Fresh Produce for Maseca Mondays

Remember back in the spring when we talked about Maseca Mondays?

Well, Maseca Mondays continued throughout the summer! We pledged at the beginning of the pandemic that our Latino immigrant families would receive the basics to put together a meal – rice, beans, and tortilla mix.

But Maseca Mondays didn’t stop with just rice, beans, and Maseca. Thanks to a grant through The Table in the World, a ministry of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg, we are also able to offer farm-fresh vegetables and fruits through Cinco Panes, our weekly food pantry. And we’ll be able to continue our commitments into the fall to ensure that vulnerable Latino families have access to the basics for a healthy, nutritious diet.

Over the past six months, Latino immigrant families across our nation have been some of the hardest hit by the coronavirus. At one point, just over 50% of the persons who texted positive in our community were Latino.

Many Latinos worked in jobs and were considered essential workers. While restaurants closed their dining rooms, they were still providing carry-out and drive-through services – and kitchen workers remained employed. Construction workers and those who work in meat-packing and poultry industries remained employed, as did agricultural workers. While still receiving a paycheck was good, it also meant that people were directly exposed to the coronavirus.

Within a short time, many workers became ill and entire families were quarantined, which left some families with no source of income. These same families didn’t receive unemployment benefits or economic stimulus payments, so they struggled with rent, utilities, and food costs. And on top of the other challenges, children were engaged in at-home and online learning, and many parents couldn’t return to full-time jobs as they had in the past. And while many people have returned to work, their hours have been reduced, and they got so far behind while they were not working that it has been difficult to catch up.

Immigrants are proud — and reluctant to ask for help. “There are people who need help more than we do,” I hear quite often. I assure people that there is plenty of help available, and encourage them to please take a bag of veggies or fruit. It’s not just about “need,” I assure them; it’s also about nutrition and health.

One of the biggest surprises has been the quality of the products that we are providing. One week, when we provided freshly-harvested carrots, one lady assured me that she really didn’t like carrots very much, so she would just take a couple to try. A few days later, she called to report that she’d “never tasted carrots like those carrots!” Many of our clients return with stories of a new recipe or a having been introduced to a new vegetable.

Having a sufficient amount of fresh fruits and veggies that have to be distributed quickly has encouraged us to expand our distribution model and rely more on community members to also distribute to their friends and neighbors. People are more likely to see need in their own circles, and to be part of the helping chain. One note reads, “Many thanks for the food . . . would it be possible to help my sister-in-law? She doesn’t receive any help at all.”

We’re very thankful for all of our community partners and individuals who have helped us provide for the needs of the Latino community. We’ve provided for the basic food needs of approximately 45-50 families per week; distributed countless face masks; and provided emergency assistance in the form of rental assistance, basic medicines, and hygiene products.

Thank you, not just from LUCHA Ministries, but also from each of those families who has been helped through your generosity during difficult times.

Just Now Seeing the Worst

There seems to be a lot of talk these days about reopening things and getting on with our lives. About the damage that is done to our economy. About “herd immunity.” About wearing facemasks or not.

I recently read an article that stated that overall, our response to the coronavirus in the US has been typically “American” – focused very much on our individual rights and not wanting anyone to tell us what to do.

I get it, I really do. But from where I stand, from my daily ministry context as Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Field Personnel working with Spanish-speaking immigrants and refugees, I’m seeing a very different side of things.

Several weeks ago, a single mom of three called to tell me that her sister, who lives with her, had tested positive for COVID-19. The entire household (two adults and five children) was quarantined. Another lady asked for help as well that week. She contracted COVID-19 at work and lived in a home with several other families. She asked for food and toiletries so that she could quarantine in her room and try to keep others safe.

That week, we put in place a protocol to help Spanish-speaking Latino COVID-19 patients that includes regular check-ins with them by phone or text and leaving food or boxes of supplies on their doorsteps. We include facemasks, acetaminophen, soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste.

Since those first two reports of illness among people we know, we’ve heard of many more persons in the Latino community who have tested positive for the virus. They’re all immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, and Mexico.  They include:

A paternal grandmother who took over the care of her grandson when the toddler’s mom and other grandparents tested positive. The baby also has COVID-19.

A recently-arrived single mom seeking asylum shows symptoms of COVID-19 but hasn’t been tested. Her landlord insists that she needs to move, but she can’t find a job to pay rent and has no friends willing to take her in.

