Just over a week ago, thirteen of our NT-NL leaders joined a group of close to 100 people representing Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and several other denominations attending the Texas Impact Courts & Ports Advocacy Intensive. We went to see for ourselves how the process works for those who are seeking LEGAL asylum in the United States. Or maybe I should say how it doesn’t work. What we learned on this trip is more about how the system is broken and becoming more so as time goes on because it rarely works.
We heard from those who have been observing the process, those who are involved in the process from many aspects, and those who are actually seeking asylum as we crossed the border into Matamoros for a short visit. My previous blog post was about the stories of those we encountered across the border, with this follow up now about the process piece. While I could go on and on about the process, here are my main takeaways about what the issues are that need to be addressed. Keep in mind, I do not claim to have answers on what is the best way to reform the immigration process, but I do see a humanitarian crisis at the border that we need to at least attempt to address. I also must add, these are MY views and opinions and I do not speak on behalf of the whole church. That being said, I would sure hope that the whole church would be outraged by the injustice and horrific treatment of our brothers and sisters in need.
While all of the speakers were enlightening, the most powerful part for me (other than meeting the families themselves) was hearing from the panel of attorneys and immigration advocates who are deeply involved in the legal process. They speak with words of experience both as those who struggle to work within the system and as those who hear the pain of the families in need. These are people who are deeply committed to seeing that justice is done, and yet are facing roadblocks that keep increasing every step of the way.
Historically, our country has admitted 80-90 thousand immigrants each year for legal asylum. That may sound like a lot, but keep in mind that we are a nation of over 300 million. That’s hardly a drop in the bucket. It’s also a drop in the bucket of those who NEED asylum. Currently, the numbers admitted have dropped to 30,000 and it has been proposed to drop that to 10,000 in the year 2020 (with rumors that it will be zeroed out altogether.) This is shameful.
Apart from the decreasing numbers, the process itself is being thwarted in every way possible. The worst and most recent addition is the Migrant Protection Policy, which does anything but protect. It’s also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy. This policy sends all who have crossed the border to actually request asylum back into Mexico even though almost all of them are not actually from there. The claim is that Mexico will give them shelter until they can get a hearing scheduled, but the reality is they are living in the streets and subject to the cartels that have endangered them all along. These cartels terrorize them by threatening, kidnapping, raping and forcing many into human trafficking. Thanks to the MPP, they now have even more opportunity and more victims to terrorize. They are the only ones who benefit from the MPP. This new system of “metering” basically forces people into paying money to the cartels in desperation. Even getting the hearings is near impossible as the lines are eternally long to get to the place to just get on the schedule. When they do manage to get one scheduled, it is often weeks out leaving them on the streets again to wait so that they can again get in line to get TO the hearing.
The hearings themselves are held on the Mexico side of the border in tents that function as court houses. Because of that, those who are seeking asylum are not allowed legal representation because their American attorneys (if they have been able to get one) are not allowed to be with them in those hearings. In addition to that, all of the forms are in English and must be filled out in English. Most of these folks cannot speak our language yet, let alone write their stories in this language. It is inherently unfair and becomes yet another roadblock.
On top of all that, there is also a new law that they must apply for refugee status in every single country they pass through on their way to the US. Most of the seekers come from places like Honduras, Cuba, Nicaragua, and El Salvador and they pass through many countries to get this far. This makes them even more vulnerable to broken systems and corruption, but it is especially hard on families (who must each be considered individually and often end up separated,) those who are victims of gender based violence, and those who are LGBTQ. These are the most vulnerable of any population and those in the most need of asylum, yet these laws are the hardest on them.
There is also talk of eliminating the process of sponsorship and family migration, which takes away the only option that some have to even apply. Every possible means of blocking the way is being put into practice. As a result, the border towns in Mexico are all becoming more dangerous, the cartels are becoming wealthier and more powerful, and the corruption grows exponentially.
I do realize this is an incredibly complex issue and there are no good answers to solving the problems. The only answer I do have is that the incredibly poorly named Migrant Protection Policy has to go! I also fully realize that many of my friends and family who would argue with what I have written, and for sure there are parishioners in our pews who will likely be angered by my words. (Again, reinforcing that these are MY views and I do not speak on behalf of the ELCA or the NT-NL Synod.) But as a called and ordained pastor of the ELCA, one of my responsibilities according to the constitution is to “speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.” I cannot be silent and be true to who I am called to be.