As the debate over immigration policy continues to roil, Carmen Portela hopes the faces of the children caught in the middle will not be forgotten.
As someone who works directly with the Hispanic community throughout the Dicoese of Phoenix, Portela is concerned about the plight of some 60,000 children who have crossed the border without their parents. It’s nothing short of a humanitarian crisis, she said, and most of the children are Catholic.
The crisis has been sparked in part because families are pushed by the misery and violence in places like Central America and Mexico. Thousands of children cross the border hoping to be reunited with their parents who are already in the United States. Others are fleeing the violence, gangs and drugs in their homeland.
Catholic Charities has been assisting immigrant children for years. Debbie DiCarlo, director of parish and community engagement, is hoping local Catholics will step in to help.
“Catholic Charities places each child with a foster family,” DiCarlo said. “This is a call to action for all parishioners to prayerfully consider becoming a foster parent in the unaccompanied minors program.”
Portela has visited one of Arizona’s four facilities and has seen the children confined there. The number being held fluctuates and can reach as high as 140. The children are assigned a caseworker and authorities search for their parents or a relative. Sometimes, the children are adopted. If they reach the age of 18, however, they are deported.
Portela said she and several volunteers have brought rosaries and Bibles to the center in an effort to meet the children’s spiritual needs. Thanks to a group of volunteers, the kids have the opportunity to receive an hour of religious education each day from Catholic catechists. Still, the children miss their families, she said.
“There are tragic cases in the detention centers,” Portela said, “children, who after a long and dangerous trip in search of their parents, receive the terrible news that one or both have died.”
Yanet Cortes of St. Jerome Parish cares deeply about the children she visits each Friday at a local detention center.
“We do formation, evangelization and catechesis,” Cortes said. It’s difficult, she said, because the children, ages 10-17, are in a state of flux. This week there might be one group of kids, but they won’t be there the next.
“We’re not the only ones visiting,” Cortes said. There are other denominations reaching out too, but so far the Catholics are the only ones who are there seven days a week, she said.
And while Cortes and the others bring Bibles and rosaries and lesson plans, mostly, it’s a message of hope that they bring. Many of the children have been traumatized by their trip across the border. Some of them have opened up a bit to Cortes but others have never spoken a single word.
How can their parents bear to send them away?
“If your child doesn’t join the gang, they kill them or they threaten them,” Cortes said. “They tell them, ‘If you don’t join the gang, we’ll kill your father. We’ll kill your mother.’ The parents, they prefer to send them here rather than see them get killed.”
Cristofer Pereyra, director of the Hispanic Mission Office for the Diocese of Phoenix, agreed. He said that while immigration in general is a very complex issue, the plight of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border is a separate phenomenon driven by the violence in their country.
“A lot of people don’t stop to think about what would it take for a father and a mother to send their children on a journey that could kill them,” Pereyra said. “The only thing that it would take is for the possibility to be greater for the children to be killed if they stay. And that’s what we have at hand.
“The least pro-life thing we can do with these children is to send them back,” Pereyra said. “It’s a death sentence.”
That’s because street gangs, drug cartels and organized crime plague Central America and weak and corrupt governments have allowed them to spread. It’s a terrifying situation for families who must try to coexist alongside human trafficking and the battle among gangs and cartels for turf. Young boys are forced into gangs and young girls are recruited as “girlfriends” for gang members — in other words, they become victims of rape. Attending school is fraught with danger and kids who don’t cooperate suffer reprisals and violence.
A Catholic response
Fr. Ernesto Reynoso, a canon lawyer with the Diocese of Phoenix, said that many in the United States have expressed hostility toward the unaccompanied minors.
“These children are some of the most unprotected and defenseless human beings,” Fr. Reynoso said. “They are here not as immigrants, but as refugees. They are fleeing death and we have a moral obligation to welcome them with love and not politicize the situation.”
Cortes said it’s her own faith that has been strengthened by her efforts to evangelize the children at the detention center. Both Cortes and Portela say they look at the situation as mothers.
“I feel like they could be one of my kids that could be there,” Cortes said. She recalls one boy, 11, who touched her heart.
She was asking the children what their favorite Bible verse was, but she began by telling them her own, though she couldn’t recall the exact citation: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The boy looked up at her and said, “Philippians 4:13.”
At the end of the class, he asked if he could give Cortes a hug. “He said, ‘Please pray for me. I don’t have family here and I’m going to be adopted.’ It broke my heart. He gave me a card and it said, ‘I love you and I’m going to be praying for you.’”
“That really struck me,” Cortes said. “I was thinking how I wanted to give hope to someone, but he was the one who encouraged me. I still have the card and I pray for him every day.”
Working with these children, Cortes said, has helped her to grow in faith. “God has changed my heart,” she said. “The pain of those children is not just their pain anymore. It’s my pain too.”
The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement oversees 94 permanent shelters around the country and three emergency shelters which provide the children’s basic needs, including shelter, food, and medical attention, while trying to identify responsible family members in the U.S. to whom the children can be released.
Current law permits unaccompanied children to remain in the country until their request for asylum or immigration relief is considered by an immigration judge.