An older gentleman with kidney failure has been in the US for many years. He rides the bus for dialysis treatments several times each week and was recently hospitalized with COVID-19.

A couple who were discretely trying to earn enough money to pay the rent and avoid homelessness by doing odd jobs in the community. Both became ill and tested positive for COVID-19 and are now quarantined, along with their 76-year-old mother and two young sons.

An asylum seeker under electronic monitoring. He’s a single dad who rents a room and has recently moved to a new house and worries that he may have infected others before he became ill.

And more and more of our immigration legal services clients are unable to complete crucial steps in their immigration process. Some are ill themselves, but other parts of the system have also been affected by COVID-19. They may be unable to complete the required physical exam, or have difficulty scheduling appointments to sign necessary documents in a timely manner.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, data on ethnicity is included for approximately 65% of the COVID-19 cases reported by our region. Of the 690 positive cases in the Rappahannock Health District where data on ethnicity is included, 50% are persons of Latino or Hispanic heritage; Latinos represent 33% of the total 1,059 positive cases. For a geographic area with a Latino population of just under 11%, this is a rather astounding number. And particularly when you consider that this population is often uninsured or underinsured.

These are some of the most vulnerable persons in our community. Early on in the pandemic, as people were losing jobs and struggling to adjust to at-home schooling and the loss of childcare, many of the folks among whom we work were still doing OK. Hours were cut, but many reported that they were still employed. Older children cared for the younger ones, or parents with reduced work schedules were able to cover the bases.

Our Latino friends were working in restaurant kitchens, where clean-up or prep work still had to be done for carry-out orders. They were still working on construction or remodeling sites and engaging in day-labor type jobs, or doing landscaping and other outdoor work. They weren’t in jobs where they could work from home or engage in social distancing.

But now, the effects of the coronavirus have hit the immigrant population full force, and while there is an overall clamor to open things back up and get back to normal, what we see is the panic within the Spanish-speaking community as they must now isolate themselves and quarantine — and see the earnings from those last few work hours disappear. They’re no longer OK.

They can get by on less, but it’s difficult to get by on nothing.

Immigrants Face High Living Costs, Lack of Safety Net During Pandemic

by Sue Smith

“Can you help?” she asked. “We’ve just moved to the US, and my 75-year-old mom needs to find a primary care provider so that she can get new prescriptions for her medications.”

Our contact with migrant families often begins with a specific request for assistance. And usually, that’s the beginning of a long-term relationship with a family.

It was Monday, March 2, and not exactly the best time for this South American family of five to start fresh in the US. Less than a week later, COVID-19 would hit hard.

The Acero* family arrived in the U.S. in mid-February. Their business had failed, and they were at the point of bankruptcy.

Both Amada* and her husband, Santiago*, were willing to accept any jobs they could find to pay off debt and get back on their feet – and to eventually return home.

Despite the fact that both appear to be educated professionals, they weren’t looking for professional-level jobs.

“We’ll wash dishes, work in the kitchen, clean houses – whatever it takes,” said Amada. “We know it’s hard to start over, especially in the U.S., but we have nothing back home. We had to take a chance.”

After locating a physician for Amada’s mother, the family’s next step was to get the kids into school. The couple’s two sons, ages 9 and 12, needed school physicals and immunizations, which cost just over $500.

The parents had to meet residency requirements to enroll the boys in school by providing documented proof that they actually lived in the school district. This was difficult, because they were in a temporary housing situation, staying with friends.

With the boys finally in school, both adults could now work. Santiago quickly found a job, and soon after, Amada found one as well – both working in restaurants. Amada’s mother was available at home to help out with the boys.

The next hurdle was permanent housing. They quickly realized that renting an apartment for the family was out of the question, even with both adults working.

With savings nearly depleted, they were barely making enough to pay the first month’s rent, much less the one-month deposit that was also required when they signed a lease. Not to mention food, clothing and transportation expenses.

According to a report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “Out of Reach 2019”, a family should expect to dedicate approximately 30% of their monthly income to housing costs.

In the state of Virginia, the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a 2-bedroom apartment is $1,203. A family working at the minimum wage rate (currently $7.25/hour in Virginia) would need to hold 3.2 full-time jobs in order to afford a 2-bedroom apartment. That translates into 128 hours of work per week.

