An increase in unaccompanied children and asylum-seekers arriving at the U.S. border with Mexico has given rise to claims of a crisis. Individuals, families and children seeking protection are no crisis — the crisis is the circumstances they are fleeing and the moral challenge of safe welcome. To offer hope and hospitality to the sojourner in this season of Easter is to bear witness to the suffering that affects the lives of so many. Through acts of love and service, the ELCA, with its strategy of Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities (AMMPARO), continues to support migrants and advocate for just and compassionate solutions.
WHAT IS HAPPENING AT THE BORDER?
In recent weeks, growing insecurity has driven more families and children to the border. Not that long ago, Central America was hit with back-to-back hurricanes that caused widespread destruction and massive internal displacement. The World Food Programme estimates that nearly 8 million people in Central America are chronically hungry because of climate-driven events compounded by the pandemic. Targeted violence and crime, gender-based violence, corruption and state repression are additional factors forcing people to leave their homes. Unless these deeper issues are addressed, people will continue to migrate.
To put the situation in context: border encounters have been rising for months despite punitive measures put in place to discourage migration at the start of the pandemic. Between April and December 2020, total apprehension of single adults increased, as did those of family units and unaccompanied children, although by smaller margins. It’s still the case that the majority of people are expelled — most under Title 42, a rule invoked by the Trump administration to expel virtually all border arrivals. This policy has disproportionately impacted Black migrants from African and Caribbean countries. Migration also ebbs and flows — shifts that are based on the time of year and season. It is true that the release of unaccompanied children and a portion of families encountered at the U.S.-Mexico border have increased, but the emergency here stems from the practical challenge of moving migrants quickly through an infrastructure that has been decimated over the years and made even worse now by capacity issues due to the pandemic. The Biden administration policy is to accept unaccompanied children under age 18, which is how so many children have entered the care of the government while they wait to be reunited with their parents or a sponsor. Shelters have struggled to keep up with the new arrivals.
No event or escalation of need warrants calling migrants a crisis. Neither is scapegoating migrants an acceptable message. No significant rise in the spread of COVID-19 has been attributed to recent arrivals.
HOW CAN THE SITUATION IMPROVE?
The United States can protect people seeking safety and also safeguard public health. Rebuilding capacity to humanely welcome and process asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children will take time. With time and resources, the pressure should gradually improve, but long-lasting solutions are also needed to address the root causes of migration as well as the impractical aspects of the U.S. immigration system that hamper family reunification and access to asylum. More unaccompanied children arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in February 2020 than in any other February on record. (The highest number ever recorded was in May 2019). In the last few years, and especially during the pandemic, the systems of protection available to vulnerable migrants such as children have eroded badly. Any moral path forward must envision a system that humanely welcomes and processes asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children.
HOW IS THE ELCA RESPONDING?
Our congregations and companions are already responding to the needs of families and children after they have crossed the Mexican border into the United States and been released by border authorities. Churches and synods participating in the ELCA’s AMMPARO strategy work to address the critical needs of recently arrived children and families alongside direct-service providers, immigrant organizations and other secular and interfaith partners. This is a whole-church, whole-society mobilization of resources, compassion and expertise to ensure that migrants are treated humanely and granted amparo — refuge.
This witness is complemented by ELCA advocacy efforts that center on protecting the right to seek asylum and apply for refugee status in the face of unprecedented global need. Dubious policies enacted to restrict immigration to the United States conflict with its domestic and international obligations. Any obstacle to a person lawfully seeking protection must be reconsidered. The ELCA advocates for laws that vigorously protect unaccompanied children and families, asylum-seekers and refugees.
BE PART OF THE SOLUTION
This toolkit from the Interfaith Immigration Coalition (IIC) summarizes recent actions and events that people of faith can learn about and join to help respond to the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. You can stay informed by visiting the AMMPARO Facebook page, where developments at the border are closely monitored by AMMPARO. Building awareness of the plight of migrants, especially those who are Black, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, disabled, women or unaccompanied children, can counter the stigmatization and discrimination that permeate the public consciousness.
The ELCA social statement For Peace in God’s World (1995) states: “Faith in the crucified and risen Lord strengthens us to persist even when God seems absent in a violent and unjust world, and when weariness and hopelessness threaten to overwhelm us.” We pray that God’s grace and everlasting love will wash over the weary migrant and give us the guidance and wisdom to restore hope at the border.