Troy Elder was deflated but not defeated; the Supreme Court had deadlocked, 4 – 4, over an Obama Administration initiative that would have provided deportation relief and work permits for an estimated five million people without legal documents who are currently living in the United States.
“It (the deadlock) means that hundreds of thousands of kids and adult families who could have been at least temporarily protected from deportation are not out of the shadows,” said Elder after the June 23 stalemate.
Undeterred, he spent the following week teaching unaccompanied minors about stepping out of those shadows, informing the teenagers about their legal and human rights and about immigration reform and activism at “No Están Solos” (You Are Not Alone), a summer camp in Palmdale’s portion of the Angeles National Forest.
Bishop J. Jon Bruno invited Elder to serve as bishop’s legate for Global Partnerships for the Diocese of Los Angeles about two years ago, at the height of the media firestorm as thousands of Central American children, some as young as 12, fleeing violence and terror, crossed the Mexican border without adults or parents to live in the United States.
“We estimate about 3,000 children settled in Los Angeles, and that about 58,000 came into the country then,” said Elder, an attorney and law professor specializing in immigration and international human rights for the past 16 years.
Since then, the diocese’s — and Elder’s — focus has been on comprehensive immigration reform, through witness, activism and advocacy, and interfaith and ecumenical cooperation to build resources to aid undocumented persons.
The 2015 convention of the diocese passed a resolution calling for increased support and advocacy for immigrants and refugees (see text here).
“The crisis moved from the border to detention facilities to the courtrooms … [where] these kids were processed wholesale without attorneys or due process, without the ability to fully apply for asylum,” Elder said.
“Sometimes they were ordered removed from the country when they weren’t even in the courtroom, in what’s been called ‘the rocket docket’” to expedite clearing out backlogged cases.
But the Episcopal Church “has proven to be quite nimble in its response to this crisis in its various forms, through public statements, advocacy by our bishops, through clergy and others in the trenches,” according to Elder, a half-time diocesan consultant.
In addition to public witness, initiatives have included development of the volunteer
Accompañeros, a “Big Brother, Big Sister”-type program offering one-on-one mentoring and support to unaccompanied minors, including education and advocacy as well as legal action, he said.
Elder and others have traveled to Mexico to investigate reports that U.S. tax dollars are being paid to officials to stop migrant children and refugees from crossing the border into the United States.
“When I was there in January, I met with kids who’d gone three, four or five times to Mexico but were summarily deported back to their home countries,” Elder said. “The government there fails to give them notice that they have the right to apply for asylum in Mexico.”
Those visits resulted in a lawsuit and he hopes to enlist rank-and-file Episcopalians as well as congressional support in the form of Capitol Hill hearings “to try to find out how much money is being used ostensibly for border control but really to interdict these kids,” he said.
“We’re not just responding to this crisis,” he said. “We’re welcoming the neighbor, welcoming the stranger as God has commanded us to do.”
Focusing on Welcome: No Están Solos
The theme of the day was “Sharing Your Story,” and one young camper drew his path from El Salvador to Texas on the art room map, a miniscule indicator of his arduous, dangerous and confusing journey to reach the United States.
“He came on fishing boats,” said Carmen Luna, a case manager who connects unaccompanied minors with housing, social service, medical, dental and other community resources. “It was something like 13 hours to Acapulco. Then he was on a big rig; then he doesn’t remember where he was. Then he ended up in Texas. From Houston he took a plane to Los Angeles.
“Some kids end up in the shelter here, then they’re sent to New York and then sent back here again. The detention centers are usually in Texas, Arizona and New York — at least the biggest ones we get kids from. Eventually, they usually are sent to where their parents are, or their sponsor,” said Luna.
Luna was doubling as a counselor at the “No Están Solos” camp at Camp Colby, a United Methodist facility where 42 youth, ages 9 to 19, sought respite and opportunities to make friends, connect with nature, learn life lessons and enjoy traditional camp experiences such as swimming, archery, hiking, and sharing campfire stories.
“We’re trying to express love and welcome and give them some tools,” said camp director Danny Armanino. A workshop about gang affiliations was included in the camp curriculum, he said, because “many times the kids arrive here, running from gangs in their own countries, but are heavily recruited once they arrive by those same gangs.”
The idea, said Luna, “is for them to see that there’s a whole community of kids who have come unaccompanied from Central America and there are a bunch of agencies that are trying to help out their situation, and that they are welcome.”
“They feel they don’t belong,” said Luna, who pauses to coax a reluctant teenager, in Spanish, to join others for a hike.
