6/24/2015 11:00:00 AM
CHICAGO (ELCA) – For thousands of people, including a growing number of women and children migrating from Central America to the United States, their final stop before crossing the Suchiate River into southern Mexico is the Casa de Migrante (House of Migrants) in Tecún Umán, Guatemala, said Stephen Deal of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
"The number of migrants that have been welcomed and assisted in the facilities of this one house is staggering," Deal said. "More than 140,000 since it opened in 1995. In 2014 a total of 6,031 migrants were assisted. Thus far in 2015, the number of migrants served is running at about 600 per month."
Deal is the ELCA regional representative for Central America. He, along with four leaders from the ELCA churchwide organization, traveled June 9-14 to Mexico, particularly Tapachula and Mexico City. The travel itinerary was put together by AMEXTRA (Mexican Association for Rural and Urban Transformation), an ELCA partner.
The trip to Mexico is one of several journeys organized by ELCA leaders who are committed to learning more about the root causes of migration. ELCA delegations have traveled to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, as well as Texas and other parts of the United States, to understand the realities migrants and asylum seekers face once they arrive here.
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 "wraparound" 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.
"This month we traveled to the southern border of Mexico to observe the situation of migrants, specifically unaccompanied minors who make the long and dangerous trip to reach the Mexico-U.S. border," the Rev. Raquel Rodriguez, ELCA area program director for Latin America and Caribbean, said prior to the delegation's trip.
Migrants who are detained along the border are deported to their countries of origin, Rodriguez said. "Those who are able to escape find it hard to navigate through the migration route toward the north. Along the way they find shelter in houses that the Catholic Church has developed. Some ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission participants volunteer in shelters that help Central American migrants in transit," she said.
In its beginning years, Casa de Migrante in Tecún Umán (on the Guatemalan side of Mexico's southern border) provided a hot meal, a place to sleep, personal hygiene items and a pair of shoes, Deal said. "Today [the house] is able to offer the services of a professional social worker, medical care, psychological counseling, legal aid for migrants who have been victims of crime and vital information on the risks and dangers on the other side of the river in Mexico.
"In the past year, [staff at the house] noted an increase in not just the number of unaccompanied minors but entire families coming to the door. Many flee extortion, death threats and other forms of intimidation by youth gangs and other organized criminal rings in their home countries," Deal said.
Staff is "deeply concerned by the firsthand accounts of human trafficking that they hear with increasing frequency," Deal said. "According to the house administrator, '… as they travel, migrants encounter unscrupulous people who take advantage of their vulnerable condition to make money. The primary motivation is economic …. And, to obtain what they want, these people extort, kidnap, enslave, exploit, seduce, intimidate and rape. The principal victims are women and children, especially girls.' "
As "people of faith, we are called to do more"
Along with Deal, the ELCA delegation included Evelyn Soto, unit operations and program director, ELCA Congregational and Synodical Mission (CSM); Alaide Vilchis Ibarra, ELCA assistant director for migration policy and advocacy; Mary Campbell, manager for relationships, ELCA Global Mission; and Cecilia Favela, CSM finance director.
The group visited a government-run shelter where they met with children, families and individuals applying for asylum in Mexico. Vilchis Ibarra said, "Many asylum seekers in Mexico are detained in shelters with no contact to the outside world, particularly as decisions are being made about their refugee status."
Vilchis Ibarra said listening to the stories of migrant children during the trip "was heartbreaking. To speak to children who have gone through even more than I can imagine, and see them have to wait months in detention for a government to protect them is heartbreaking. I think that as people of faith, we are called to do more for these vulnerable people."
"I saw tears and sadness, not joy and happiness," Soto said. "People flee their home countries as victims and are treated as criminals."
Favela said, "They can't even make a phone call to families. I talked to a woman whose mother had a stroke, and she couldn't see how she was doing."
Deal added, "And because of the long period of detention for the resolution of asylum claims, women and families are in need of psychological attention because of the traumas they have experienced in leaving their home countries and the experiences in detention. There is a great need for spiritual accompaniment during this time."
A detention center in Chiapas
Campbell said families are often separated in different facilities – mothers from older teenage children, mothers and children from fathers – and they have little to no contact.
In Chiapas, Campbell met a woman who had received word that day "that she won her asylum case and would soon be leaving the detention center where she and her three small children – ages 5, 4 and 9 months – had been since early March. They would be on their way to Mexico City, where an aunt and cousins live. Forced to leave Honduras by her gang member husband, who repeatedly physically abused her, his death threats made her decide to take her young children on the long journey.
"'If I stayed, my children would have lost their mother,' she said. They journeyed alone until another woman also escaping gang violence joined up with her and the children and helped her make it to Mexico. 'God protected us,' she said, 'nothing bad happened, gracias a Dios (God).'"
Campbell said the woman is now "looking forward to a new life, supporting her family as a hairdresser, alone with her children, but alive."
The ELCA delegation also met with Cuauhtémoc Ibarra, a staff member for Mexican Congresswoman Amalia Dolores García Medina.
Vilchis Ibarra said Medina represents the state of Zacatecas, "which has been one of the states that has the most migrants in the United States. For that reason, migration and the plight of migrants going through or seeking safety in Mexico is an important part of Ibarra's work. He helped draft a comprehensive migrant child bill that never saw the light of day due to complicated political issues. But it helped shaped part of the current child protection law that applies to migrant children."
During the meeting, Ibarra spoke "passionately about how little protection migrants, especially children, have in the Mexican system saying, 'I don't think there is a better [child protection] law than in Mexico, but I don't think that there is one that is respected least,' Vilchis Ibarra said.
"I understood where his passion came from for the issue. Ibarra had seen the faces of children abused by migration agents or being detained for months without knowing their future. I have a heavy heart knowing that a law meant to protect them is not actually applied. He asked civil society and international organizations to keep putting pressure on governments to follow protection laws because, as he told us, 'They are children.' "
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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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