The FMR in Fredericksburg and its surrounding counties is actually higher than the state average. FMR for a 2-bedroom apartment is $1,665, and the family would need to hold 4.4 full-time jobs at the state’s $7.25 minimum wage in order to afford housing, or work a total of 177 hours per week.

Many immigrants, refugees, asylees, etc., enter the job market at extremely low levels and often work less than 40 hours per week.

Desperate for income and with minimal English skills, they frequently find work in restaurants, housekeeping or janitorial services, construction, landscaping and outdoor maintenance, etc. These jobs provide average hourly wages ranging from Virginia’s $7.25 minimum wage to around $14-$16 per hour for a construction helper.

The Aceros were in shock. They realized that their family of five would need at least two bedrooms. And not only did they need to pay the first month’s rent in advance, but they also needed to provide a security deposit equal to one month’s rent.

This wasn’t possible on the couple’s two salaries from their work in restaurants. The family was forced to rent two bedrooms in the home of strangers.

It’s been over a month since I met the Acero family, and COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on immigrant and refugee families like theirs.

The boys were in school only two days before spring break began early and abruptly, and classes have now been cancelled for the rest of the year.

Schools are still struggling with how to meet the needs of students with limited access to technology. The boys are at home all day, but unable to complete their schoolwork in English. While schools are working on ways to support English Language Learners or parents who aren’t fluent in English, this requires time to get everything in place.

Santiago lost his job on a Friday, and Amada on the following Monday. Amada’s mother initially received one month of medications through a reduced-cost clinic, but she needs to refill her prescriptions.

This month’s rent on the rooms is paid, but what happens next? There are no shelters for families like this, and friends simply can’t take in a family of five in these difficult times.

As difficult as things are for the Acero family, they are only one of thousands of families across the United States who are being affected in some way by COVID-19. Many don’t have a safety net to rely on, as their friends and family members are in similar situations.

Through LUCHA Ministries, we continue to provide food for families like the Aceros, to help them gain access to healthcare, and to provide other forms of assistance when we are able.

And we serve as advocates, intervening when we can and educating others on the plight of vulnerable migrants. We pray for them and call or text often to check up on them.

In spite of everything, Amada gives thanks for the blessings of being healthy and safe and together as a family. “God is good. God is so good,” she says.

This article was originally published on EthicsDaily.com April 30, 2020.

DO UNTO OTHERS: A Devotional Thought

by Greg Smith, CBF Field Personnel

From a transitional home, Ricardo* told me his story. Of being at the center of political power, of advising government ministers and overseeing the daily routines of powerful people. Of enjoying life with his family, watching his daughter grow, knowing security and accomplishment through hard work and sacrifice.

His story continued. Of being unjustly accused of corruption by the incoming president. Of being followed in the streets and threatened on the other end of the telephone line.

Of a government-orchestrated trial intent on his incarceration . . . or worse.

Of living in constant, maddening fear. Of fleeing to protect his family and himself. Of not seeing his daughter since the day he left over two years ago. Of the worry, tears and clinically diagnosed depression that resulted.

But thankfully it didn’t end there. His story continued as he spoke of the help offered him, the counseling he received, the asylum case he won, and the first glimmers of hope and new life he now saw.

The essence of all Scripture, Jesus said, was to do to others what we longed for them to do to us. The Golden Rule of Matthew 7:12. Ricardo longed for many things from others he could no longer do for himself: security, shelter, medical treatment, and even daily sustenance.

But beyond all this, what he deeply longed for and needed was the chance to tell his story. To plead his case before the government. To feel and know he was being heard, and in that knowledge to feel and know his life had value and meaning, that his story did matter — that, essentially, he mattered.

At LUCHA Ministries, Inc., we’re at the end of the migration route. We see folks who’ve arrived in their destination communities with the hope of settling down and beginning to build a new life. We offer immigration legal counsel, but also meet basic human needs as we help migrants settle into our community.

With gratitude and praise to God, we also recognize the life-saving ministry to intending immigrants and asylees along the US-Mexico border by churches, pastors and others supported by generous followers of Jesus (click here to read about Border Ministries through Fellowship Southwest).

But beyond these basic immediate needs also lies the longing to tell their stories and be heard by government officials, judges, anyone who can grant them hope and a future and a restored sense of life and self-worth.

Jesus calls us to do to others what we wish others would do for us. So let’s open our ears and listen to the stories of our immigrants friends and neighbors. Let’s pray for their chance to tell their stories for the opportunity to live and work in our country without fear or threat of violence. And let’s plead their cases before our elected officials to open all avenues for those at the border and those in our communities to tell their stories and be heard.

