When members of a caravan from Central America arrived at the U.S./Mexico border crossing at Tijuana, some churches in the area opened their doors to minister to the immigrants.
However, those churches lack the resources to provide long-term care for asylum-seeking Central Americans, Bethany Anderson, director of Camino Immigration Services, said during a conference call coordinated by the National Immigration Forum.
“They don’t have the budget or the savings to provide everything that is needed,” Anderson said.
Many churches have to choose whether to buy food or toiletries, because they cannot afford both, she explained.
Even if churches lack funds to provide all that is needed, Anderson commended those congregations for stepping up to respond to immigrants’ needs in real time.
“There was a family with young children that needed a place to stay, and this church opened up its doors and bought some bunk beds” for them, she said.
Other organizations in Tijuana are providing additional aid, including medical attention and legal advice, said Jon Huckins, co-founder and director of The Global Immersion Project.
The reception the Central Americans received from Tijuana churches stood in sharp contrast to what they received from some other quarters.
As they made their way through Mexico, they encountered protestors—some demonstrating because they believed their government was not lodging and caring for immigrants properly, and others who feared immigrants would take away jobs and drain resources, particularly if their presence in Mexico is longer than originally expected.
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When some immigrants in the caravan attempted to breach barriers and cross the border into the United States, Customs and Border Protection officers used tear gas to disperse the crowds.
Participants in the National Immigration Forum conference call insisted miscommunication and misunderstanding—both in Mexico and in the United States—contributed to negative reactions toward the immigrants.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is set to assume office as Mexico’s president Dec. 1. A Nov. 28 news report said a leaked memo from the Department of Homeland Security announced some asylum seekers would remain in Mexico while they wait a decision about their request. But cabinet members of the incoming Mexican president said no decision has been made.
U.S. law says asylum can be requested at a port of entry, but it also can be requested after someone has entered the country illegally. A federal judge in California ruled last week to uphold that provision.
Climate of confusion
Conflicting reports—and Twitter messages by President Trump—have created an environment of confusion surrounding the process immigrants have to follow to request asylum, Anderson said.
All asylum seekers need to take a “credible fear” test to prove their need for asylum, but the process can be stressful, she noted. So, a person who has genuine “credible fear” of living in their homeland may not be in a mental state to enter into the confusing process to receive asylum, she added.
Since immigration legal services like the one Anderson directs cannot coach asylum seekers, the legal advice they are permitted to give is limited, she said.
Huckins noted he had asked follow-up questions of immigrants after some tried to cross the border at San Ysidro.
“They were moving out of desperation, not out of a spirit of invasion,” Huckins said. “They were moving at the calls of leadership who were acting in exploitative ways.”
The only people who benefitted from the border closing and the conflict that occurred were those looking for an excuse not to treat immigrants with goodwill, he added.
“This is coming at the expense of those who are already the most vulnerable and who are naïve to the reality of moving towards our international border in that way,” he said.
Churches learn from immigrants
Churches and ministries that have prepared to provide support for immigrants also have expressed their desire to share the gospel with them. However, Anderson noted many of the immigrants already have a strong Christian faith.
Immigrants “have been welcomed and cared for and walked with as brothers and sisters in the faith that was connecting them with one another,” she said. “These people did not know each other at the start of this journey, but they have kind of formed a mini-community or mini-family, and that was very centered on their shared faith.”
Some pastors of Tijuana churches have indicated families from Central America have become part of their congregations—talking and praying together and encouraging each other, she said.
After visiting one of the churches, the interactions there “felt a lot more like fellowship than it did evangelizing,” Anderson said.
As Christmas approaches, local churches in the area have called for all the support others can give.
The plight of the Central Americans “connects with the faith journey of the birth of the ‘immigrant’ Jesus that we follow,” Huckins said.
While churches need support and resources, the most important thing they have asked for is solidarity, he said, noting their message has been: “We need your presence on the ground with us, and no better moment that right now in this Christmas season.”
A binational event Dec. 15 will include a visit to a shelter to learn about the caravan and will culminate with a church service similar to a Posada, a traditional reenactment of Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging in Bethlehem.
“It’s going to symbolically show a collective witness that transcends borders that we are the church, and we follow this Jesus,” he said.
Churches in San Diego also already opened their doors to provide shelter for asylum seekers who have made it across the border and continue the process to receive asylum, Huckins noted.
For the church in the United States, the current situation offers an opportunity to learn from the faith of the immigrants, Anderson said.
Churches in Mexico already are learning those lessons, Huckins added.
“There has been constant talk about how these migrants are ministering to the local community,” Huckins said. “They are actually bringing the gospel in the form of their presence, their faithfulness, their stories and their commitment to a God who is on the move in and through them.”
That is awakening the church in Tijuana, Huckins insisted.
“Tijuana is being ministered to by these migrants in such a way that maybe the ministry is directed towards people like me,” he said. “That has been a beautiful way to see this come alive.”