A mother from Guatemala in the San Antonio Bus Depot points out to her sons the route they will take over the next several days. The route will require six bus changes.
La Trinidad UMC Opens Its Doors to Refugees
by John P. Feagins
In 2014, the surge of unaccompanied children from Central America who sought entrance to the United States reached crisis proportions. All at once, tens of thousands of women and children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras migrated north to the United States. Mostly women and children, they simply crossed the Rio Grande and turned themselves in to the US Border Patrol. The event sparked national media attention and compelled San Antonio’s churches into action.
Among the overflow of migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle were a host of unaccompanied minors. They came either to seek freedom from gang violence and human trafficking or to find their parents, who were already living in the United States. At one point, as many as 1,000 alien minors were sheltered at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. The US government contracted with local nonprofit organizations to provide basic services and care for the children held there—many of whom were not cleared to enter foster care, be adopted, or be reunited with their families.
As the community of San Antonio became fully aware of this situation, several local churches organized an Interfaith Welcome Coalition. Pressure was mounting to release the children, so the government closed the Lackland shelter and transferred the children to other installations.
During this same time, a surge of Central American women also began crossing the border with their children. Many of these refugees simply walked across the bridge and presented themselves to an immigration officer as asylum seekers. At first, such families were detained briefly at the border and then released with instructions to report to an immigration judge for an asylum hearing. In McAllen and Laredo, Texas, partnerships were formed to respond to their needs.
The government has since contracted with several for-profit corporations to build and operate a network of immigrant family prisons. Many of these prisons are located in South Texas and some are seeking licensing as day-care centers. Detention is a very profitable business. For-profit prison corporations pay generous dividends to shareholders and direct other funds to lobbyists who oppose immigration reform. Taxpayers provide these corporations with roughly $400 a day per immigrant detained.
Waiting While Imprisoned
Asylum seekers may wait months or even years for a hearing before an immigration judge. The detention centers create an opportunity for the government to coerce these detainees into leaving the United States before their hearings ever take place. Unauthorized (undocumented) immigrants have no right to a public defender in the United States, yet the outcomes of their hearings are greatly influenced by the quality of their legal representation. Charitable organizations, such as Justice for our Neighbors (JFON), Catholic Charities, and the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), provide legal assistance when resources are available.
To be released from a private prison, immigrant families must agree to voluntary deportation—or, if they wish to stay in the United States, they must post a bond (sometimes as high as $5000) and/or agree to be fitted with a GPS ankle monitor. The GPS “shackle” must be charged twice a day and worn at all times. Equipped with a type of cell phone, it can monitor the immigrant’s location and conversations. The device visibly marks the immigrant—typically a young mother with a baby—as a parolee, even though she has not been accused or convicted of committing any crime in the United States.
When these women and children are freed from the for-profit prisons, they are often abandoned at the bus station in downtown San Antonio—at all hours of the night. Some of these immigrants speak only their indigenous language. Most emerge disoriented after weeks or months in detention, and most have never been in the United States before.
During the summer of 2015, La Trinidad United Methodist Church was approached by RAICES. The church was asked to provide on-demand emergency space to increase RAICES’ capacity to provide temporary shelter, intake, and transitional relief for some of the detained families. Transitional relief covers a family’s immediate needs during the transition from detention to family reunification, including clothing, food, hospitality, travel and lodging assistance, and a backpack.
Thanks to a grant from the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), La Trinidad hired Rebecca Ortiz to coordinate the response at the church, the bus station, and the RAICES house shelter.
Within a few weeks, another surge of asylum seekers arrived at the border, leading to a massive release of detainees from the already overcrowded detention centers. Over 12 hours, more than 150 women and children were released and brought directly to La Trinidad UMC. The church provided them with a home-style meal, along with volunteers to play with the children while the mothers met with RAICES staff members. Other volunteers brought supplies.
La Trinidad’s guests were eager to share their experiences. Several of the families had been detained for more than six weeks. All of the women had been fitted with ankle monitors. The majority were professing Christians under 30 years of age—people we might call “Soccer Moms” in the United States. Many of them commented that they thought my youngest son was one of the detainees.
All of the women claimed to have been placed in la hielera—a crowded space kept at a temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit—when they were first detained. They described this experience as being treated like “a carcass in a butcher shop.” Several spoke of harassment, abuse, and neglect of their medical needs. One child was clutching a swollen arm. On examination, we noticed that he had eight syringe punctures on one arm from vaccinations that were given to him the day of his release. Another child was suffering from a respiratory illness. A few described how family members had come to pay their bond—only to be detained in the process. The entire detention experience seems to be intended to harass and coerce the immigrants to abandon their asylum request and accept deportation.
One of the women appeared very somber. She told me that, while many wives were coming to be reunited with their husbands, her husband had been murdered by a gang. Before she fled Guatemala, she and her children had been unable to live in their home for six months. Gang members told her that, if she did not allow them to traffic her children, they would come back and kill the rest of her family. With no other option, she fled to the United States.
She then asked me to show her our church sanctuary. As a woman of faith, she wanted to pray for God’s deliverance. She told me that Satan had taken her son and her husband but could not have her or her other children. After our prayer, she said that being in the temple proved to her that God had delivered her. She asked for a copy of El Aposento Alto (“The Upper Room”) and the Santa Biblia (“Holy Bible”) to carry on the rest of her journey. With tears, she thanked us for offering her family a spiritual refuge.
Through the night, several family members drove from other cities to pick up their loved ones. One woman told me that she had not seen her older children and husband for four years. The father had never met his youngest child. When her family was reunited, we wept and rejoiced with her.
If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will learn that we have much more in common with these asylum seekers than we realize. As Christians, we are called to live into Jesus’ teaching found in Matthew 25: 35-36 (NRSV), which reads: “…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”
These families are not criminals; in fact, they are fleeing from crime. As loving Christian parents, they are willing to risk everything to live in peace, bless the land where they reside, and faithfully raise their children. We can hardly claim to love our neighbor as we love ourselves without sharing the opportunities and freedom we so often take for granted.
This work and the relationships that make it possible have opened other opportunities for La Trinidad UMC. Through a nonprofit organization called Academia América, La Trinidad UMC now serves as a site for weekly citizenship classes in both English and Spanish. Dozens of migrants have now finished the naturalization process and are preparing to vote in the upcoming elections.
The Rev. John P. Feagins is an ordained elder in the Rio Texas Annual Conference and serves as the pastor of La Trinidad United Methodist Church in San Antonio. A Texas native, fully bilingual in Spanish and English, he has served at the district and conference levels promoting mission and Hispanic ministries. John and his wife, the Rev. Raquel Cajiri Feagins, have three children. Raquel Feagins is also an ordained elder in the Rio Texas Conference and serves as chaplain for the Methodist Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.
Copyright: New World Outlook magazine, September-October 2016 issue. Used by permission.
The Rev. John Feagins (far left) with a woman and her two young sons who were reunited with her husband and other children at La Trinidad United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Texas. Photo: Courtesy John Feagins
An ankle shackle monitor is applied indiscriminately to women as they are released, often without a court order. None of these women has been charged with a crime. Photo: Jeff Pearcy/UUSC
The Rev. Raquel Cajiri Feagins (facing the camera) and her son Vincent visit with some of the guests at La Trinidad UMC in San Antonio. Photo: John Feagins