Thousands of Central American families are still waiting to be granted asylum a year after crossing the U.S. border. Court dockets and detention centers in the southwest are full and, according to church officials, the scenario is likely to continue for some time.
“Families are given court dates two years out,” says Laurie Kraus, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance coordinator. “The court systems are backed up. It’s overwhelming for both the courts and those waiting to be heard.”
Kraus and other PDA officials recently traveled to the region to meet with church officials and families to assess the work and support the efforts of local congregations and the presbyteries. One of the first stops was Karnes County, where more than 500 people are currently being held at one of two new and expanding family detention centers awaiting their day in court. Among those visited were two women who, along with their families, struggle to stay positive day after day.
“The long days of waiting are starting to get to them. We were able to create moments of levity with them, but it is very clear that it’s a daily struggle not to give up,” says Susan Krehbiel, catalyst for refugees and asylum with PDA. “Both women were part of a hunger strike and were put in solitary confinement in an effort to get them to talk about how it was organized.”
Some of the children at the facility suffer from depression and are very emotional and see little hope of getting out soon, says Kraus. Part of the detainees’ survival strategy has been the involvement in a faith community. Many of the families gather frequently for worship, Bible study and prayer.
“We really wanted to let them know that a larger community was concerned about them and give them emotional support,” adds Krehbiel. “One woman had been at the facility for eight months, the other ten.”
San Antonio is described by PDA officials as the “epicenter” of the immigration relief effort. Volunteers from a half a dozen churches within Mission Presbytery, make their way each evening to the nearby Greyhound Bus Station. They await the arrival of immigrant families being dropped off by immigration officials as they travel to towns all across the U.S. in hopes of eventually finding a new home.
Kraus and Krehbiel say those arriving at the station don’t speak English and are dropped off to navigate the bus system without help. Sometimes they are there for a few hours but often have to wait until the next morning at the terminal. For those who do stay the night, volunteers transport them to a welcome house to rest before continuing their journey.
“The welcome house tries to make sure they have someone to meet the travelers and take them to where they can sleep, eat or get a shower,” says Kraus. “Volunteers bring backpacks full of food, wipes, clothes and items for children.”
“We really appreciated the importance of this ministry as we watched families just released from the detention center we had visited in the afternoon being welcomed with open arms by volunteers they had never met,” adds Krehbiel.
The PDA team traveled to Houston to meet with an interfaith coalition of organizations convened by HIDRA (Houston Interfaith Disaster Response Alliance.) The city currently hosts the largest number of newly arriving Central American families including more than 6,000 unaccompanied children in the past two years. The group discussed options for long-term emergency response, recovery and hospitality.
“It’s amazing the way people jumped in and are trying to meet the needs they see. It’s stretched them,” says Krehbiel. “This is a critical time as churches look at expanding the program and participation.”
Kraus and Krehbiel credit the Mission and New Covenant Presbyteries for making significant efforts to minister to and assist the families throughout the entire legal process. They say Houston area churches are looking at how to strengthen existing services versus forming a new coalition to assist the families.
“I was really proud of these local congregations and how diligently and consistently they’ve continued to work,” says Kraus. “Doing this kind of work is a challenge. Suddenly, they’ve picked up this totally new ministry and figured out how to incorporate it into the life of the church.”