Let’s do for our immigrant friends and neighbors what we would want others to do for us.

* Name has been changed.

The Haircut

On a hot September day, I met Denis, a 14-year-old migrant from Honduras, and helped him register for school in his new community. He and his mom had only been in the US for a few weeks, and a friend offered the two a room and a chance to begin life fresh.

Denis had gotten a haircut before moving to Fredericksburg, but no one had the time to take him to the barber shop during the three months he was here.  But he finally got a haircut on the first day of Christmas vacation, as he prepared for a visit with his dad and a move to a new community and school.

It was important to Denis to make a good impression on his dad, because it was only the second time he had seen him since he was a baby. “It’s hard for my dad to relate to me. He doesn’t know me, and he thinks of me as a little kid,” Denis says. “And he isn’t sure what to talk to me about. Our worlds are so different.”

And now, having just turned 15, his long, shaggy hair made him look much younger. “I’m the oldest — and smallest — person in my [8th grade] class, so I really don’t want to look any younger than I am!” he said.

Denis is the youngest of five children and is being raised by a single mom. His dad left Honduras for the US when Denis was 7 months old, and at the time, he wasn’t interested in responsibility or a long-term commitment. As a young man in his 30s, he scarcely gave thought to moving to the US and leaving behind Denis and his mom, along with another son.

But time has a way of changing people. Denis’ dad has come to realize all that he gave up, and he wants to make things right with his son. And Denis is willing to give him that chance.

The two had not actually met until this past fall when Denis’ dad drove nearly five hours to meet him face to face. They went to lunch together, saw a movie, and did some shopping. They now talk often on the phone, and Denis’ dad sent him a birthday gift. Slowly, carefully, they’re developing a relationship.

At school, Denis was assigned to an 8th grade ESOL class with kids from mostly Central America and the Middle East, and he thrived. He’s learning English at a good pace; he’s intelligent and motivated, polite and kind, makes friends easily and is liked by everyone.

But while school was going well, his home life wasn’t. A difficult relationship with Denis’ mom’s “significant other” was making his life miserable, and Denis and his mom made the decision to leave the area once school was out. A move means living much farther from Denis’ dad, and leaving all of Denis’ new friends behind, but they’ve decided it’s for the best.

Which brings me back to the haircut. I wanted to do something special for Denis before he left, and he’d been begging for someone to take him for a haircut. I called my salon*, shared his story, and they graciously agreed to not only find an appointment for him, but to set him up with the products he needed to maintain his new “look.”

Denis got a first-class salon experience complete with a shampoo (and head massage), haircut and style, and a complimentary beverage (CocaCola) to sip on during the process. It was only the second time a female stylist had cut his hair, and he told me later that he’d been terrified. “The last time a girl cut my hair, it didn’t turn out so well,” he laughed. “I was so nervous!”

Thanks to the staff at the salon, this young man ended his semester and time in our community on a high note. He used his English skills to tell the stylist exactly what he wanted, and she practiced her Spanish with him. Their kindness helped make up for the pain of hurtful words and feelings of rejection. Their respectful treatment of him restored his sense of self-esteem and helped him prepare for his visit with his dad and his move to a new place.

Their kindness helped restore my faith in the power of simple, considerate acts by good people to bring healing and hope to others.

*A special thanks to Julie and the folks at Downtown Salon in Fredericksburg, Virginia for making this happen!

It’s Not Just a Box of Food

Around fifteen years ago, LUCHA Ministries began providing food assistance to Eusebio, an immigrant from Mexico who had been hit by a car. His lower leg was severely damaged and required multiple surgeries to avoid amputation. He lost his job, his income, his independence — and his dignity.

Eusebio had just about given up hope of recovery when members of his Bible study group (who were also part of LUCHA) came to his aid. He wanted to work and to earn his keep, but he saw himself as “a cripple.” When we discovered that Eusebio could cook, we suggested that he talk with his housemates (all single guys) about exchanging his culinary skills for rent. To his surprise, they agreed!

That year, Eusebio received a turkey and all the fixings for a full Thanksgiving meal for eight. He hobbled around the kitchen on his crutches, resting and elevating his damaged leg as needed, and prepared a wonderful Thanksgiving feast for his housemates.

