Violent gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha in Central America, are forcing young children and teens to join their forces. Those resisting the recruitment are being injured or threatened with death. In response, many families are paying as much as $5,000 to coyotes who are selling transportation and falsely guaranteeing asylum for the youth in the United States. Fearing for their lives, increasing numbers of children and teens are leaving their countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to seek asylum in Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and the United States. Upon arrival at the U.S. border, the coyotes stay on the Mexico side and instruct the unaccompanied minors to go to the people wearing the green uniforms (the Border Patrol) on the U.S. side.
The laws of the United States provide for asylum for certain refugees fearing persecution in their home countries. Unaccompanied minors have traveled to the U.S. seeking asylum before this growing crisis and under the Bush administration, a system had been built that could process 6,000-8,000 a year. Part of the problem now is that there are now 52,000 seeking asylum and some would prefer that the U.S. border would work as an absolute blockade, not allowing anyone across if they don’t already have the proper paperwork to enter the United States. The strain on the system and political controversy surrounding the growing humanitarian crisis on the U.S. border is causing what appears as a standstill.
Last month, clergy and laity from the Desert Southwest Conference traveled to Nogales bringing donations for the children and searching for information about how The United Methodist Church can help care for the unaccompanied migrant children. The message at that point was that nothing could be done and the donations could not be accepted. The Border Patrol was handling their care. Visit http://desertconnection.org/abundant-donations-for-immigrant-minors-in-nogales to read more.
A new group, led by South District Superintendent Rev. Dr. Dottie Escobedo-Frank, traveled to Nogales on Monday, July 14, 2014 to learn more about the conditions that the children were being held in and if there are any avenues in which the Desert Southwest Conference of The United Methodist Church might offer some relief and care for these children. Gustavo Soto, Special Operations Supervisor assigned to the Nogales Processing Center, revealed that the conditions for the children have improved greatly. Upon their arrival the minors shower and get their clothes washed. Next, they are given food and medical attention. They are vaccinated and separated by age and gender but are allowed to spend time with their siblings when they request to do so. Recreation facilities have been created for the children and additional personnel resources such as chaplains and a chef have been pulled from other agencies to help meet the children’s needs. Bibles, toys, and games are all available for the children. All of the volunteers and staff that work with the children speak Spanish. The children spend anywhere from one to five days at this processing center awaiting their turn to continue to the next step which is transfer to a shelter assignment provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services until a sponsor or relative is identified on a case-by case basis pending the outcome of the immigration process. Soto reports that the children are happy and well cared for.
Avenues for individuals to help
Currently the Red Cross is working on-site providing a volunteer base to help with the children. They are actively recruiting mothers and fathers to travel to the Nogales Processing Center to play with the kids and provide comfort to the little ones that are afraid and alone. Visit http://www.redcross.org/support/volunteer to find out how to become a Red Cross volunteer in the Nogales Processing Center. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is also present providing vaccinations, medical care, counseling, and recreational areas. As with any disaster area in the United States, it is expected that once FEMA’s responsibilities have ended, continued aid will be available through the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).
On July 12, 2014 Bishop Bob Hoshibata published a letter to the Conference, sharing that UMCOR approved a $10,000 emergency grant and has created a means for individuals to donate at http://tinyurl.com/UMCOR901670. New ministries have already begun at the Phoenix and Tucson Greyhound bus stations offering hospitality to immigrant families that have received temporary legal status through humanitarian parole and are being dropped off at bus stations. More information on how the Desert Southwest Conference will partner in these efforts will be published soon but please note that unaccompanied minors are not being dropped off at the bus stations.
Rev. Dr. Escobedo-Frank will contact the Office of Refugee and Resettlement to determine if there are any other areas where faith-based communities can help. El Mesias UMC, located only three minutes from the Processing Center, is on alert and ready to serve.
An interfaith weekend of compassion and prayer for unaccompanied migrant children has been scheduled for July 18-20, 2014 from sunset to sunset. During this time of compassion and prayer, individuals are encouraged to participate in writing letters and posting prayers or photos at http://www.theyarechildren.com.