On Christmas Eve 2018, hundreds of migrants: men, women and children, who had fled violence, oppression, and hunger in their home countries were released on to the streets of El Paso, Texas, by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with nowhere to go. Hundreds more were released Christmas Day. And the day after that. And the day after that. The border was faced with a humanitarian crisis and faith communities had to decide how to respond.
Since the days of the Mexican Revolution, the border community of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico, has been a crossroads for migrants and faith communities have always been an integral part of helping them find safe harbor. Casa del Migrante in Juarez and Annunciation House in El Paso, two of the longest serving shelters in the region, have received generations of migrants from Mexico, Central America and beyond fleeing violence, natural disasters, and economic hardship; however, in 2018, they found themselves stretched far beyond capacity. Congregations on both sides of the border worked together to create a system of temporary shelters to house migrants until they were able to arrange transportation to their immigration sponsors, typically located in other regions of the U.S.
This network of temporary shelters and transportation, run primarily by faith communities worked well and served thousands of migrants until January 2019, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) implemented the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), better known as the “Remain in Mexico Policy” and overnight, thousands of migrants seeking asylum in the United States were stranded in Juarez while waiting for their day in court in the United States, as new migrants continued to arrive in Juarez daily also with nowhere to go. Shelters in El Paso were virtually empty and faith communities had to adapt quickly. Pastors and congregations in Juarez rose to meet the demands, sometimes at great personal cost, being threatened and attacked by groups that kidnapped, extorted, and murdered migrants.
For months, migrants camped out at international bridges and parks, while others sought out formal and informal shelters across the city. In Juarez, migrants are the target of discrimination, extortion, rape, and murder and a safe place to stay can be the difference between life and death. Blanca Castillo, a shelter resourcer at Abara Frontiers, who has been working on the ground in Juarez since 2018, described the response of pastors and churches to the crisis. “They really were the first-responders. They opened their spaces. They gave people a place to sleep and food to eat. They are on the ground day after day helping people get what they need.”
In addition to providing food and shelter, pastors, churches, and faith-based nonprofits have worked tirelessly to collaborate with international aid agencies like the UNHCR and International Organization on Migration and local, state and federal entities in Mexico, to connect migrants with medical care, education, employment opportunities and legal aid. Enrique Valenzuela, director of COESPO, a state agency in Chihuahua that has been at the forefront of migrant aid in Juarez, said, “We could not do what we do without the work of pastors, without the support of congregations, without people of faith. They are indispensable in this crisis.”
Pastor Samuel, leader of the Frontera de Gracia congregation, and director of a migrant shelter with the same name, has been supporting migrants in Juarez since before the start of MPP. Unswayed by threats against his life, violent attacks, and now, COVID-19, Pastor Samuel continues to house, clothe, feed migrants in need. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Pastor Samuel has organized deliveries of food to migrants who are unable to stay in shelters because of capacity and/or safety concerns. Pastor Samuel estimates that the majority of migrants in Juarez are not in official shelters. “It’s hard to know. There’s so many. We are always meeting new people and help how we can.”
Gustavo de los Rios, shelter resourcer at Abara Frontiers, and close friend of Pastor Samuel, described how COVID-19 has impacted shelters’ ability to help migrants. “They’re receiving less money because of the pandemic. Their congregations are under a lot of strain, but they’re still there every day doing what they can. We’ve been asking for money to buy food and basic supplies. It takes $1,000 a week to make sure that all of the people Pastor Samuel delivers to receive the food the need. They’re doing their best with less. He’s out there every day and I help him however I can.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made life even more difficult for migrants, who were already precarious situations. Delays in the Mexican and United States court systems and tighter restrictions on border travel have left many migrants in limbo indefinitely. Juarez, which has been under National Code Red and Code Orange shutdown, has been hit hard by COVID-19 and is especially dangerous for migrants who have been deported from the U.S. who have to quarantine for 14 days before being allowed entrance into another shelter or to travel back home. To mitigate these increased dangers, the Mexican government has created new quarantine shelters and has designated certain existing shelters to also serve as quarantine shelters, known as “albergues filtros.” One of these shelters is Espiritu Santo, run by an Episcopalian congregation. At Espiritu Santo, migrants are connected with medical care and COVID-19 testing while they quarantine and decide what steps to take next during this difficult time.
Though they are not under as tight a lockdown as migrants living at filter shelters, migrants living at the Buen Pastor Shelter, run by a local Methodist congregation, have been severely impacted by COVID-19. In response, the shelter has taken a creative approach to helping migrant women earn money for their families during COVID-19 by launching a sewing workshop.
Blanca Castillo, who helped launch the workshop reflected on its impact, “Right now, we have the capacity to work with about 10 women at a time, but we are looking to expand. The women we are working with right now are from a variety of backgrounds: Brazilians, Cubans, Venezuelans, Guatemalans, women who have migrated from other parts of Mexico. Some of them are under MPP and are waiting for their court dates and some of them are waiting until it’s safe to return to their countries. They’ve been making beautiful tote bags and we’re going to start making masks to sell at a store in El Paso. It’s really been a place for them to come together and heal. We’ve also had psychologists and social workers come and use this space to do therapy with people living in the shelter. Recently, we were able to do a spa self-care day with the ladies. We brought in a hairstylist, Keisha [Branch] who also works at Abara Frontiers, who gave everyone haircuts and we had stations for make-up and nails. It was something small, but they had so much fun and it lifted their spirits. It was a mini-getaway from shelter life. We could host classes in there and have legal aid and other resources present in there. There are so many opportunities and I’m excited to see what we can do in this space.”
In the midst of hardship, unspeakable violence, and now a pandemic, faith communities in El Paso and Juarez continue to seek ways to support and walk alongside migrant men, women and children who are so far from home with no end in sight. In the face of this uncertainty, we can draw inspiration from dedicated people like Pastor Samuel and church shelters, like Frontera de Gracia, Espiritu Santo, and Buen Pastor, and countless others, who propelled by faith, are out there on ground, every day, seeking to help others, no matter what.