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ELCA delegation hears ‘harrowing’ stories of migrant minors, seeks greater church response

3/19/2015 3:00:00 PM

            CHICAGO (ELCA) – With the recent surge of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children arriving in the United States from Central America, leaders and members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) are learning more about the root causes of migration.

            Since 2014, the ELCA has been responding to the needs of children and families with efforts ranging from ensuring appropriate legal representation to foster care, from providing "wrap around" services during their time in the United States to connecting children and families with ELCA congregations. ELCA members are also urging Congress for comprehensive immigration reform, humanitarian assistance and the humane treatment of migrants in transit.
            In a February 2015 trip to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, an ELCA delegation led by the Rev. Stephen Bouman, executive director of ELCA Congregational and Synodical Mission, and the Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director of ELCA Global Mission, met with Lutheran leaders and pastors in these countries who told about the displacement of people due to gang violence, poverty, inept governments and repatriation.
            "Gang violence (in these countries) is very pervasive. If you don't comply, death is certain and swift," said Bouman. "During our trip, we heard the testimonies of mothers and children attempting to flee gang violence and survive the horrendous journey" from Central America to the United States through Mexico, said Bouman.
            In a March 7 conversation with ELCA bishops whose synods have a "companion relationship" with Lutheran churches in Central America and in a March 11 presentation to staff of the ELCA churchwide organization, Malpica Padilla and Bouman told the story of "Jessica," a 45-year-old mother of three who fled her home. Jessica, a circulation manager for a major newspaper who lost her job four years ago and still unable to find work, fled in fear for her children's safety – her young son witnessed his friend shot to death by gangs. In her attempted journey to the United States, Jessica was abused and apprehended by immigration officials as she and her children sought refuge in a cave. Jessica and her children have since been deported. "Poverty is a key factor in migration, made worse by violence," said Bouman. "As Jessica shared her story with us, she spoke of her deep faith. She spoke of the Good Shepherd," said Bouman. "Multiply her story by 30, and that's all we heard during our trip."
            "If you cross the Rio Grande, you've made it. Going across the desert in Texas or Arizona, although challenging, is at times easier than other dangers faced during the journey, particularly once the migrant enters Mexico," said Malpica Padilla. "Hundreds of travelers are kidnapped by cartels that extort money from their relatives. People riding on the train known as 'La Bestia,' who encounter dreaded (drug cartels), are robbed and assaulted and even killed to harvest their organs for the illegal but profitable human organs trade," he said.
            "As we bore witness to these testimonies, the delegation felt compelled to commit to work and invite the entire ELCA to respond," said Bouman. Members of the delegation were the Rev. Raquel Rodriguez, director for the Latin America and Caribbean desk, ELCA Global Mission; the Rev. Michael Stadie, director, Lutheran Disaster Response-U.S.; Stephen Deal, ELCA regional representative for Central America; the Rev. Stacy L. Martin, director for advocacy ELCA Washington Office; Alaide Vilchis Ibarra, assistant director for migration policy and advocacy; Bouman; and Malpica Padilla.
            On behalf of the delegation, Malpica Padilla and Bouman are encouraging members of this church to continue the call for comprehensive immigration reform stemming from actions of ELCA churchwide assemblies; to support the work of Lutheran social ministry organizations, ELCA synods and congregations working to meet the needs of migrants and serving as places of welcome and hospitality; and to support ELCA advocacy efforts designed to encourage U.S. elected officials to support fair, effective and transparent policies that address humanitarian assistance in Central America and that advocate for the humane treatment of migrants in transit, particularly in Mexico.
            "We must continue with ongoing activities in support of the migrants and even expand our services on both sides of the border," said Malpica Padilla. "However, we must understand these are transitory measures. We must pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill."
            "When parents determine that migrating to another country is not only the best option but the only option in preserving the lives of their children, something is terribly wrong," said Martin. "Such is the dire situation in Central America's Northern Triangle. And, while the causes of this refugee crisis are many and complex, U.S. foreign policy and involvement in the region has contributed in creating the current context that breeds violence and poverty," she said.
            "It is harrowing and heartbreaking to hear stories from people who live in constant fear and who harbor no hope for the future of their community or country," said Martin. "We cannot allow complexity and magnitude to be excuses in our attempt to best accompany our partners in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in addressing the issues at hand. Unless we engage on every possible front, the refugee crisis will not abate. This is why it is so important to understand the root causes at play in this crisis and to act in a concerted manner on many levels, most especially on advocating that the U.S. government invest generously and wisely in the area and ensure that aid and policy are implemented without an undue reliance on militarization."
            Prior to their trip to Central America, the delegation visited a detention center in Artesia, N.M. "We saw women and children literally behind bars," said Bouman.
            The Rev. H. Julian Gordy – bishop of the ELCA Southwestern Synod, Atlanta, and chair of the ELCA Conference of Bishops' Immigration Ready Bench – and the Rev. Michael W. Rinehart – bishop of the ELCA Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, Houston, and a member of the board of directors for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Baltimore – this spring will be visiting a detention center in Dilly, Texas.
            "The Immigration Ready Bench of the Conference of Bishops exists to affect public policy around immigration issues," said Gordy. "Working closely with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, members of the Ready Bench make annual visits to members of Congress and the administration in Washington encouraging the passage of comprehensive immigration reform legislation," he said.
            "In addition, the ready bench members have written op-ed pieces for newspapers and on some occasions testified in Congress on behalf of immigrants and refugees. Currently, the ready bench is hoping to draw attention to the unfortunate incarceration of migrant women and children in detention facilities across the country," said Gordy.
            In the ELCA Southwest California Synod, pastors and members have started the Guardian Angels program in an effort to accompany children and teenagers from Central America apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. Many of the children and teenagers face deportation hearings alone.
            "We want judges and others to know that we are there to help the children and families (navigate) through courtroom hearings, especially for those who do not have lawyer representation. We work to send the message that there are people who care for these children," said Maria Paiva, director for evangelical mission, ELCA Southwest California Synod and a coordinator of the Guardian Angels program. The program was started by the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, an ELCA pastor. There are about 40 volunteers in the program trained by the National Lawyers' Guild. Volunteers take notes during court proceedings, monitoring for possible violations of the children's legal rights.
            When volunteers accompany children during court proceedings, they wear special T-shirts that depict an angel protecting children. Paiva said the shirts help signal their presence to the judges.
            "I have seen miracles in terms of how judges and lawyers change their attitudes when they see us accompany the children," said Paiva, who has attended more than 30 hearings.
            "All of us have been blessed by God in wonderful ways," said Paiva. "We can show this love to others who need compassion."
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About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.8 million members in nearly 10,000 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of "God's work. Our hands," the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA's roots are in the writings of the German church reformer, Martin Luther.

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