A Dangerous Journey They know the dangers and they come anyway. What does that say about the situations they left?

Decision to immigrate to the US aren't made lightly
The decision to immigrate to the US isn’t made lightly, no matter what the circumstances are in one’s home country

 Since 2014, Central Americans have been fleeing their homes en masse in hopes of making it to the United States. Officially recognized by President Obama as a humanitarian crisis , the Northern Triangle region (including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) is plagued by dangerously high rates of gang-related violence, political insecurity, and organized crime groups; in fact, this region hosts some of the most violent countries in the world, with El Salvador noted as “the world’s most violent country not at war” (http://on.cfr.org/1PTk574).

Contrary to Popular Belief

This violence is one of the most critical factors for the rise in Central American immigration to the U.S. in recent years. A Pew Research Center poll found that in 2014 undocumented immigrants comprised 3.5% of the total U.S. population, of which Mexican immigrants make up 49% . Contrary to popular belief, there has actually been a decrease in Mexican nationals immigrating to the U.S.; but, the rise in Central American immigration has kept the percentage of undocumented immigrants around a steady 3.5% of the total U.S. population.

Once these asylum-seekers finally reach the United States (if they even do), their dangerous journey does not get any easier. The proliferation of anti-immigrant rhetoric and action within the public and political realms has given undocumented immigrants little chance of hope for reprieve.

So, why don’t they immigrate legally?

Greg Smith, co-founder and coordinator of LUCHA Ministries, explained the four pathways for legal immigration to the U.S. at the Cooperative Baptist Foundation’s annual Advocacy in Action event in Washington, D.C. last week. Legal immigration can occur through family ties, employment opportunities, a diversity lottery, or as asylum; however, each of these methods has a very long process with limited chance of success.

Family ties: This option has many stipulations that the immigrants must go through to take place successfully, most importantly having a petitioning US citizen or legal permanent resident relative, and even then there is very limited availability for legal immigrants this way.

Employment opportunities: Probably one of the better-known pathways to immigration, this option provides only 10,000 visas for unskilled workers annually through the Third Preference EB-3 category, with the backlog for filling these visas sometimes a decade or more.

Diversity lottery: This lottery provides the chance for people from underrepresented nationalities to immigrate to the United States with the possibility of citizenship. As you can guess, this is not a likely option for Central American immigrants.

Asylum: The U.S. provides asylum to refugees fleeing humanitarian crises in their home countries. Although President Obama has recognized the violence and organized crime of the Northern Triangle to be a humanitarian crisis, Central American immigrants fleeing violence at home are often not recognized as refugees and are therefore not automatically granted humanitarian asylum in the United States.

Take Action. Advocate.

Greg Smith and his wife Sue, executive director of LUCHA Ministries, asked the 30 people in attendance at their Advocacy in Action seminar to visit or write to their state representatives about immigration reform, particularly in the case of Central Americans. Among many issues facing Central American immigrants (not limited to ICE raids, deferred action status, and detention center treatment) is legal representation. Because US immigration law does not grant an attorney to immigrants at government cost, Miranda Rights are not afforded to them; therefore, children who appear in immigration court who cannot afford proper legal representation (i.e. the vast majority) must defend themselves.

Greg Smith and others talk with an aide to Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) about current legislation that affects immigrants
Greg Smith and others talk with an aide to Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) about proposed legislation that affects immigrants

With little to no knowledge or resources to guide them in immigration law, children must try to navigate their court proceedings for one of the most unmistakably confounding areas of U.S. law.

The Fair Day in Court for Kids Act of 2016 proposal by Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and others calls for the provision of legal counsel to unaccompanied children as well as a general review of immigration court efficiency, including reducing costs and increasing access to legal information. (Read the full draft here: http://1.usa.gov/1QY59mc)

Take action with us and ask your representatives to support the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act. Advocate alongside the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, LUCHA Ministries, and the many others who believe that Central Americans deserve the chance to have a happy ending to their dangerous journey.

Is my Daddy a bad person? LUCHA Ministers to Families in Times of Crisis

 

“Is My Daddy A Bad Person?”

By Sue Smith, Executive Director

It was a beautiful fall day, and Eduardo*, his sister Yessenia*, and I were sharing Happy Meals and Chicken McNuggets. We were on our way home from an all-day trip to Farmville, Virginia, where I had taken the kids to visit their dad at the ICE detention center. Somehow McDonald’s didn’t seem like the ideal place for such a serious discussion.

“Ms. Sue, is my daddy a bad person?” asked “Little” Eduardo. Looking into the 6-year-old’s small face was like looking at his dad at that age. Same slight features, same big brown eyes, same black hair. “No,” I responded, “your dad isn’t a bad person. He’s a really good person, and he loves you.” “Then why can’t he come home with us? I miss him so much!” Little Eduardo said as the tears started to flow.

For nearly 20 months, Eduardo’s dad (also named Eduardo) was incarcerated, much of that time in a detention facility for immigrants while the courts decided whether he would be deported or not. The final court date was looming, and with an uncertain outcome. I couldn’t promise that Eduardo’s dad would come home soon, or come home ever. And how do you explain the difference in “jail,” where “bad people go” and immigration detention? That’s a lot for a 1st-grader to comprehend.