“They feel they don’t fit in a new culture, a new language, a new family or maybe one they haven’t seen in 10 years or more. A lot of times, they hear that negative thing, ‘why don’t you go back to your own country,’ and the idea of the camp is to say that you are welcome here.”
The maps in the art room are just one tool to facilitate healing for the kids “who are carrying a lot of things from their trip that they don’t share with anybody,” Luna said.
Their needs, as well as their stories, differ but there are many common threads for the children who, says Luna “are still coming. They still come every day. Some of the kids here arrived two years ago; some two months ago. Others are probably on their way right now. They are escaping gang violence, poverty. Each kid has a different narrative but at the same time, there are so many similarities.”
Melissa and Michelle, both 16, and Faviella and Ariana, both 15, have just attended Elder’s ‘know your rights’ workshop and want to share big dreams and important facts about themselves.
Through volunteer camp counselor Rosie Rios, 22, a UCLA senior who translates, they say their camp team name is the Chingonas, which, they explain, “can be a derogatory word, but there is a movement in our countries to flip its meaning around, to express power, bravery, justice, all things good, and it says that, for Latinos, when we focus on something we attain our goals, we never give up.”
Aspiring lawyers, veterinarians, engineers and activists, the girls agree that “we are simply young people who left our country because of various problems but we are more than what we experienced in our countries. We have a lot to offer and we are very brave even though we’ve been through a lot.”
Through Rios, they said, “A lot of people say we come to take advantage of different things, but we’re here because we would like to help our families. We want to do better and we also want to become someone different.”
IRIS: ‘DACA still exists’ despite high court ruling
The Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service (IRIS), a diocesan program, oversees a Central American Minors Program. It was considered a refugee pipeline because in 2014 President Obama implemented a safer way to cross the border for unaccompanied minors, according to staff members.
But, in its first nine months, there have been just three arrivals. Under the program, parents living in the U.S. legally can apply to bring their spouses with children under age 21. They are interviewed by U.S. immigration services officials in Central America, are screened and admitted either as refugees or with temporary status, known as humanitarian parole.
State Department officials have said that it takes about eight months to vet families, but acknowledged that after more than a year, among some 8,000 who applied, fewer than 200 actually came to the U.S. Those with refugee status can generally pursue U.S. citizenship after five years, while those with temporary status must apply to renew it every two years and are not eligible for U.S. citizenship.
A concern, said Hind Baki, welcome team coordinator for IRIS, is that people might think that DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) no longer exists, that a recent Supreme Court decision dismantled it, “which isn’t the case,” she said.
“We’ve been trying to reach out to community partners and say that DACA still exists,” she said. Basically, she said, the high court ruling upheld a Texas lower court decision that Obama went too far when instituting Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents in 2014. The impact will mean that several million people will remain unable to work legally in the U.S.
Meanwhile, Lynn Mackenzie, IRIS’ legal services fellow, said that Immigration and Customs Service (ICE) raids are going on “as we speak. We are trying to let people know that they are happening in Los Angeles and some surrounding areas. We’re trying to do our best to help them (refugees) in any way we can.”
But because of the overwhelming crush of cases, there are not many attorneys out there right now who can help, she added.
Faith-based activism: refugees, not criminals
Standing at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles where Central American children defend their cases for asylum, the Ven. Joanne Leslie, diocesan archdeacon, on May 17 called upon federal officials to stop criminalizing refugees who have already been traumatized by violence and tragedy.
Buttressed by a coalition of immigrant rights organizations, labor and faith communities, Leslie voiced outrage at “the callous way that refugees from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are being treated. Family detention, the jailing of women and children seeking asylum is shameful. It is un-American, and even more, it is immoral.”
She noted chilling similarities among refugee experiences, including the murder and rape of family members. “There is no safe place for them to hide in their homelands. So they risk everything, cross the border and then, unbelievably, they are treated like criminals.”
Decrying the ongoing deportation raids by ICE, she said, “Officers have entered schools, churches and worksites seeking to deport people who in most cases pose no danger to the public and have never even had an opportunity to have their asylum claim heard in court. This is gross injustice.”
One of the young men (an undocumented youth from Guatemala) who shared his story at that rally was picked up by ICE the next morning, Leslie told the Episcopal News. “Efforts are being made to get him released, but I’m not sure where those stand.”
Earlier in the year Leslie, along with 20 other diocesan clergy and laity and faith leaders, was arrested during a Holy Week protest against the deportations.
“I chose to get arrested during Holy Week because too many of our immigrant and refugee brothers and sisters are suffering,” said the Rev. Francisco Garcia, rector of Holy Faith, Inglewood in a web statement (read in full at bit.ly/29H2IWL).
