San Antonio Tragedy

Early yesterday morning, 38 individuals were found dead or near death in a big rig trailer parked in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio, Texas. They were discovered by an employee after a man had approached him begging for water. Thirty of these individuals were taken to nearby hospitals in critical condition with signs of heat stroke and dehydration after being locked in the trailer without water or air conditioning in the crippling 100+ degree heat. The other eight were found dead on the scene. A ninth and tenth died after arriving at the hospital.

The number of individuals who had already been taken from the trailer is unknown. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus stated, “Checking the video, there were a number of vehicles that came and picked up other people who were in that trailer.”

These individuals–all of whom were between the ages of 15 and 40–were victims of human trafficking. An investigation is underway to confirm the nationalities of these individuals, but it is suspected they may be immigrants entering from Mexico. The origin of the truck is still undetermined.

This isn’t the first time in recent months that a similar situation has been discovered along the US/Mexico border. In fact, earlier this month, Border Patrol found 72 Latin Americans in a trailer and 44 other individuals in the same situation in June.

With the recent emphasis being placed on reducing the number of immigrants living in the country illegally, raids on suspected illegal immigrants have become more frequent. These are the same policies making it more likely to make it more difficult to prevent, identify, and stop human trafficking. This is due to immigrants being fearful to approach law enforcement, despite San Antonio’s policy of not asking about the immigration status of those with whom they come in contact.

A vigil was held to honor the victims of this horrific tragedy. The Interfaith Welcome Coalition and RAICES were present alongside other agencies involved in immigrant rights and Daughters of Charity living in San Antonio.

Since hearing about this incident, I am deeply shocked about what I’ve read. How can we treat other human beings this way? These migrants were likely fleeing violence, gangs, and cartels in their countries of origin, desperate enough to be smuggled into the United States. Please join me in praying for them and their loved ones.

You can read more and keep up with the multiagency investigation here.

American Citizens in Mexico

It’s 8 AM at the Mexican-American border and there is already a lengthy line forming at the Port of Entry. No, it’s not made up of tourists and families. Instead, it’s made up almost exclusively of children carrying backpacks filled with notebooks, markers, and lunches. Where are these children going? They’re going to school.

For almost 800 American students, this is a daily norm. JoAnna is no different. A fifth grader at a public school in Columbus, New Mexico, JoAnna, an American citizen, lives with her family in Palomas, Mexico.

For her, it’s a free education as New Mexico’s state constitution grants American citizens a free education no matter where they reside. However, hundreds of other students cross the border to attend costly private schools in places such as El Paso, Texas.

Many of these children have parents who were deported by the American government. Instead of sacrificing their child’s education or leaving the deported family member behind, they move to border cities in Mexico where they can have the best of both worlds–a family and the opportunity of an American education.

In JoAnna’s school, two-thirds of the students live in Palomas. It would be easy for the children from Columbus to isolate those living in Mexico, but instead they interact just like any other group of fifth grade girls. “We usually talk about what we’re going to play outside and secrets…But I can’t tell you,” JoAnna laughs.

You can read more about JoAnna and her classmates here.

More Refugees Stopping in Mexico

After facing gang violence and other disasters that tore apart their families and homes, many Central Americans are forced to flee their country in search of safety. In the past, many of these individuals had their sights set on the United States. Now, however, due to recent changes in the US immigration laws, many of these asylum seekers are choosing to remain in Mexico and observe the US immigration climate from a distance…at least for a while.

One young mother fled to Mexico after narrowly escaping violence in her home country of Guatemala. She envisions a life in America, a life where she can reunite with her father and two sons. But for now, she remains in Mexico, waiting for a window of opportunity to achieve her dream.

She is not alone. The number of asylum applications was 8,781 in 2016. This number is expected to rise to 22,500 in 2017. However, with Mexico’s grip on migrant regulation tightening, Central Americans seeking asylum are forced to move faster and more dangerously before. The risks and uncertainty that refugees hoped to leave behind instead follow them as they search for safety and security.

While their stay in Mexico may mean extra months or years before a reunion with family members, it provides Central American refugees a haven to safely plan the rest of their journey. They remain hopeful for permanent asylum in Mexico, Canada, or the United States and for a better life than the one they are running from.

You can read more on why refugees are staying longer in Mexico here.

Increase in Solo Migrant Children

War, gang violence, natural disaster, famine, domestic abuse. All of these are reasons for one to become a refugee. And they are reasons why more and more children are fleeing their home country alone.

According to UNICEF, between 2015 and 2016, around 200,000 unaccompanied children applied for asylum in the United States. They were fleeing from 80 different countries. In addition to these, more than 100,000 children were stopped at the US-Mexican border.

For contrast, in 2010 there were just 66,000 children making the trip to the United States. What’s causing this five-fold increase? War, gang violence, natural disaster…

The problem doesn’t stop here. These children are some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society, making them an easy target for smugglers, human traffickers, and others who make money on their innocence.

“Ruthless smugglers and traffickers are exploiting their vulnerability for personal gain, helping children cross borders, only to sell them into slavery and forced prostitution,” says a UNICEF representative. “It is unconscionable that we are not adequately defending children from these predators.”