From the beginning, LUCHA Ministries has offered a variety of programming to help improve the lives of immigrants in our community: ESOL, tutoring, computer literacy and skills training, counseling, help in obtaining affordable healthcare, food assistance, and more. But it’s on days like this one, talking with Little Eduardo, when I am most aware of the impact of our ministry. What we do is important — vitally important — but how we do it, our holistic approach that extends to the entire family ,is what distinguishes us from other agencies in our community. The folks among whom we work aren’t simply participants in our programs, or clients, or immigrants. They are our friends, our neighbors, and fellow children of God.

Over the years, LUCHA Ministries helped “Big” Eduardo obtain emergency dental care, provided food assistance, and encouraged him to obtain his GED. When he was away, the care extended to his family, making sure they had their basic needs met and providing emotional support. And for those 20 months, I visited Eduardo regularly in detention, praying with him and reminding him of God’s continuous love and care in spite of difficult circumstances.

As Executive Director, I am thankful for LUCHA’s many board members, program directors, volunteers, and donors who share our passion to love and care for the immigrant community. They go above and beyond what is expected, and when they take responsibility for much of the daily administration of our programs and activities, they allow me to spend extra time with families or individuals who are going through a crisis.

I am also thankful for God’s amazing love and care for families like Eduardo’s. “Big” Eduardo is now back with his family and will soon receive his Green Card as a Legal Permanent Resident He’s attending church, working, and enjoying his children. He’s even considering college in the future. Like he recently told me, “I am so blessed, God is good. Thank you for not giving up on us.”

Many Ways to Welcome Immigrants Campers at Passport support ministry efforts among immigrants

The camp offering from Passport Camps this summer will go to Cooperative Baptist Fellowship work in the Rio Grande Valley, to Touching Miami with Love in Miami, Florida and to Virginia-based LUCHA Ministries.  “We’re honored to be featured by Passport,” says Sue Smith, Executive Director of LUCHA. “We’re glad to have had a part in shaping this summer’s focus and helping campers learn how to reach out to new immigrants in their schools, churches, and communities.”

What we do at LUCHA is Connected to a Larger Network

After learning about thousands of unaccompanied children traveling north from Central America last June, Passport called on Rick McClatchy, Coordinator of CBF TX to learn more. He introduced Passport to Diann Whisnand, CBF field personnel working in the border town of McAllen, Texas. Whisnand, who works involves literacy training and English as a Second Language, became involved in joint efforts of local ministries responding to the influx of people overwhelming the city. “Cooperative Baptists provided pallets of water,” says Whisnand, “Catholic Charities provided a welcoming space, and the Salvation Army made soup. We all worked together.”

Many of those who came from Central America last year have now made their way to families in New York, Virginia, Florida and California.

Sue and Greg Smith, co-founders of LUCHA, work among the Latino community in Fredericksburg, VA. “Many of the people from Central America are fleeing gang violence and crime.” said Sue Smith. “Unlike others who have immigrated to the United States, many now arrive traumatized by violence and are in need of a different kind of support.” One report estimates that there are ten murders in the city of San Salvador every day. It is not uncommon for children to have witnessed a murder.

In Homestead, Florida Wanda Ashworth Valencia works at Touching Miami with Love, under the direction of Jason and Angel Pittman. “Sometimes Miami is called a first-third world city,” says Jason Pittman, “because of the large discrepancy between the extremely rich and the extremely poor.” The Pittmans work in Overtown, an historic African American neighborhood, while Wanda offers similar community development work in Homestead, which serves a largely Hispanic population.

“What’s with the Dolls?”

Passport 2015 Emphasis 2These handmade dolls are a symbol of welcome for the many immigrant children who come to the United States.  The Welcome Dolls were created by a Women in Ministry group from College Park Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, North Carolina and sent to Diann Wisnand in Texas, where they were distributed to newly-arrived immigrant children.   Each child also received a note of encouragement, reminding them to think of God’s love and care as they hug their dolls.

Many Latino children who arrive in the US are reunited with their parents after many years of being apart.  They’ve been living with grandparents or other relatives while their parents came to the United States to work and establish a home before sending for them.  They don’t speak English, they don’t know their parents personally, and they’re grieving over the people and things they’ve left behind.

“The adjustment is hard on everybody,” says Sue Smith of LUCHA.  “Ministries such as ours focus on helping the whole family understand that it’s not an easy process. It takes time.”  Programs focus on practical aspects of adjustment, such as homework assistance to help children in school, ESL to encourage language proficiency, and adult language and literacy programs to help parents become more engaged in their children’s education.

And then there’s the emotional adjustment.  Parents have dreamed of having their children with them, and children have dreamed of coming to the states to live with Mom and Dad.  But there are challenges.  The kids are essentially entering a “new” family, learning the rules and getting to know each other.  It’s frustrating for parents, and it can be lonely for the new children.

Maria*, who arrived from Guatemala at age 12, says that it was really hard to adjust.  “I didn’t know my parents or my little brothers.  I felt stupid in school because I couldn’t speak English.  People laughed at me.”  But she says it was her church friends and youth leaders who made a difference.  Some helped with homework, others practiced English with her.  “They didn’t laugh at me, and they made me feel welcome.”

Today, Maria is 16 and is one of the young people who attends Passport with her church.  Not only has Passport taught campers about welcoming immigrants, but they’ve modeled it by welcoming many of these children and youth in camp.

*name changed to protect identity