At border, Baptist leaders see hope among child detainees
SAN ANTONIO (BP) -- Southern Baptist leaders recognized something when they toured federal government facilities for children who have fled to the United States without their parents -- hope.
Ronnie Floyd, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and Russell D. Moore, the SBC's lead ethicist, joined others in tours Tuesday (July 22) of two centers established to address the crisis of unaccompanied minors crossing America's southern border.
The centers in McAllen and San Antonio, Texas, are part of the response to a wave that includes more than 57,000 underage children who have been apprehended at the border with Mexico in the last nine months. Most of the children -- and sometimes children accompanied by a young parent or parents -- have fled Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which are plagued not only by poverty but by violence among gangs involved in drug trafficking.
"I was struck as we were walking through the facility with two things: a sense of fear and a sense of hope," Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said in a written statement. "A sense of fear when I asked the kids why they made the trek up to the United States. And a sense of hope: I saw many crosses and Bibles. Many people are desperately hoping for an end to the violence where they come from."
Floyd said, "These are real people who are looking for hope, and we have the greatest hope that anyone can give them. ... [W]e need to provide them that hope -- hope that we love them, hope that we care for them, hope most of all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ that will change their life and give them hope forever, whether they remain in the United States or they go back to their homeland.
"People will go a long way and tackle obstacles when they feel that hope is possible. They are hoping for a better life," Floyd said.
Floyd and Moore were among pastors and other religious leaders who walked through a U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention center in McAllen and a Department of Health and Human Services shelter in San Antonio. Among those participating in one or both of the tours hosted by the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention were Jim Richards, the SBTC's executive director; Daniel Flores, the Roman Catholic bishop of Brownsville, Texas; and SBTC pastors.
About 65 children are in the detention center in McAllen, which is a major border crossing point near the southern tip of Texas, but that number will mushroom. The center, opened only a few days earlier to alleviate overcrowding in other McAllen detention centers, can house 1,000 children. The shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio has more than 1,100 children. The McAllen center had children ranging in age from about 5 to 17, while the San Antonio shelter is for 12- to 17-year-olds.
Floyd and Moore had expressed concern for the children before going to Texas but they said touring the facilities personalized the issue for them.
"It makes it really real to me," Floyd told Baptist Press. "It's no longer about something … that I hear on the news or stories that I read. But now I've seen real people who have real moms and dads, who have real grandparents, who have taken long treks across the country ... all looking for a better life, all looking for hope, all looking for safety. They want safety because many of their lives have not been safe."
Moore said the visit "put a human face on a moral crisis for me. These children are not issues to be resolved but persons bearing dignity and needing care. The issues involved in this crisis are complex, but our first response should be one of compassion and justice, not fear or disgust."
After touring the San Antonio shelter, Richards said, "We as a state convention are compassionate to these children. It is our obligation under the Gospel to minister to them and help them, regardless of the circumstances in which they came or their future. Our main concern is to care for the children."
Baptists in Texas with both the SBTC and Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) have been ministering as they are able, but the federal government has strictly limited access to unaccompanied children. HHS is responsible for custody of such children once they are moved from detention centers. It permits only federal authorities and federal contractors to be in contact with the minors, according to the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board.
For now, Baptist churches are primarily working to help children and adults crossing the border together by serving them at a processing center; providing food, clothing and showers; and doing laundry. A Hispanic pastor affiliated with the BGCT is conducting worship services for unaccompanied children in one shelter, according to that convention.
Moore said he is "deeply encouraged by the response of Christians to this crisis. We need to be praying for a just resolution, and quickly."
Floyd expressed gratitude "for the churches who have helped along the way, and I want to encourage all of our Southern Baptist churches to see what's happening and think about what you can do to help as a church. Do what Jesus would do: He would care for the children and show them compassion while we have them in our nation."
The federal government has moved some of the children to other states for housing, sometimes by faith-based organizations.
The McAllen detention center is designed to house children no more than three days before they are transferred to an HHS shelter, according to the ERLC. Many of the children at the San Antonio shelter said they had been there from 30 to 45 days, an ERLC staffer reported. The children at the San Antonio shelter receive schooling and medical care among other services.
A study released July 22 shows that the rate of apprehensions of children 12 and younger at the border has grown faster than that of teenagers. The analysis of government data by the Pew Research Center revealed a 117 percent increase in the number of unaccompanied children less than 13 years of age since Oct. 1. The apprehension of minors 13 to 17 has increased by just 12 percent during the same span. Still, 84 percent of the minors apprehended at the border since Oct. 1 have been teens.
In that time period, 27 percent of the unaccompanied children apprehended have been from Honduras, according to Pew. Meanwhile, 22 percent have been from El Salvador, 10 percent from Guatemala and 3 percent from Mexico.
Moore signed on to a July 22 letter from the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT) urging members of Congress to provide the necessary resources and policies to address the border crisis while not weakening a law combating human trafficking. The EIT is a coalition of evangelical leaders promoting immigration reform.
Floyd and Moore have called not only for a compassionate response to the plight of the unaccompanied children in this country but for repair of what is generally acknowledged is a broken immigration system. The ERLC has called for reform that would provide border and workplace security; uphold the rule of law; respect family unity; and establish a path to legal status to those who want to live in this country permanently and are willing to pay penalties and meet the requirements. Flaws in both the system and its enforcement have resulted in an estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants living illegally in the United States.
In 2011, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix approved a resolution on immigration reform that called for Christians to advance the Gospel of Jesus while simultaneously calling on our government to secure the nation's borders and pursue a just and compassionate solution to the immigration crisis.
The U.S. Senate passed broad reform legislation last year, but the ERLC has said it needs improvement. So far, House of Representatives committees have approved bills dealing with such matters as strengthening border and national security, providing visas for guest workers and requiring employers to use the E-Verify system to check employees' eligibility. The full House has yet to act on those bills, however.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Gary Ledbetter, editor in chief of the Southern Baptist Texan, contributed to this article. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).