US-MEXICO BORDER: IMMIGRATION CHALLENGES AND OPPORTUNITIES
By Alex Pollock
The Central American migrant caravan that arrived at the US-Mexico border in late 2018 shed a bright light on the plight of asylum seekers coming to the US as multiple news agencies followed the journey of the nearly 7,000 people walking to the border. While the caravan brought new media attention to the issue of immigration, asylum seekers have arrived at the border before then and continued to do so thereafter. According to Pew Research, more than one million immigrants arrive in the US each year.
The most recent caravan (which set out in mid-January 2021) – made up mostly of people from Honduras – has been stopped in the Guatemalan village of Vado Hondo, around 55 km (34 miles) north of the El Salvador border. Since the caravan arrived in Guatemala, Guatemalan security forces have tried to contain the group’s movement. Over 3,000 migrants have been sent back, while more continue to be dispersed by security forces. The caravan formed shortly after President Joe Biden’s election, with hopes of being granted entry into the United States upon arrival. However, while the Biden administration has promised to repeal several of Donald Trump’s immigration policies, spokespeople from the Biden administration have encouraged the caravan to halt its journey to the US, citing the time it will take to repeal the policies.
The Biden administration, and especially First Lady Dr Jill Biden, has taken a strong interest in reworking the current immigration policies and working towards the reunification of families that have been separated at the border. Dr Biden visited the Matamoros encampment in December 2019 and has since voiced her intention to play a prominent role in a task force dedicated to addressing issues at the border.
On Tuesday 3 February, President Biden signed three executive orders on the issue of immigration at the southern border. While the orders were not designed to effect immediate changes, they provide the opportunity for the administration to evaluate and rework long-term policies and address the “root causes” of migration to the United States. Two of the executive orders initiate a review of Trump policies that limited the number of asylum seekers allowed in the US, halted funding to foreign countries, and made it more difficult to obtain naturalisation or green cards. The third order established the task force responsible for identifying and reuniting separated families.
Effects of Migrant Protection Protocol
Since the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) was enacted in January 2019, thousands of asylum seekers have been forced to wait in Mexico for the duration of their asylum cases, a change from the previous policy that allowed them to wait on the US side of the border until their immigration cases were finalised.
According to the US Department of Homeland Security, MPP – more commonly known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy – was enacted to “help restore a safe and orderly immigration process, decrease the number of those taking advantage of the immigration system, and the ability of smugglers and traffickers to prey on vulnerable populations, and reduce threats to life, national security, and public safety, while ensuring that vulnerable populations receive the protections they need.”
The time it takes for an individual to formally receive asylum in the US depends on the specifics of the case. The average time for a case to go from introduction to settlement between 2016-2019 was two years. By mid-year 2019, there were 908,000 pending immigration cases in the US (Associated Press). According to the Department of Homeland Security, 46,508 were granted asylum in 2019.
The growing number of asylum seekers waiting for their ‘day in court’ led to pop-up immigration courts being set up in Matamoros, Mexico. Numerous asylum seekers left other border cities like Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez and went to Matamoros in hopes of getting their cases heard sooner. This migration overwhelmed Matamoros’ already limited resources and led to the overcrowding of the border encampment along the Rio Grande.
Who is at the border?
Immigration to the US from South and Central America has increased since 2018 due to the deterioration of economic and social conditions in multiple Latin American countries. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, border cities such as Matamoros were hosting up to eight or nine thousand people, a number that grew rapidly during the peak arrival time in 2019. Several Mexican border cities were unprepared for such a rapid influx, prompting the formation of “camps” along the border.
The encampment in Matamoros stretches along the Rio Grande, just opposite Brownsville, Texas. One can see rows of tents, tarpaulins, and makeshift homes lining the streets of Matamoros. Some residents leave the camp hoping to find work during the day to try to provide for their families. The camps are full of individuals and families from a variety of countries, who have fled their homes to escape drug cartel violence, extreme poverty, or government corruption. Food in the encampment is scarce, and the food that is provided requires firewood for cooking, brought in by volunteers.
While visiting the camps in November 2020, an INcontext team heard stories of families walking from Central America to Mexico in the hope of establishing a stable and secure life in the United States.
