From Melissa Bowe, NJFON Program and Advocacy Manager
This past month I had the privilege of joining a delegation from the General Board of Church and Society at the Honduras Annual Conference. My specific role was to provide education on asylum law, special immigrant juvenile status and border enforcement to pastors and lay leaders throughout Honduras. Our larger vision was to listen. Listen to the people our media outlets and politicians have reduced to statistics, and learn what is actually happening on the ground in the Northern Triangle.
The timing of my trip was jarring, as the Obama administration’s planned raids on Central American women and children had begun just days earlier. Our nation’s haphazard and disturbing raids of families fleeing violence was juxtaposed with stories from those very families in Honduras who seek safety and refuge in the United States. They told us of their community’s desperation and yearning for peace from gang violence; for work; for freedom from fear of death, torture and harassment. It was clear to me from the very first day of our trip that no amount of raids, deportations, or imprisoning people in family detention centers is going to deter Hondurans from seeking refuge in other countries.
The will to live in safety cannot be discouraged through policy.
We heard stories of children fleeing in the middle of the night to Mexico or the United States. A father’s voice broke as he told us of his 13-year-old son, Juan Pablo, who hadn’t left the house in three months because the gangs wouldn’t leave him alone in school. The father worried because he himself had been seriously injured when he attempted the trip in 2003; he knew all too well what dangers lay ahead for his son. Others elaborated on the injuries their countrymen came home with, many sustained on la bestia, the infamous freight train that snakes through Mexico to the U.S. border. Many migrants take their chances riding the beast despite the oft-repeated horror stories: the surging wheels that slice through people who slip trying to jump on moving boxcars or who fall off while sleeping; the thieves who go car to car with machetes and guns; the night raids from Mexican law enforcement.
Following these heartbreaking stories, I conducted a two-hour training for 50 pastors and lay leaders on American immigration law. The focus was on asylum law as it affects adults and parents with children arriving at the US/Mexico border. For instance, many people did not know that asylum law even exists in the United States; that it is legal to present oneself at our nation’s border and ask for sanctuary from persecution.
I also talked about American immigration law pertaining to unaccompanied minors and how their experience and options for relief are sometimes different than those for adults fleeing the Northern Triangle. For instance, unaccompanied children who are abused, abandoned or neglected by their guardian(s) can, depending on circumstances, apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status that puts the child on a pathway to a green card. However, the child could never petition for a green card for their parents, and could not petition for their sibling until they became a United States citizen.
Following the legal component, small groups strategized on how to organize around the migration crisis in their communities and congregations. Some proposed counseling young people and their parents on the dangers of the migration routes, others vowed to share the information they learned during the legal presentation and to connect them to the many resources we distributed at the training (covering family detention, know your rights material for the U.S. border and interior, legal protections for unaccompanied minors). Other solution steps included creating a way for everyone to keep in touch across the country to better share resources between the congregations.
In addition to leading the workshop on migration, our delegation visited three Methodist congregations in and around the capital city of Tegucigalpa. On these excursions we learned that the major problems the people in these villages experience are the same ones faces by most people in Honduras: broken families due to migration, lack of medical assistance, extreme poverty and rampant gang violence. We learned that some of the Methodist churches are at the forefront of providing a safe place for their communities to heal and come together for a sense of hope. We visited a church with a tremendous amount of resources for the local community including a school, computer lab, art space, medical clinic and low-cost pharmacy.Without this medical clinic provided by the Methodist Church, residents would have to travel an hour to find medical care—and at double the price.
On the other hand, we also visited an incredibly poor church in a gang-run village. To enter this village we had to make sure our faces and hands were visible and that we didn’t inadvertently look anyone in the eyes; gang members were watching us as we drove through the streets and up to the church. We found a tremendous spirit at this beleaguered church, but also a sense of brokenness from the profound violence, poverty and subsequent migration.
In a country of approximately eight million people, there are an estimated 36,000 street-gang members. The murder rate was again the highest in the world in 2014—90.4 homicides per 100,000 people. Children are far from safe from the deluge of violence; according to the National Commission for Human Rights in Honduras, 458 children were murdered between 2010 and 2013. Casa Alianza also reports that in the first 4 months of 2014, 270 people under the age of 23 were murdered.
As Americans and people of faith, it is vital that we recognize this situation as a humanitarian and refugee crisis, one involving a vulnerable population. It is not merely a border security and immigration enforcement matter. I encourage all of us to learn more about the root causes of migration from the Northern Triangle and to share that knowledge with others. We at least owe that much to Juan Pablo, a scared 13- year-old boy, who remains in hiding while contemplating the dangerous journey here.