Eusebio continued to cook in exchange for a roof over his head for the next year or so, until his leg was healed enough to return to Mexico. LUCHA suggested a creative plan that allowed Eusebio to gain back much of his self-esteem and dignity.

It wasn’t just a box of food.  It was a restoration of Eusebio’s dignity.

Ten years ago, after a day of food deliveries, I had one box left in my car. Somehow, we had miscalculated the number of food recipients. I mentally compiled a list of anyone I knew who lived nearby and made an impromptu stop at the home of Gisela.

Gisela was a single mom with three kids, who had recently separated from an abusive spouse. Her middle child had cerebral palsy, and she often struggled with a consistent work schedule that revolved around his needs and complicated childcare issues.

I knocked and asked if she needed a box of food. “How did you know?” Gisela asked. “Come, look in my kitchen.” There were a few stray condiments in the refrigerator, and nearly bare cupboards. “I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said through tears. But God knew.  God had directed me to Gisela that day.

It wasn’t just a box of food. It was proof that God hadn’t abandoned Gisela.

Not only was God with Gisela that day, but God also gave her a heart for helping others.  This week, the Cinco Panes volunteer team prepared 20 boxes of food to be distributed in the community, and Gisela is one of those volunteers.

Over 120 persons were the recipients of those food boxes, many of whom are among the most vulnerable immigrants in our community. Today’s list included persons with medical conditions (diabetes, renal failure, and cancer), a hospice patient, an amputee, and two families with children with disabilities. It included persons whose spouse had been deported, and victims of domestic violence.

Some boxes were picked up, some were delivered by the volunteers or by friends and neighbors, clients themselves who offered to take a box to someone else. The 8 client volunteers would also benefit, and one of those volunteers was Gisela. “I volunteer with LUCHA, because you’ve always helped us, the Latino community, whenever we needed you. I want to do that, too, for others.”

These weren’t just 20 boxes of food.   They were boxes of hope, and encouragement, and healing, and reminders of God’s love.

Hidden Pain and Irrevocable Damage

On his first Halloween, Daniel* was dressed as a clown, complete with a colorful, baggy suit, big orange hair, and an exaggerated, painted red smile. He was excited to share his loot with me, digging through his bag to find a Reece’s Peanut Butter cup, my favorite.

Daniel is a 17-year-old unaccompanied minor from Central America who was sent to the US by his parents. The level of taunts, verbal abuse, and physical attacks had made it impossible for him to safely leave his home. He couldn’t go to school, church, or the local store without fear of being grabbed, thrown to the ground, and beaten and kicked.

At the time I met him, Daniel had been in an unaccompanied minor’s shelter for over nine months, waiting on clearance in order to join a sponsor in the US. Sponsors are often parents or close relatives; some sponsors are distant relatives or close family friends. Sponsors and those who share lodging with them must pass criminal background checks, and the sponsor must be able to care for the child in a safe, appropriate home environment.

Decisions to emigrate to the US aren’t made lightly and kids pay a high price

Two of Daniel’s potential sponsors were denied, and the third, a cousin, was still awaiting approval.

Meanwhile, Daniel gradually lost hope as he waited  – hope of starting school, of going to a football game, of spending the holidays with someone, of being wanted.

Luisa*, a young social worker in Virginia, understands what unaccompanied minors go through. Luisa lived much of her life with her family in the US.  She is fluent in English, attended school in the US, and has crossed the border many times to visit her family.

But one day, Luisa’s luck ran out.  During a trip to rejoin her mother in the US, she was apprehended as an unaccompanied minor and spent months in a detention facility. Three days before her 18th birthday, neither her mother nor sister had been approved as sponsors, and Luisa was scheduled to be transferred to an adult detention facility. Case workers managed to place Luisa at the last moment with a foster family on the east coast, far away from her family.

Luisa describes her foster parents as OK, but she never bonded with them or felt like part of a family. “I was practically an adult when they took me in, an easy foster kid. But they didn’t really want me,” she says.

Luisa made the best of things and completed her senior year of high school.  She worked a full-time job to pay her way through college (with no financial assistance), and she was accepted into graduate school.

Today, Luisa is a US citizen, has earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work, and has a job in her field. But she thinks about those “lost years” when she was unable to be reunited with her family, when she lived far away from them and was unable to visit.