One such family is Daniel’s. Daniel worked for the government in his family’s Central American home country. His family had money and a nice home. But, after numerous threats to their family from corrupt officials, and realising they and their family were no longer safe in a rapidly deteriorating political climate, he and his wife decided to send their children to America and later flee themselves. Daniel and his wife have been in the camp for months, waiting to see if they will be admitted into the United States. Daniel has a relative in Los Angeles, California who was able to take in his three children before MPP halted border crossings. Now, he and his wife wait to be reunited with their family.
As of November 2020, the Matamoros encampment houses around 600 people. They face threats of violence and recruitment from cartels and ‘coyotes’ (smugglers). The COVID-19 pandemic closed the encampment to newcomers, forcing hundreds of asylum seekers to find shelter in Mexico’s slums or ‘invasiones.’ ‘Invasiones’ are informal settlements, often run by various drug cartels. Other asylum seekers try to start over in Mexico after being denied entry to the United States. Some decided to abandon their asylum cases and go back to their home countries.
FROM A CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVE
The combination of the speed at which people arrived at the border and delays in aid delivery due to COVID-19 restrictions, resulted in the lack of a unified response to the growing humanitarian crisis. Human Rights Watch called for an investigation into the treatment of the people at the border, as the camps are under-resourced, under-protected, and have inadequate sanitation facilities.
Before COVID-19, Mexican immigration assembled groups of volunteers who were allowed access to the camp to bring necessary resources like food, water, and firewood. However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the responsibility of taking care of the asylum seekers fell to only a few individuals, churches, and organisations. Therein lies an opportunity for the Church to be involved with the provision of aid.
While the UNHCR published a report citing intentions to increase its involvement in the region in 2021, as millions more asylum seekers are projected to flee Central and South America, the US-Mexico border currently does not receive the same aid as other refugee situations, leaving the bulk of the responsibility to churches and volunteers.
According to US Foreign Assistance data, the United States provided $758,000 in humanitarian aid to Mexico in 2020, a drastic decrease from the $80 million given in 2019. With foreign aid giving down – due to government policies and COVID-related budget cuts – the American Church is presented with an opportunity, in close proximity, to make a real impact in the lives of those suffering at its border. The American Church – one of the most financially resourced and top missionary-sending churches in the world – is strategically positioned to be the ‘hands’ and ‘feet’ of Jesus to those at the border. The potential for the spreading of the Gospel is huge.
Fellowship Southwest is one Christian organisation that has left ‘fingerprints’ all along the border. Fellowship Southwest, and its partner churches, are some of the main providers of food, clothing, and resources for asylum seekers stuck at the border. One of the greatest impacts the church is making is meeting the practical needs of the people: from providing pro bono legal aid, to crossing the border daily with food, firewood, air mattresses, face masks, and tents. The church has shown up, despite COVID-19 restrictions. Fellowship Southwest also supports missionaries running other border ministries, providing critical funds for independent missionaries.
One church in Brownsville, Texas recently opened its doors as an immigrant respite centre, providing shelter, food, and a safe place for those who have recently crossed the border and who do not have the needed resources to start over. Churches with respite centres can meet a practical need while providing a safe place for immigrants to encounter Jesus. Small church gatherings have popped up in the Matamoros encampment, providing hope for those living along the river. Church leaders in the camp report more and more people coming each week, as conditions worsen, and people are waiting longer to get asylum decisions.
Many of the asylum seekers will only be at the border for 12-24 months before they move to another area of Mexico, enter the US, or move on to other locations. If the American Church can take advantage of this window of opportunity, it could play a role in sending out a multitude of disciple-making disciples, who can then take the Gospel to their next destination. An intentional effort by the American Church in this area could have positive, far-reaching effects in the global Kingdom. As Jesus said to his disciples in Luke 10:2, “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”
**This article represents one perspective and does not fully encompass all facets of the issue of American immigration. Future articles will dive deeper into the other points of view associated with immigration. **
Images: REUTERS/Luis Echeverria and burst image – REUTERS FILE PHOTO/Daniel Becerril
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