Another representative tell us, “The sexual exploitation of girls and boys is big business. Because the difference with this and other crimes and exploitation is that a girl who is exploited sexually is seen as merchandise that can be used again and again.”

In fact, three of every five child migrants coming north from Central America or the Caribbean fall victim to human trafficking. These smugglers use rape, violence, and extortion as a form of payment for helping them to cross borders before selling them upon reaching the country of origin.

You can read more facts and stories of unaccompanied children here.

What’s Happening at the Border?

“When you see women and unaccompanied children fleeing as migrants, that’s when something really bad is going on. That’s the least mobile demographic. You just don’t see it unless it’s life or death.”

This statement from former AILA president, Laura Lichter, sheds light on the current situation at the United States border.

In December, more than 400 women and children were released from the Dilley, Texas immigrant detention center, just days after a judge denied the center the license which would allow them to legally detain children. While this appears to be a step in the right direction to ending family detainment, some are questioning to what extend the government will comply with this order.

Even after the release, it is predicted that close to 1,900 women and children are being held in that facility instead of being processed and released locally, as they are supposed to be. And this number is increasing. One respite center in the area says they were averaging 300 individuals per day just one month ago. Now, they are down to fewer than 90.

While migrants are still being released to these respite centers, it is guessed that this is due to lack of space in the detention centers. Currently, many women and children are detained for months at a time, sometimes close to a year. They are held in detention centers without the proper license to do so. Those lucky enough to be released are often done so through “alternatives to detention” or ATD. This includes ankle monitors, house visits, phone calls, etc. This type of supervision is to ensure that the migrants make it to their court hearings. The Department of Homeland Security is expected to triple the number of migrants in this program within the year.

Human rights advocates are worried that migrants who do not get released from custody with ATD are going to be held in the detention centers for indefinite lengths of time, likely until their deportation proceeding. They are worried that each individual will be deported, if possible, when they are unable to prove that they qualify for asylum.

So why are these individuals still being held in such horrific conditions? Partly because of current laws and legislature, although it began before the current administration, and partly because for-profit prison companies are getting paid to detain immigrants.

You can read more on this problem here and here.

World Day of Migrants and Refugees

January 15 is the World Day of Migrants and Refugees. Pope Francis has declared this year the year of “Child Migrants, the Vulnerable and the Voiceless.” Join us in praying for these most vulnerable of individuals.

Dear Lord,
Be with the displaced and the migrants.
Be with those who have lost contact with their families.
Be with those who long for a friendly face.
Be with those who long for a loving touch.
Be with those who are weary and find it hard to keep going.
Be with those who are cold and long for a warm fire and a cozy chair.
Be with those who sleep on hard ground and long for a comfortable bed.
Be with those who have no home.
Be with those who long to feel safe from wars and hatred.
Be with those who are in hiding from violent people.
Be with those who have lost hope.
Be with those today who have to leave their homes to look for a better or safer life.
Grant them a safe journey and welcome wherever they go.
Be with those who have been trafficked.
Grant that they might meet a compassionate person who will release them and give them back their freedom.
Be with those who are vulnerable and alone, especially children.
Grant them protection from those who would exploit their vulnerability.
Be with those today who are separated from loved ones at the time of death.
Grant them a safe home in heaven and eternal life in your presence.
Be with me today and with those I love.
Help us to recognize you in all the people we meet
in the homeless,
in the sick,
in the needy,
and in the stranger.
Help us to extend a caring hand to all your people so that we can build a better, just, and caring world where all will be one.
In the name of Our Lord. Amen.

Tornillo: America’s Newest Tent City

Tornillo, Texas is a city located 35 miles east of El Paso on the Guadalupe pass. It is home to one of the newest “tent cities” in America, opening in November 2016.

A tent city is a temporary processing center for immigrants entering into the United States. The need for this particular site was created by the large–and growing–number of migrants entering from the Mexican border. Most of these refugees are coming from Central America with a few arriving from Haiti and Brazil. While the majority are mothers along with their children, there are cases of fathers coming with children.

When Border Patrol picks up the migrants, they are bused to Tornillo. Here, the refugees are processed and given the opportunity to shower and put on clean clothes. They are given food, but no dietary restrictions are considered. For example, there is no alternative to milk if some happen to be lactose intolerant. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) eventually arrives and gives each migrant an ankle bracelet. Each individual is allowed to make a phone call to their family members, many of which are already in America. Everyone sleeps on a cot in one large tent guarded by armed guards. Within a day or so, the migrants are moved to more permanent sites in Philadelphia, Florida, San Antonio, or El Paso.

Many of the refugees come to the site in need of medical attention. Medcor staffs each temporary site, including Tornillo, with EMTs who work 12 hour shifts for 30 days straight. These EMTs are licensed to give only over-the-counter medicines to those who may be suffering. However, it is not uncommon for the migrants to need more than that. So, Medcor contracts with doctors and nurse practitioners, including Sister Doris Clippard, D.C.

“We mostly treat earaches, bronchitis, scabies, and gastroenteritis, but have also had some more complicated cases such as children with chicken pox or women who have been raped,” Sister Doris says. “If it is beyond our ability to care for them, the guards will take the migrant to the Emergency Room.”

While tent cities are a temporary situation, these refugees appreciate having a place to clean up, sleep, and receive medical treatment after the long trek from their homeland.