“I didn’t really celebrate the accomplishments in my life because there was no one to share them with.”  No one to attend her graduations, no one with her at the naturalization ceremony.  “It just wasn’t the same after detention and foster care,” said Luisa.  Luisa’s life was forever changed by separation and detention.

During FY 2019, nearly 73,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the southwest border.  All faced some form of detention as family members or sponsors were identified and screened.

The irony isn’t lost that Daniel chose to be a clown on Halloween. The huge painted-on grin and gaudy costume hid  the real Daniel: a sad, depressed kid who desperately missed his parents and younger siblings.

Daniel was shuffled between several different detention facilities and considered a security risk due to a suicide attempt. “I grabbed myself by the neck with both hands and squeezed as hard as I could.” Sometimes, Daniel said, he just wanted to die, because nobody wanted  him.

Recently-arrived kids hide behind fake smiles to maintain the outward appearance of being happy.  They struggle with grief and loss as they miss their families, friends, and familiar surroundings.  They struggle with language and culture, often alone.

Others, like Luisa, acknowledge that they’re among the lucky ones.  In spite of the challenges they’ve experienced, they’re using their own experiences of pain, separation, and loss to help others.

But the fact is, every child who is separated from his or her family is forever changed.  They will never be able to recover this time.

Ministry Beyond the Border

There is much attention focused these days on the crisis at the border, but most folks eventually leave the border and are absorbed into new communities. And settling into new and unfamiliar communities throughout the US presents a new set of challenges for migrants.

Once people are released from detention or processing, they make their way to join friends or relatives in cities and towns across the US. Many go to the nearest bus station and head for places like North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia, Illinois, Washington, New York, Florida, and Virginia. Places they’ve never seen and can’t spell or pronounce, headed to an address scribbled on a piece of paper or stored in their phone.

Lucretia*and her 8-year-old daughter, Rosmeri,* who are from Guatemala, were released from detention in Texas and headed first to Ohio to join Lucretia’s sister, who had helped pay their way to the United States, and then to Virginia, where they joined Lucretia’s husband and will await their court dates.

“We tried to stay in my country,” said Lucretia. “I moved from my village to [Guatemala City] to find work, but there were no jobs there, either.” Language, culture, and discrimination against indigenous peoples makes finding jobs even more difficult, particularly for women.

Life has become intolerable for many indigenous peoples in the Guatemalan highlands as changing weather patterns have led to crop failures, and farming families have been pushed deeper into poverty and desperation. Like Lucretia, many migrants seek options in Guatemala or Mexico before making the dangerous journey to the US.

I visited Lucretia on a hot June afternoon soon after she arrived in Virginia. She was expecting me and opened the door a few inches to peer out. She was hesitant to invite me inside, but once she realized I spoke Spanish, we began to build trust. Lucretia keeps the lights dim and the curtains tightly closed, and she panics if someone knocks unexpectedly. She’s fearful not only of strangers but also of her housemates, a single dad and his two small sons from Honduras. Rosmeri sits halfway up the stairs and listens to our conversations, nodding shyly and avoiding eye contact when asked questions.

Lucretia is on electronic monitoring with an ankle bracelet but she isn’t sure how it works, as all the accompanying paperwork is in English. Quiche is her native language, and she can read, write, and speak basic Spanish. She’s an evangelical Christian.

Lucretia rarely leaves her house, and when she does, she’s overwhelmed by language and cultural issues. Stores are big, Walmart is absolutely overwhelming, everything is in English, and she can’t find the things she wants or needs. She feels an urgency to “earn her keep,” but can’t find a job without a work permit. She can’t secure an immigration lawyer for her asylum case without funds to pay, and can’t work to earn the funds until she submits an asylum application. Money from her husband’s work goes for food, clothing, and rent.

With Lucretia and Rosmeri, we’ll begin the long, difficult process of helping them settle into their new community. Rosmeri has never been to school, so she’ll be starting first grade in August. We’ve scheduled a school physical and a visit to the local health department for immunizations. We’ll help fill out the paperwork. We purchased lice treatment for the family and coached Lucretia through the steps on how to use it (Rosmeri contracted lice while in ICE detention). We’re providing referrals to Spanish-speaking immigration attorneys who can help with asylum cases. We helped secure furniture for the house, are providing food, and will make sure that Rosmeri has adequate clothing and school supplies to begin classes. We’ll take them to Open House at the local school to meet Rosmeri’s teacher.