“Too many have been sent back to places where they have fled violence and persecution, and have found death. Young children are being forced to represent themselves in our immigration courts with little to no recourse. Families live in fear because they wonder when ICE might come to their doorstep next and take one of their loved ones away.”
According to Garcia, more than 300 Central Americans were being detained, many unaccompanied children. “Over the first weekend of the raids alone, 77 people were deported. And it has so far been reported that since the U.S. deported these people in January, 83 total deportees have been murdered, many of them shortly after deportation.
“This is a life and death matter! These mothers, children, and fathers cannot be misclassified any longer. They are refugees who need protection and resources, and they should not be criminalized for being victims of poverty, violence and having insufficient paperwork.”
Leslie volunteered to journey alongside an unaccompanied minor, Sonia (whose name has been changed to protect her identity), through Accompañeros, a diocesan program initially developed by Elder.
Through the program, she befriended the 13-year-old about a year after her arrival from El Salvador. “Initially, it was more about my helping with transportation” for Sonia, to get her to medical or mental health or legal appointments, Leslie recalled.
“She started school in the eighth grade and this always strikes me as remarkable … after making this incredible journey, basically not speaking that much English,” Leslie said. “She did very well and was very proud to show me her report card.”
Sonia told the Episcopal News that living “in El Salvador was dangerous. You need to be careful. They might kill you or they might do something bad to you. It is safer here.”
She fled, aiming to reunite with her mother, who was living in Los Angeles, and after a failed first attempt, reached Texas on her second try with the assistance of a guide, or coyote. “I was surprised that I made it to the United States,” Sonia recalled. “Sometimes in my journey coming here, I was without food. It was very difficult. The only thing that kept me going was holding on to the idea to see my mom. For me being here is like a miracle.”
Found by border patrol agents, she requested asylum and was taken into custody. From Texas, she was sent to a detention center in New York, before eventually being reunited with her mother, whom she hadn’t seen in six years.
Next came adjusting to a new life, a new language, new challenges. “I didn’t feel comfortable because of my English,” she said. “People made fun of me because of my English and that made me sad, but at the same time it made me say, hey, Sonia, you need to learn English. So I started to read books and I learned.”
Leslie provided her with books, as well as friendship and assistance, she recalled. Conversely, Leslie felt unsure of her Spanish-speaking ability and said she was grateful for the opportunity to practice with Sonia.
Now, Leslie has become “part of my family, my second grandma,” Sonia said
“I feel very lucky to have this opportunity to have a real personal one-on-one relationship with Sonia,” said Leslie. The relationship deepened when Leslie attended Sonia’s asylum hearing. “Some parts of her story are really a bit painful and scary but she told them well,” Leslie recalled. “I made a vow to myself after that interview that I would be there for her pastorally and in any other way, especially if her asylum request was denied.”
Fortunately for Sonia, the asylum hearing was successful. Giggling nervously, she said: “Thank God, I am going to get my green card. The challenge and the struggle was all worth it. It was worth it because not only do I get to see my mom, I am preparing myself for a better future for me, for opportunities my mom couldn’t have, like studying.”
Guardian Angels: ‘loving intelligently, changing hearts and minds’
The Rev. Alexia Salvatierra coordinates the Guardian Angels program for the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).
Elder said the program was the inspiration for developing Accompañeros, which is now facilitated by Presbyterian church partners.
Guardian Angels “offers an opportunity to visit immigration court to accompany Central American children and youth and to provide child care and dinner for Central American mothers — all of whom are fleeing terrible violence in their home countries,” Salvatierra told the Episcopal News.
While federal law does not require that noncitizens be given government-appointed lawyers in immigration proceedings, it does require a full and fair hearing before a judge. Yet, the Obama administration has said it has no constitutional obligation to provide counsel for children in immigration court, even though many children are too young to understand the legal process they face.
Case managers like Carmen Luna, who works with the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, said the sheer volume of cases is staggering and many immigration attorneys, who take the cases on a pro bono basis, are no longer able to help.
Which provides an opportunity for faith communities to be involved, according to Salvatierra. Faith communities have a unique calling and role to aid refugees, especially since “at the heart of our Christian vocation is the call to love with all our hearts, mind and strength,” she said in a July 1 email to the Episcopal News.
She urged involvement on various levels, with Guardian Angels or through coalitions like UCARE — Unaccompanied Central American Refugee Empowerment. UCARE grew out of the long-standing activist organization CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice). She said the Guardian Angels project belongs to UCARE and provides opportunities for broader advocacy to improve the current system.
“It is not enough to love with our hearts, we have to love as intelligently and effectively as we can. That includes an integrated spectrum of activities — from compassionate care to advocacy,” she said.
