Immigration officials call on churches, nonprofits to help detained families

by Megan Sweas

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As more Central American migrants cross into the Southwest United States, the Department of Homeland Security wants community organizations to help care for detained families.

Two planes carried 270 detained immigrants to El Paso, Texas, for processing over the weekend. The immigrants, all members of families, are being released while they await deportation proceedings.

Churches and nonprofit organizations are working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensure that the families have access to food and services upon their release, said Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House, at a press conference Monday.

Immigration officials reached out to Annunciation House, which serves migrants, to warn of the influx of immigrants into El Paso, Garcia said, praising the collaboration. "We need your help; we want your help," he said they told him. "We want these people to be treated like human beings."

ICE has been releasing families from custody because of a lack of detention facilities, but it has come under fire in recent weeks for its treatment of released migrants.

In Phoenix, immigrant families were left at a Greyhound bus station with no resources. An immigrant advocacy group there told the local ABC affiliate in late May that they were seeing 50 to 75 families a day, often with small children.

ICE did not want to repeat the same mistakes in El Paso, Garcia said.

Eighty-eight people were released in El Paso over the weekend, with more released each day, said Taylor Levy of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. Forty-nine of the 88 were children, accompanied by at least one parent and ranging from babies to teens.

The immigrants had been in the custody of Customs and Border Protection for four to five days without access to showers or clean clothing. Churches and nonprofit organizations are giving them food, showers, clothing and temporary shelter.

So far, all have had family members to reunite with in the United States and do not need long-term housing, Levy said. Churches have offered space if needed, and volunteers are helping people make travel arrangements to get to their families.

The migrants are still in deportation proceedings and must report into Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Garcia said.

Forty-two of the 88 immigrants came from Honduras. The number of young people from Central America crossing the border in the past three years has increased dramatically, said Patrick Timmons, an expert in immigration issues who spoke at the press conference.

"Each one of these statistics is a human story where people are fleeing for their lives because they have no other choice left for them," Timmons said. Honduras has become the world's most violent country, with a homicide rate of 90 out of every 100,000, compared to Mexico's rate of 20, he said.

Timmons argued against the idea that lax policies and enforcement are encouraging minors and families to travel to the United States, saying that immigrants do not pay attention to the conversation in Washington. Instead, he said increased numbers are a product of 30 years of policies toward Central America.

"The U.S. government is overwhelmed with the problem in that it can't deal with the problem in the way in which it was doing so before," Timmons said.

From a policy perspective, one challenge is that the United States has 34,000 detention beds, and Congress mandates that 30,000 of these be filled at any given time, Garcia said. This policy gives ICE little flexibility to handle large influxes of migrants.

Garcia said he does not want to see Congress spend more money on detention facilities. "We're speaking about human beings and numbers that are beyond the ability to lock up," he said.

The situation in El Paso offers an opportunity to make a connection between advocacy and direct service, Sr. Janet Gildea, a Sister of Charity of Cincinnati, said after the press conference, noting that one year ago, the Nuns on the Bus tour was in El Paso to advocate for immigration reform.

"It was no coincidence that this happened on Pentecost weekend," Gildea said. "This is a real call to action on behalf of the church. This is literally Christ on our doorstep."

[Megan Sweas is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles. This story is part of her reporting for Global Sisters Report.]

A version of this story appeared in the June 20-July 3, 2014 print issue under the headline: Immigration officials call on churches, nonprofits to help detained families.

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