Migrants leaving the border regions breathe a sigh of relief as they leave, glad to finally be on their way to new lives in the US but unprepared for the next set of challenges. Children must be enrolled in school, adults quickly find that it isn’t easy to generate income without a work permit, and they must navigate life with an electronic monitoring device strapped to their ankle. They’re required to report their whereabouts to ICE and it must match the data on the device or they are subject to detention. They live in constant fear of doing something wrong and being detained once more.

Agencies like LUCHA Ministries are located far from the border region, but we’re committed to long-term ministry with migrants as they adapt and settle into their new homes. We’re thankful to the churches and individuals who choose to partner with us. Our goal is to walk alongside them for as long as it takes to help them settle in to our communities.

*names changed

For more information, see: How Climate Change is Fueling the US Border Crisis, https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/how-climate-change-is-fuelling-the-us-border-crisis

Poverty, Unemployment, Violence Drive Guatemalan Emigration, https://www.apnews.com/0b7f28a8ab5645e58fb2d708d27e3adf

Migration an Economic Necessity for Rural Mexican Families

In Chiapas, the rural southwest state in Mexico, issues surrounding migration are a little different than what we hear about on the news.

Communities aren’t controlled by gangs. You don’t witness acts of violence on the streets, and you cannot assume that pretty much everyone could have a potential asylum case.

These largely indigenous communities are defined by poverty.

But not just poverty as in a lack of sufficient economic resources, or as defined by Merriam-Webster, “the state of one who lacks a usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions.”

Rather, poverty for the indigenous people of these communities is the result of a crushing, systemic problem with its roots in decades of injustice and exploitation, beginning with the “encomienda” system under Spanish rule.

In the early days of Spanish conquest of the New World, the granting of encomiendas was a way to reward Spanish subjects for loyalty through grants of land – and the peoples who inhabited that land.

The book, “Mexico: A Country Study,” explains that, under this system, the indigenous peoples provided “tribute and free labor to the encomendero,” who was in turn responsible for “their welfare, their assimilation into Spanish culture and their Christianization.”

In this way, the Spanish crown ensured the subordination of the indigenous peoples.

The ensuing “hacienda” system, similar to share-cropping, also dates to the colonial period and continued well into the 20th century.

Wealthy landowners, often from another country, held large tracts of land and used the local resident population as workers. The landowners profited while the peasants struggled to survive.

Today, the rancheros are gone, and the land is mostly owned by the peasant workers.

Under the hacienda system, large families were needed to produce more workers.

But as the land came under the ownership of the peasants themselves, large families quickly became a liability.

There simply wasn’t enough land to divide among the sons or to produce enough food to sustain the family.

Today, subsistence farming is the norm, and families must buy or rent additional land to get by.

However, buying or renting land takes cash, and little cash is generated in these communities.

Migration has become an economic necessity in Chiapas and other rural parts of Mexico and Central America.

Farmers grow corn and beans and raise chickens, turkeys, sheep and pigs. With few opportunities to generate income, young men and boys are forced to leave home to work in “el norte” (northern Mexico or the U.S.).

They leave once crops are harvested and return in time for planting when the spring rains begin.

The minimum wage in Mexico is between $4 and $5 per day, and the income they generate allows the family to rent or purchase enough land to sustain the family.

Eventually, they hope to purchase enough land to sustain their own families.

Manuel is a pastor and comes from a large family of Christian believers.

“We were all sons,” he said, all in line to receive a portion of his dad’s property. “There were too many of us and not enough land,” he said, laughing. They are forced to rent land in order to feed and raise their children.

Manuel’s two youngest brothers are in the United States. “They made the decision to leave home and send money back, so that we can continue to farm and support our families,” he explained.

The hope is that they will be able to purchase more land, and that one day the brothers can return.

“Maybe this year they’ll come back. But they say the same thing every year,” Manuel said sadly.

It’s a Monday morning. A soft rain falls, roosters crow, turkeys gobble and dogs look for dry spots to curl up and sleep.

It’s cool, muddy and miserable, and the trek to the tin-enclosed outhouse is down a steep hill.

There’s no running water, and the kitchen is a dirt-floor shed, where food is cooked over an open fire.

We spent the morning presenting details of a community development project to be managed by Manuel and Fausto, another local pastor.

But the church has gathered, and no one wants to miss an opportunity for worship.

