San Antonio church finds room for refugee influx

Congregation welcomes women and children released unexpectedly from detention

Dec 12, 2016 by and

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One week into Advent, San Antonio Mennonite Church tore down its Christmas decorations to make room for the real thing.

Hundreds of women and children unexpectedly discharged from immigrant detention facilities needed shelter on Dec. 3, and it didn’t seem right to suggest they find a stable out back. As air mattresses and space heaters filled the fellowship hall, Sunday school classrooms, hallways and sanctuary, Pastor John Garland joked that the congregation replaced its fake nativity scene with an actual one.

Families released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement-affiliated detention centers take shelter in San Antonio Mennonite Church’s fellowship hall. — John Garland/San Antonio Mennonite Church

Families released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement-affiliated detention centers take shelter in San Antonio Mennonite Church’s fellowship hall. — John Garland/San Antonio Mennonite Church

The women and children are from families — primarily from Central America — who came to the U.S. border seeking asylum from violence back home.

“They can’t go to an embassy because they are under death threats and rape threats,” Garland said. “They present themselves to authorities, and the fathers are separated from the mothers and children.”

San Antonio sits at the center of several privately owned detention centers contracting with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is also a hub for human trafficking. Garland said ICE’s pattern of fitting the women with a GPS-tracking ankle bracelet and court date before dropping them off in the middle of the night at a bus station or airport made them prime targets for traffickers.

“We had a guesthouse mainly used for Mennonite Your Way-type folks,” he said of his congregation, which numbers around 60-80 attenders. “We quickly transformed it a year ago into a shelter for these folks.”

La Casa, as it is known, can accommodate eight people, and was quickly put to use. In the last year, at least 4,500 women and children have passed through the house, many staying for 20 hours or less before they are able to make arrangements to travel to friends and family.

“They’ve been dropping them off for at least the last six months, rolling up to our church with women and kids,” Garland said.

San Antonio Mennonite partnered with RAICES, a nonprofit immigration legal organization, to do logistics such as informing women and children of their rights and helping with transportation.

After spending time in the typically cold and cramped concrete facilities, many emerge with upper respiratory illnesses.

“There are infants up to adolescents; this is horrific,” Garland said. “A lot of these young, young girls have already been victims of rape or have been threatened by rape. All these children are traumatized.”

Making room at the inn

On Dec. 3, Garland got a call from RAICES saying they needed a bit more room. The first bus arrived three hours later.

“By the end of Saturday night we had about 150 people in our church,” he said. “We had completely filled up our sanctuary and Sunday school classrooms.

“They were moving as quickly as possible with their bus and plane tickets. We were cleaning up the building when we got another call from RAICES that more people are coming, and Sunday night a hundred more people showed. . . . Then at 3 a.m. another bus showed up. We removed all our Advent decorations, and all our floor space was filled up. Every pew. And that continued until yesterday [Dec. 7].”

Garland estimated about 300 people were at the church in the first 24 hours, and over the course of the week that number rose to at least 500.

“Our building is an older building,” he said. “In the course of this we were running into plumbing and electrical problems. Our kitchen broke down. Then our HVAC system broke down and we couldn’t heat the building, and we’re going to need to heat the building when it freezes tonight [Dec. 8].”

The congregation eventually got in touch with city officials and a local Methodist church for help with an expanded response involving city facilities.

“God provided in such a way,” Garland said. “Food poured in from the neighborhood and around the city. People showed up with food, coats, blankets.”

Mennonite Central Committee Central States immigration education coordinator Ana Hinojosa arrived at the church in midweek to help organize volunteers and donations. MCC Central States also provided financial support for the congregation’s response.

A new normal?

No one knows exactly why ICE suddenly freed more than 500 people on Dec. 3.

RAICES and other organizations point to a Dec. 2 Texas District Court ruling that prohibits the state from licensing immigration jails as child-care facilities. The detention centers sometimes house up to eight unrelated people to a room, including minors.

However, ICE said in a statement the release was “scheduled as part of normal operations and not in response to the court ruling.”

“Another theory is there was a massive spike in violence in Central America,” Garland said. “It’s not normal for people to come to the border in winter.”

Still others wonder if anti-immigrant rhetoric of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump inspired a rush of refugee seekers before he takes office in January.

“This could be a new normal, in terms of the number of people being released,” Garland said. “Our building has taken a massive hit. We need some help to gear up for what could be a very long-term response. . . .

“We don’t have a great website, but we have a donate button, and if other Mennonite churches are interested in this kind of thing, we really need help with this response.”

The story of little Israel

“We found a little boy on Monday morning [Dec. 5],” said John Garland, pastor of San Antonio Mennonite Church. “One of the mothers who had been caring for him that night said, ‘This is not my child.’

“We found out in the middle of the night [the mother] had a life-threatening infection exacerbated by her detention, and one of our volunteers rushed her to the hospital, so members of our church cared for him for two days. He slept between my two daughters that night.

“I’m trying not to get too emotional — it’s a happy ending. The mother, when she got out of the hospital, we were able to reunite her. But the reality is it took us two hours to figure out what his name was.

“It turns out his name was Israel. I got in touch with his father, and he was already in Houston and he was able to come and find his wife in our shelter and was able to meet his son for the first time.”

The father was separated from his family before his son was born, and now he is two-and-a-half years old.

“The part that was heartbreaking about this is the whole time the child never cried,” Garland said. “I would say ‘come here’ and he would jump into my arms. The human reaction is ‘That is so cute and precious,’ but the logical experience with children is ‘What has this child been through that he’s reacting in this way?’ ”

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