now they’re being sent to detention centers in places like Artesia, New Mexico.

“Here they had access to humane care and attorneys,” says Ruben Garcia. “In the detention centers there is no due process, no representation.”

This is a major concern for Teresa Waggener, who works on immigration issues in the Office of the General Assembly for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

She’s paying close attention this week to House and Senate hearings in Washington, D.C., on the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008. 

Currently these unaccompanied children can be held in U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilities for 72 hours. After that, they must be released to less restrictive health and human services facilities, where they get legal orientation, a child advocate and access to lawyers to help to work on their asylum claims.

Vaughan-Lower says political, religious, and racial divides "are not unconnected" from the current refugee crisis. —Paul Seebeck

“The Trafficking Victims Protection Act is the reason they’re able to stay and have a hearing all,” says Waggener.

One House proposal for TVPRA  would mandate hearings for unaccompanied children take place within seven days.

“If the law is altered in any way, there will be no opportunity for churches to help children. They’ll get turned away quickly.”

“Imagine a child trying to manage our immigration system — which doesn’t guarantee people counsel — in that amount of time.”

Waggener is spending a lot of her time this week encouraging people to let their political leaders know that Americans do not want this law changed.

“This is a human and moral crisis, which is why it’s urgent we respond politically,” she says. “We’re fearful. With August recess coming, our leaders might change this law this week.”

Annunciation House's Garcia says providing hospitality to the refugees is 'a gift.' —Paul Seebeck

Annunciation House’s Garcia and the faith volunteers who served the refugees flown to El Paso concur. They say the current crisis transcends politics.

“Those of us who have been doing this for a while (Garcia has been at it for 37 years) believe there are two crises,” he says. “How we’re handling immigrants, and the moral integrity of the people in this nation.”

The moral crisis, Garcia says, is the ability to define — and look at ourselves — as a people of moral character.

“The political, racial, and religious divides are not unconnected from this moment of crisis for the refugees,” says Grace Presbyterian Church pastor Jessica Vaughan-Lower.

She urged her congregation to get involved in the crisis when she discovered that local Catholic churches were shouldering the bulk of the burden of caring for the women and children.

Clothing dropped off at Grace filled the church's entire lobby. —Paul Seebeck

Grace became the drop-off center for clothing donations, and soon it was sending volunteers to help at the five Annunciation House sites, including Tobin Park United Methodist Church, which houses Grace’s food bank.

“The outpouring came from churches across the political spectrum,” says Grace’s Christina Fenstermacher. “It finally became ‘What is our response to this crisis as Christians?’”

Vaughan-Lower, who has been with Grace for nine months, noticed something else. 

The Catholics who called to drop off their clothes didn’t want to just put them outside the church doors and leave. 

“They’d never been inside a Presbyterian church,” says Vaughan-Lower. “As they came in with their clothes to take a quick look, I could see the Catholic–Protestant divisions in El Paso coming down.”

Fenstermacher, a Mexican-American, says that for too long, Grace — formed from the merger of three struggling congregations in November 2012 — was viewed as “the white churches” in town talking with “great discomfort” about “outreach to Hispanics.”

“As churches we got married, and then the fighting started,” says Jane Sturgis, who coordinated the clothing drop-off, which eventually filled the church’s lobby. 

“We can laugh now because for the first time we became one. This was our mission.”

Whether Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, or even nonreligious — the volunteers were experiencing deepening conversion as they heard stories of how the women and children got here.

Venzoi holding the children's favorite toys was moved by a 12-year-old girl who wrote her a story of how she got here. —Paul Seebeck

“One 12-year-old girl wrote a story for me,” says Catholic Norma Venzoi. “She was being pressured by gangs to go off with them ... to drink beer.”

The gang began to threaten her family. She ran to tell her mother, who panicked. Off they went — and according the girl’s story, it took them twelve days to get here. 

“It got too emotional for me to read. I had to wait until prayer group,” says Venzoi.

There was a description of crossing a river — the currents were coming fast — and for terrifying moments, the mother and daughter got separated.

“The children being involved tug at heartstrings,” says Grace’s Bill Rose. 

Waggener believes this is the reason why there’s such a vast difference in some of the reaction we’ve seen to this humanitarian crisis with women and children.

“Some are immediately saddened and ashamed,” she says. “We’ve known things have been going on in Central American countries, but we’ve looked the other way because it wasn’t at our front door.”

Others, Waggener says, “don’t want to think about this” and "want it to go away quickly."

“Either way, it’s a very strong emotional reaction — that can cut across the political divide.”

For Garcia, the work he and volunteers did over the past couple of months is no different from what’s he’s been doing for 37 years.  

“God has allowed me to occupy space on this planet,” he says. “I want to be part of living life with a purpose. When Garcia sees a mom from Colorado pick up her daughter — whom she hadn’t seen in 20 years — and meet her grandkids from Central America for the first time, he considers it a gift.

Faith volunteers say they are grateful to God for "opening their eyes" to this refugee crisis. —Paul Seebeck

Grace and other faith partners are coming to the same conclusion.

“Look at what the Holy Spirit did, to bring everything together,” says Tobin Park site coordinator Snow.“Our eyes have been opened,” adds Rose. “We now have to find ways to maintain this same spirit.”

“We have visceral memory of what it’s like to be dying,” says Vaughan-Lower. “But we’ve been opened up to the possibility of what God can do in our survival as we do ministry in El Paso, and the world.”

Editor’s note: While the situation has settled a bit in El Paso, the humanitarian crisis continues to play out in McAllen, Texas, and other cities and towns along the U.S.–Mexico border. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance continues to work in partnership with our presbyteries and churches and ecumenical partners in these border towns to help meet needs and alleviate some of the human suffering. Click here to donate to PDA's refugee emergencies fund. — Jerry L. Van Marter

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