Manuel and his older brother grab their guitars and begin to play and sing in clear, strong voices and in beautiful harmony, “Que Lindo es mi Cristo” (“How Beautiful is my Christ”), a song by Marcus Witt.

“How beautiful is my Christ, How great is His love … You left your throne to come here. Looking for the lost, you found me.”

These are communities where people feel powerless to change their circumstances and where many lose hope. But suddenly, the community doesn’t feel so hopeless anymore.

Note: This article originally appeared on March 18, 2019 in EthicsDaily.com

Ensuring Education, Literacy for Everyone

“Could you please fill this out for me? I don’t have my glasses.”

Early in my work with Spanish-speaking immigrants, I would request a basic form or information in Spanish to allow the person the dignity of filling it out on his or her own.

The person often looked like a deer in the headlights and asked me to fill it out for them.

And then, I finally understood. The person couldn’t read or write but was too embarrassed to say so.

In the U.S, we pretty much take literacy (and education) for granted. Most states have compulsory education laws requiring students to attend school through age 16, and in some cases, until age 18.

Ninety-nine percent of the adult population (age 15 and above) are able to read and write.

Mexico has compulsory education through 12th grade (age 18) and a literacy rate of nearly 95 percent.

In Guatemala, however, compulsory education is only through sixth grade (age 14), and literacy rates there are the lowest in Central America at approximately 75 percent.

And while education is compulsory, there is little enforcement in either country.

Education may be “free,” but there are challenges, many of which are economic. Students must still buy books, supplies, uniforms, shoes and so on.

And if they don’t live in the immediate community near the school, they need transportation.

Many rural schools in Latin America are made up of multigrade classrooms; there is no school beyond sixth grade except in larger towns.

And for many children, their parents don’t see the need for education; they’re needed to work at home. And besides, education isn’t going to lead to a better job in their communities.

Jaime grew up in rural Mexico. He estimates he may have attended as much as two years of elementary school.

He remembers walking a long way and then quit going. “My dad didn’t see the point,” he explained. “We lived in the country, and he needed us to work.”

Jaime migrated to the U.S, and about 10 years ago, when his fourth son was born, he expressed a desire to learn to read “so one day I can read a book with him – in English.”

He worked hard with a tutor and then worked with his children to learn the basics, beginning with the alphabet and forming basic words in both English and Spanish.

Jaime then began to study for the U.S. naturalization test. He mastered basic writing skills, like writing his name and address and creating simple sentences in English.

He and his wife both passed the test, and he’s now a U.S citizen. (You can see what’s on the test here).

Particularly at risk are those who are female, poor, indigenous and live on the margins of mainstream society.

For indigenous children in Latin America, the schools teach in Spanish, not in their native language, and most teachers are not reflective of their culture.

Some children lose interest in school, while others have few opportunities available to them once they finish primary school.

Claudia, a single mom from Guatemala, grew up in the western highlands of Guatemala and finished sixth grade. But there was no secondary education option available.

Some students moved to a larger town to study, but that was expensive and required leaving home to live with a friend, a relative or in a boarding house.

“Girls didn’t do that in my village,” she said. “They got married, usually by the time they were 14.”

Claudia convinced her parents to allow her to migrate to Mexico for work and later she came to the U.S.

“I wanted more out of my life, and opportunities for better education became more important when my daughter was born.”

Claudia works hard with her daughter, Gris, to help maintain her indigenous language — Acateco, a Mayan language — as well as Spanish.

Gris began first grade in the U.S. and is trilingual. She loves reading and has introduced her mom to the library. They know where to locate books in Spanish and often read together.

Julita was the first of my clients to ever express the need for “glasses” nearly 15 years ago. She was 35, spoke no English and her Spanish was stilted, as it wasn’t her first language.

She didn’t know her birthdate and couldn’t spell her name or give you her address.

She and other indigenous family members left southern Mexico in the late ’90s when their water supply was poisoned in an effort to run them off their land.

While Julita is illiterate, she recognizes the value of education for her children, ages 14 and 16.

In spite of not being able to help with homework or engage well with their teachers, Julita and her husband have sought out enrichment programs and encouraged extracurricular activities for the kids, and today, they’re healthy, well-rounded teens.

Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to education.”

For some, that comes later rather than sooner. For others, educational goals are realized alongside their children.

And for still others, they strive to see their children have every opportunity for the best education possible.

Note: This article originally appeared on March 28, 2019 in EthicsDaily.com as part of a series for Public Schools Week.