Summit: Deterrence not the answer to humanitarian crisis

Panelists (left to right) John Garland, Elaine Hernandez and Victor Hinojosa offered insights about immigration issues during the Together at the Table Hunger and Poverty Summit at Baylor University. (Photo / Ken Camp)

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WACO—The Migrant Protection Protocols—better known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy—drastically reduced the number of asylum-seekers seeking help from ministries in Texas border cities. But the policy change has not solved the humanitarian crisis along the Rio Grande, speakers told a conference at Baylor University.

Instead, it shifted the problem to northern Mexico, where people seeking asylum must wait their turn for court hearings. There, people who often fled their homes to escape violence are forced to wait in cities plagued by violence.

“These are incredibly vulnerable people in incredibly dangerous places,” Victor Hinojosa, associate professor of political science in the honors program at Baylor, told the Together at the Table Hunger and Poverty Summit.

Hinojosa directs the Baylor Migration Project, a social innovation laboratory that brings together an interdisciplinary team of faculty and students to address the challenges of child migration from Mexico and the Northern Triangle of Central America—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Hinojosa joined John Garland, pastor of San Antonio Mennonite Church, in a panel discussion at the summit in Waco.

‘Get down to the root’ of the problem

In mid-summer, San Antonio Mennonite Church was housing 200 to 300 asylum-seekers, immigrants and refugees, Garland said. A few nights ago, seven people received shelter from the church.

“Our country has responded to a disaster with deterrence,” Garland said, comparing it to people along the Texas Gulf Coast fleeing a hurricane, only to be turned back when they reach Central Texas.

“Punishing families is not a good way to respond to a humanitarian disaster. It just dramatically increases the disaster. We must get down to the root to address it.”

Critics of ministry to immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers typically ask the same three questions, Garland noted: “Why should we take care of all these people? Aren’t we a nation of laws? Aren’t they a threat to our health, a threat to our economy, a threat to our way of life?”

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“Those are good political questions. … Those are not good Christian questions,” Garland said.

Factors driving immigration explored

Jeremy Everett, founder of the Texas Hunger Initiative and director of the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, addresses a panel who spoke on immigration issues. (Photo / Ken Camp)

Participants at the hunger and poverty summit explored varied aspects of the complex humanitarian crisis.

“Welcoming the stranger is something our nation periodically has done well,” said Jeremy Everett, director of the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, which sponsored the event. “But we’re not doing it well now.”

Hunger is one of at least four factors driving the massive wave of immigration from Central America, Hinojosa explained, along with violence, lack of economic opportunity and climate change, particularly as it affects farmers in the region’s drought corridor.

Often, multiple factors combine to prompt families to make the decision to leave their homes and make the risky journey north, he noted.

“It’s rarely one thing,” he said.

Asylum-seekers experience trauma

Many times, specific attacks or threats prompt families to risk everything to begin a long trek to the United States, Garland noted. Along the way, they constantly face risks from thieves, extortionists and human traffickers, he added.

“The trauma of Central America is dramatically exacerbated by the journey across Mexico,” Garland said.

When they arrive at the U.S./Mexico border, many of them see it as a miracle—standing at the threshold of “the Promised Land,” he noted.

Because the information they possess about U.S. policies regarding asylum and immigration is weeks or months old by the time they reach the Rio Grande, the news that they must wait in Mexico for their number to be called is “horrifically stunning,” he said.

“They have sacrificed everything for their children,” Garland said, pointing out that many of the adults were community leaders in their homelands.

“Trauma is a trap,” he said.

About 80 percent of the asylum-seekers San Antonio Mennonite Church sheltered are evangelical Christians, whom Garland calls “the pilgrim church.” So, the church incorporated Scripture and prayer into trauma therapy as it offered healing hospitality, he noted.

‘Push-pull’ factors examined

Elaine Hernandez, South Texas regional director for the Texas Hunger Initiative, moderated a panel discussion on immigration. (Photo / Ken Camp)

Elaine Hernandez, South Texas regional director for the Texas Hunger Initiative, moderated the panel discussion and participated in a related breakout session at the summit focused on “push-pull factors” that lead to migration out of Central America and Mexico.

Hernandez noted the average worker’s income in the United States for 2017 was $3,300, compared to $354 in Guatemala, $319 in El Salvador, $317 in Mexico and only $110 in Honduras.

According to the Pew Research Center, remittances—money sent from migrants working in the United States back to their families in their countries of origin—totaled $30 billion to Mexico in 2017, compared to $4.6 billion to El Salvador, $7.7 billion to Guatemala and a little less than $3.8 billion to Honduras, Hernandez reported.

However, she noted, while remittances from citizens living abroad were equivalent to only 2.6 percent of Mexico’s Gross Domestic Product in 2016, they were equal to 20 percent of Honduras’ GDP.

While one-third of employment in Central America is linked to agriculture and the majority of migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle come from rural areas, the United States has failed to emphasize investment in rural development in the region, Hernandez said.

This is part of an ongoing series about how Christians respond to hunger and poverty. Substantive coverage of significant issues facing Texas Baptists is made possible in part by a grant from the Prichard Family Foundation.

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