“For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me….” (Matthew 25:35)
Columbans throughout the world are committed to hospitality and standing in solidarity with migrants, “welcoming the stranger” in our midst as our faith teaches us. In recent years, however, increasing number of persons, including children, have fled various forms of violence in countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – as well as Mexico, leading to the current regional humanitarian crisis.
As a consequence, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of families and children arriving along the U.S.-Mexico border. In the past year alone, the number of unaccompanied children to cross the border has doubled to more than 66,000. Immigration authorities, overwhelmed by the humanitarian crisis, turned to local churches and community groups for help. Columbans in El Paso, Texas were among the first to respond, welcoming immigrant children and families to the Columban Mission Center during these past summer months.
Recently, from September 29 to October 2, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) conducted a visit to the border to monitor the human rights situation of these unaccompanied children and families who have crossed the southern border. The commission also hoped to visit immigration detention centers and other facilities where children and families are detained, but were denied “free and full access” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Their findings expressed real concerns about how immigrant children and families are being treated. They urged the United States “to establish appropriate measures to identify persons who may be refugees or who, due to their vulnerable condition, may have special protection needs, such as families and migrant children.” They added:
“Many of the persons who are migrating to the United States are fleeing various forms of violence, poverty, inequality, and also the effects of natural disasters in their countries of origin.”
They also expressed concern that “the conditions of detention . . . may aggravate the consequences of violence or trauma from which many are fleeing, and generate further trauma for the detained families.”
Another one of the “first responders” to welcome these children and their families to El Paso, along with the Columban Mission Center, is Annunciation House. In the past 35 years, Annunciation House has welcomed more than 110,000 immigrants escaping the violence of war, and now the violence of gangs and drug cartels in Central America and Mexico. According to Ruben Garcia, founder and director of the house, the “immigrant crisis” is above all a “moral crisis”:
“The immigrant crisis has nothing to do with the numbers of immigrants arriving at the border, for the land is vast and the space is welcoming. . . . It has nothing to do a lack of places to receive and shelter the many, for the churches are empty and in search of an identity of what it means to be church. What it does have to do with is our moral integrity as individuals and as a people, for we are in danger. We are in danger of looking inwardly and discovering only a profound emptiness. . . . This emptiness can only be filled by the God who comes to us in the distressing disguise of the poor, the immigrant poor.”