“This intelligent love can even be extended to our opponents, allowing us to change hearts and minds through deep dialogue that includes our faith principles and values — with our brothers and sisters in the church, our colleagues and our legislative leaders. We can minister to our leaders, encouraging them to live up to their calling as public servants.”
Taking it to the courts
The Rev. Richard Estrada, an associate priest at the Church of the Epiphany, Los Angeles, joined Elder and a delegation of human rights activists, clergy and others on a 2015 trip to Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico “to see, hear, and bring back compelling stories of what is happening to Central American refugees in Mexico” and to advocate for their better treatment.
He recalled witnessing sexual and labor exploitation, and hearing stories of disappearances, meeting children who had been maimed because of robberies, raids and injuries on the network of Mexican freight trains migrants hop on to try to reach the United States more quickly, known as “La Bestia” (the beast).
And yet, “the stories I came back with are about these people who have the ability, this human spirit to survive the fear and violence without an alternative,” he said. “If we value their lives, we must be their lifeline.”
He recalled meeting “a young man, Gerardo, 18, from Honduras and saw his amputated arm. The police threw him off La Bestia while it was moving. Despite everything, he was ready to go to Tapachula to get a prosthetic arm at a shelter. He’s determined to get back on route. This is who we’re fighting for.”
In February, the Diocese of Los Angeles, along with a coalition of human rights groups, sued the U.S. State Department to obtain financial records detailing how much it is paying the Mexican government to stop migrants and refugees from reaching the U.S. border. Also requested was information on the treatment of migrants in Mexican detention centers and if those detained are allowed to seek asylum in accordance with international and human rights law.
In April, Elder and others petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States on behalf of Central American migrants. The petition asks the commission to protect the migrants from mistreatment by both governments by ending the deportations.
According to the petition, around June 2014 “the governments of the United States and Mexico … agreed that Mexico, with financial, material and technical support from the United States, including millions provided under the $2.3 billion Merida Initiative, would exponentially increase the interdiction of migrants fleeing the Northern Triangle (Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala) so as to prevent them from seeking refuge in the United States.”
Since then, according to the petition, Mexico, under a program known as the Plan Frontera Sur, has increased deportations to the Northern Triangle by 71 percent.
The Rev. Tom Carey, vicar of the Church of the Epiphany, Los Angeles, who twice accompanied Elder to Mexico, said “both the Mexican and U.S. governments act against refugees with impunity … often forcing people into dangerous situations with gangs and human traffickers.”
“There are no protections” for them, Carey said. He recalled encountering a 17-year-old who escaped gang violence and requested asylum in Mexico. Instead, Mexican police arrested and jailed him.
“They simply held him until he was 18 and then denied his claim because he was no longer a child,” Carey said. “So, the thing we’re talking about is the absence of a rule of law.
“The United States is basically funding the militarization of that border between Guatemala and Mexico. Where is the money going? How much is being spent and for what?”
Advocacy: letters, visits and backpacks
Immigrants facing deportation who have legal representation are five times as likely to remain in the U.S., and three and a half times as likely to be released on bond as those without attorneys, according to Guillermo Torres, faith-rooted organizer for CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice).
But about 68 percent of those detained in Los Angeles last year did not have attorneys, and there is no right to government-appointed counsel.
“Detention makes fighting a case nearly impossible. Phone calls are expensive; internet limited or nonexistent; evidence is hard to compile,” said Torres. “The stakes in these proceedings are literally life and death for those who fear persecution. For others, losing their case could mean permanent separation from family and community.”
Deportation and detention also tear apart families, resulting in 1,000 children placed in foster care in L.A. County in a single year, said Torres. Given the per diem paid to foster care families, it amounts to about $9.5 million spent by the state and county on detention and deportation-related costs, he said.
Citing the success of a New York City universal representation program for about 200 detained immigrants, Torres told the Episcopal News that an advocacy coalition, Universal Representation for All Detained Immigrants, is asking Los Angeles County Supervisors to fund legal representation for all detainees. Analysis of the New York program indicated that foster care and detention related savings more than paid for the legal representation program.
Faith communities are asked to support the efforts by sending a letter to supervisors. (A sample letter is available online at bit.ly/29zBv5Z.)
Other advocacy efforts include organizing visits to meet with Congressional leaders about “the U.S. funding of the Mexican government for the interdiction of Central American refugee unaccompanied minors and families, and against the raids announced to target them,” Torres said.
CLUE also is collecting backpacks and school supplies for unaccompanied minors and the families of those detained. For more information, contact Torres by email at firstname.lastname@example.org