Speakers say Central Americans seeking asylum need hope, not prosecution

July 1, 2019

DALLAS — An unprecedented number of migrants are making the treacherous journey to the southern U.S. border from their homes in Central America, where they endure unrelenting violence and crushing poverty. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children have survived the perilous trek this year alone only to be stopped at the U.S. border with Mexico.

The three presenters at a Catholic Health Assembly Innovation Forum session said there is a humanitarian crisis at the southern border that should be met with a caring response — but the U.S. is responding with heightened law enforcement and detention of adults and children. During the June 10 session, the three delved into some of the main drivers of the mass migration. They described ways the Catholic Church and its ministries interact with the economic refugees and asylum seekers and they made a call to action for the church's ministries.

Discussing the Central American migrant crisis at a Catholic Health Assembly session are, from left, Teresa Welsh; Sr. Ann Scholz, SSND, and Rick Jones. Welsh is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist for the publication Devex; Sr. Scholz is associate director of social mission for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and Jones is a Catholic Relief Services youth and migration advisor stationed in San Salvador, El Salvador.
Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr./© CHA

Church ministries "bring a moral voice to the issue," said panelist Sr. Ann Scholz, SSND. "We as persons of faith have a responsibility to bring forward that every person carries the image of God within them and each has a right to dignity, respect, food, shelter" and other necessities needed to thrive.

Sr. Scholz, who is associate director of social mission for the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, was joined on a panel by Rick Jones and Teresa Welsh. Jones is a Catholic Relief Services youth and migration advisor stationed in San Salvador, El Salvador. Welsh is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist for the publication Devex. She has reported extensively on the crisis, filing stories from the Northern Triangle region of Central America, which includes Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Welsh said there are conditions that have made those three countries almost unlivable for multitudes of impoverished citizens. Violent drug gangs prey on their own neighbors. Crime has skyrocketed. The countries have corrupt and weak local and national governments that are unable or unwilling to ensure even the most basic level of protection for citizens. Many law enforcement agents are known to contribute to the perils faced by innocent civilians, Jones said.

Sr. Scholz said that many years of drought and other natural disasters, as well as encroachment by agribusiness and tourism, have forced subsistence farmers off their land and stolen their livelihoods, leaving them with a critical need for work and food.

The panelists agreed that with very few jobs available in these countries and with gang culture running rampant, the situation is dire. People are desperate and lack hope, said Jones.

Going north
Nevertheless, Jones said, many people in Central America do their best to remain in their hometowns. They sell off their belongings for cash. Families who lose their homes because they lack employment move in with relatives. It is only after they've exhausted all options, or when violence threatens their lives, or the lives of their children, that many people will decide to head north, Jones said.

Sr. Scholz, Jones and Welsh said migrants are risking their lives to come to the U.S. to seek asylum — a right the panelists said is guaranteed in U.S. statutes, but one that is being summarily denied. The Northern Triangle countries, Mexico and the U.S. lack coherent policies to address the forces driving the migration and the human suffering. The patchwork of policies, protocols and approaches in effect in each country along the migratory route fall far short. The system is failing the migrants, the panelists agreed.

There has been ongoing maneuvering among the U.S., Mexico and the Central American countries, especially in recent years amid Donald Trump administration efforts to crack down on illegal immigration into the U.S. Recently, Trump had been threatening to implement tariffs on certain goods from Mexico to force Mexico to stem the tide of immigration through its country to the U.S. In early June, Trump announced via Twitter that the U.S. and Mexico had reached an agreement, and so the tariff threat would be suspended.

The panelists agreed that the border chaos violates rights of migrants, as many cannot make their lawful asylum claims and many are suffering in substandard conditions in holding facilities. Jones said, "Cattle and tomatoes get better treatment at the border crossing," than do undocumented immigrants.

Ministry presence
Hundreds of women religious are providing aid for people making the journey, and staffing respite centers along the southern border as well as in communities throughout the U.S. where migrants live after their release from U.S. custody.

Jones noted that much of the Catholic Church's work and that of other nongovernmental organizations in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is aimed at providing economic opportunities and practical help and hope to the poor and vulnerable in their home communities, so they do not have to leave.

But, Welsh said, the programs rely heavily on U.S. governmental funding and so when the administration pulls aid, it is "terrifying" to the nongovernmental groups. In mid-June the administration said it is cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Ironically, she said, the affect could be to increase the number of desperate people at the southern border attempting to seek asylum in the U.S.

That same week, multiple press outlets reported that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency plans a sweeping action to execute deportation orders pending against more than 2,000 people from Northern Triangle countries.

Sr. Scholz, Jones and Welsh called upon U.S. Catholic health and social service organizations to get educated about the crisis and advocate for U.S. legislation and policy that could improve the lot of the migrants.

Welsh said while the migration issue is an "extremely complicated" one, "it's worth examining root causes and it's worth knowing that some things are working.

"This is not insurmountable," she said.


Copyright © 2019 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.