Texans assist undocumented immigrant families

Jun 26, 2018 by and

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Two Mennonite pastors who have been working with immigrants were among the first to respond to the reports of migrant families being separated at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Lupe Aguilar, a regional conference minister of South Central Mennonite Conference and pastor of Iglesia Menonita Rey de Gloria (King of Glory Mennonite Church) in Brownsville, Texas, has been offering whatever help he can to those immigrants who make it into the U.S. and live there without legal permission.

“If they come to us, we’ll somehow take them in,” he said June 22. It’s a ministry he has been doing for many years.

The congregation draws about 40-50 people on a typical Sunday. A nearby refugee organization helps as many immigrants as it can. When it is filled to capacity, people seeking help are directed to Aguilar. People in the congregation make space in their homes to shelter the new arrivals or assist them with finding their own housing.

“Our mission has always been [caring for] undocumented kids being left by themselves while their parents work,” Aguilar said. “I am of the belief that every congregation is responsible in some way to its community.”

He said he’s not concerned about getting in trouble.

“I’m not afraid,” he said. “It’s embarrassing because people will put you down and accuse you and say all manner of things against you. But I care more about my conscience, I suppose. I care more about what Christ asks us to do.”

The church has received some aid from Mennonite Central Committee, Catholic Charities and the Schowalter Foundation, a Kansas-based Mennonite philanthropic foundation. When someone has a financial need, the congregation makes plates of food and sells them to raise funds.

“They’re strong, faithful Mennonites — Mennonites that care about their fellow men, about their community,” Aguilar said. “Jesus radiates from them.”

Visiting the border

After hearing the reports of family separation, John Garland, pastor of San Antonio Mennonite Church, traveled to the border to observe the situation for himself.

In a video published June 11 on his Facebook page, Garland shared the story of typical migrant families from Central America who are fleeing violence both in their homelands and in Mexico.

While several are attempting to gain asylum at legal ports of entry, Garland observed people without certain documents being prevented from approaching the office to make their request.

“I watched two families in front of me being turned back,” Garland said in an interview June 21. “I saw hundreds of people just lying on the bridge. One mother told me she’d been there for eight days. . . . They’re criminalizing asking for asylum.”

Other migrants, incorrectly believing they may be granted asylum as long as they’re on U.S. soil, attempt a crossing that is, in fact, illegal. Some of these are people who have been turned away earlier from a port of entry.

Garland’s video tells of Central Americans fleeing violence, extortion, rape and forced gang membership in their home countries, only to find similar circumstances in Mexico.

“They’ve experienced violence and trauma that we cannot even imagine,” he said in the video.

Many migrants who cannot cross the border are taking refuge with churches in northern Mexico.

“It’s in Mexico where all the hard work of sheltering is happening,” Garland said in an interview.

Yet the churches there are overrun and struggling to care for the migrants. Garland said he planned to go to Mexico the last week of June to connect with those churches and see how they could be helped.

“I’m excited to have these churches in Mexico disciple us,” he said. “. . . They’re witnessing to the cost of discipleship.”

Helping asylum seekers

In San Antonio, Garland has positioned himself as a leader among faith-based responses to the immigration crisis. He’s helped area churches connect with resources to assist immigrants. He created a website, NoSeparation.org, to advise churches about how to oppose migrant family separation.

His own congregation has provided office space for the Migrant Center for Human Rights, a legal aid organization for asylum seekers in Texas. A group of people in the church is pursuing foster care certification to care for children who may have to wait a long time to be reunited with their parents.

“The family separation [policy enforcement] is not going to continue, but the families are still being charged with a crime,” Garland said. “There are still over 2,000 kids who’ve been separated from their families.”

President Donald Trump’s executive order on June 20 ended the policy of separating apprehended migrant families. On June 25, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said he had ordered a temporary suspension of prosecution of parents.

Garland is no stranger to assisting immigrants. In December 2016, his congregation made room in their church building to shelter hundreds of people released from detention centers.

“What’s the opportunity for a historic peace church to get involved with mass migration that’s fueled by violence?” he asked. “I feel a real strong call in San Antonio to say, ‘As an Anabaptist church, we’re going to organize churches in San Antonio.’ ”


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