This past Sunday, Father Fidel Hernandez celebrated Mass for 200 undocumented children being detained at Port Hueneme Naval Base in Oxnard.
The children have been there since June. Immigration officials have been finding places of detention in various U.S. cities for the surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the border in recent months. Most of the minors are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
“We went there to tell them that people outside know they’re there,” said Imelda Bermejo of the Office of Restorative Justice, who accompanied Father Hernandez, Deacon Guillermo Rodriguez and other Catholics who organized the July 27 Mass. She couldn’t say for sure, but Bermejo speculated that they might have been the first outside Catholic group allowed on the base since the children arrived.
“We’re here with you,” she recalled the deacon telling them. “We’re here to help you find peace inside your hearts, the peace that only God can give you.”
Loc Nguyen, director of the Immigration and Refugee Department of Catholic Charities Los Angeles, said the U.S. government treats children differently than other undocumented immigrants. They’re often released to a relative or stay in some kind of foster shelter.
Murder rates in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are among the highest in the world, according to a 2012 report by the Center for Preventative Action. These countries are stuck between South American drug producers and the world’s largest consumer of illegal drugs, the United States.
Crime syndicates rely on a steady stream of recruits from these poverty-stricken nations. Many Central Americans, having few options, fall in with the cartel. El Salvador’s overcrowded prisons have also become a resource for gangs.
And things have gotten even worse, Nguyen said when explaining the surge in unaccompanied minors. He said minors he works with are reporting a heightened fear of kidnapping along with threats from gangs.
The number of unaccompanied child migrants to the U.S. has doubled each year since 2011. An estimated 90,000 will have come by the end of this fiscal year, and in 2015 the number is expected to rise to 145,000, according to U.S. officials.
Some immigrants have told Nguyen that the back and forth in the immigration debate has caused confusion in Latin America. Some are coming to the United States illegally because they believe they’ll receive legal status eventually, he hears in the field.
Migrants or asylum seekers
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is one of many organizations calling for a humanitarian response to the influx of children and families.
“We’re witnessing a complex situation in which children are leaving home for a variety of reasons, including poverty, the desire to join family, and the growing influence of trafficking networks,” said Shelly Pitterman, UNHCR’s representative in the U.S. “Within this movement there are also children who are fleeing situations of violence at the hands of transnational organized criminal groups and powerful local gangs.”
Pitterman argued that those fleeing violence and persecution should be afforded asylum and long-term protection. The term “refugee” applies to those outside the United States seeking to come in, not to those already here. Although the children aren’t refugees in a strict sense, they could be considered “asylum seekers.”
“Some of the kids from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the judge may give them asylum status,” said Nguyen of Catholic Charities. Catholic Charities is providing an attorney for hundreds of children, but they still need more representation.
“Some of the kids from Mexico may not get [asylum] status,” he said, noting that receiving asylum is based on the circumstance in the country of origin. Those who come from Central America are often fleeing persecution.
Des Moines Bishop Richard E. Pates, the head of the U.S. bishops’ International Justice and Peace Committee, said U.S. foreign policy should address the “root causes” of child migration.
“The crisis on our borders will not be minimally resolved until drug and arms flows, harmful trade provisions, and other critical economic policies that contribute to violence are addressed and rectified,” he wrote in a July 24 letter to Secretary of State John Kerry. “The United States must recognize our own contributions to this crisis, and support more effective programs that reduce drug usage here at home.”
Bishop Pates wrote the letter after his “solidarity trip” to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. He identified violence at home, human and drug trafficking, and lack of economic opportunity as causes. The bishop said the U.S. should investment in education and jobs — not on military assistance — in order to spur a “long term resolution.”
Bishop Pates also noted the exploitative practices of multi-national mining corporations, the over-militarization of U.S. assistance, and current trade agreements for the economic and social hardships as drivers of migration.
Current trade policies like the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) are suffocating small businesses in those countries, according to Bishop Pates.
“U.S. corporations, receiving significant subsidies and other protections from our government, have been able to export corn and other agricultural products to Central America, driving down local prices for these products and forcing rural families off their lands,” he said.
And U.S. and Canadian mining companies are harming the environment and public health in those countries and forcibly silencing opposition to their practices, he added.
“We heard powerful testimonies, by civil and Church leaders, of brutality and oppression, including torture and murder,” Bishop Pates said. “Community leaders and representatives of indigenous communities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, who resisted the unregulated expansion of mining activities in their native lands, have been targeted.”
The U.S. government must ensure that the companies abide by the same “standards of care for human life and ecology” abroad as they do in the U.S. and Canada, he said.
Addressing such root causes is a long-term goal. In the meantime, the Church is tending to the needs of the unaccompanied minors and separated families already in the United States.
Bermejo, who previously served as a chaplain for the Lancaster jail, is helping set up regular visits for the children at the Port Hueneme Naval Base. Her background helping incarcerated families stay together helps her serve the children.
“I’ve worked with men who left their families because they feared being killed by the cartel,” she said. “Their wives and children went into hiding, too.”
The facility at the Naval base didn’t seem like a jail, she said. It was much more welcoming. The girls wore macramé friendship bracelets.
“They looked good,” she said of the children. “They’re not happy, but they’re not hopeless.”
Catholic News Agency contributed to this story.