At services this Sunday at St. Phillip’s Episcopal Church, the Mexican border will be but an arm’s length away.
At the suggestion of Bishop Gary Lillibridge, of the Diocese of West Texas, tomorrow’s offertory, nestled in between a sermon by The Rev. Clayton Elder and the start of Holy Communion, will be dedicated to assisting the relief efforts of sister congregations in McAllen and in Laredo—who are in the epicenter of the immigration crisis.
“While U.S. Immigration policy remains stalled in Washington,” Lillilbridge wrote in a letter July 3 sent to all 89 congregations in the diocese, “human needs continue. That is where we come in.”
Since the influx that began last October of unaccompanied children, combined with entire families across the Rio Grande—now the most popular place for illegal crossings into Texas—St. John’s Episcopal Church in McAllen and Christ Church in Laredo have been in the epicenter of an immigration crisis of historic proportions.
Two years ago, 15,700 unaccompanied youngsters fled northward from Mexico. So far this year, the number is 52,000—an increase of 231 percent.
Desperate to escape the gang violence and high murder rates of Central America, they come mostly from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua—lured by a misinterpretation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which bars the Border Patrol from immediate deportation and stipulates that the youngsters cannot be held for more than 72 hours. Additionally, before the children can be deported or allowed to stay, they must be given a court hearing.
Immigrants are given a court date and then allowed to travel throughout the country, mostly to join their families already in the United States. Because deportation is not immediate, rumors fly through Central America that if a child can reach Texas, they will be allowed to stay. A leaked Border Patrol survey has reached the same conclusion.
Just as the 2008 law is swamping the courts—reportedly it will take years to clear the dockets—the massive number of immigrants is straining the ecumenical relief efforts of churches along the border.
They began with Sacred Heart Roman Catholic church in McAllen which has erected Quonset huts on its parking lot for temporary housing. Volunteers from the two Episcopal congregations find doctors and pediatricians to examine those crossing the border along with collecting water, food and clothing for the refugees and, Lillibridge writes, preparing backpacks with necessities—hygiene kits, toothpaste, soap, diapers, snacks, underwear and T-shirts.
“It’s been a bit of a crisis zone here,” sighs Carrie Guerra, the youth director at St. John’s. “We average 100 families a day coming through here. And, this isn’t short-term,” she warns, “this is only the beginning.”
The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, estimates that total could climb to 90,000 by the end of this fiscal year and to 130,000 by the next.
The Defense Department reportedly is asking the Pentagon to designate additional military bases to house the immigrants.
While the logistics of the border relief efforts is daunting, it is exacerbated by its becoming the latest object of polarized politics that stretch from Washington to Rev. Elders’s office. “People have come in here absolutely split on the issue,” he says, their sense of Christian duty conflicting with their politics.
Shortly before Obama flew to Texas this week to meet with Texas Governor Rick—who has charged that the increase in illegal immigration is due to a conspiracy involving the administration—Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion in additional funding for 40 additional judge teams, more medical services and costs of transportation along with heightened drone surveillance on the border. But, he came under heavy criticism for not visiting the borderland. “Many of my constituents, Republicans and Democrats alike...are wondering why would the President show such little respect for what the communities along the border are experiencing,” Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn remarked on the Senate floor. His Tea Party colleague, Sen. Ted Cruz, went so far as to send Obama a road map with the route outlined from Dallas and Austin to the border.
Obama defended his decision by saying he was more interested in tackling the problem than being in a photo op. “This isn’t theater,” he said.
Cognizant of the political sensitivity, more than one church in the diocese has elected to print their Bishop’s letter in their service bulletins, without comment.
“Law is one thing,” Elder says, “but that doesn’t take away the fact that the actual issue is that they are people. They should not be treated differently because of their ethnicity, nationality, race, color or creed. They are not only human beings but people of God, and they should be treated as such, with dignity, with respect, with grace and with mercy.
“God is in them, as He is in us. The larger issue is ‘how are we going to treat them?’ That is what should not be caught up in the political polarization but should bring us together as Christians.”
Elder is confident his congregation tomorrow will be generous.
“I expect compassion, love, grace and mercy so that people will open up not only their wallets but their minds and hearts to help these people.
“How can we not help out?”
Perhaps by accident, or maybe by design, Elder’s plea is reinforced by the hymn chosen for the offertory, by John Henry Newman. One of the verses reads:
O loving wisdom of our God!
When all was sin and shame,
...to the rescue came.