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“Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth.” So runs a line from a hymn we sang in my church on Sunday (“The Church’s One Foundation”). At a church I once attended, the rector told us not to sing that line because it’s a bald-faced lie. When Christians are not picking fights with other Christians, we just ignore those outside our circle.
On Sunday I sang the line anyway, as a token of hope, but it got me thinking about how unfamiliar North American Protestants are with Catholic social teaching. From the late 19th century when papal encyclicals championed the working class, through many decades and many popes, Catholic leaders have challenged church and society to stand up for the poor and the mistreated.
In one realm of heated controversy today, immigration policy, the bishops of the US and Mexico issued a joint pastoral letter in 2003, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope” / “Juntos en el Camino de la Esperanza Ya no Somos Extranjeros.” Recognizing the prerogative of nations to control their borders, the two episcopal conferences called on both their nations to protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers and uphold the dignity of undocumented migrants.
Casa Alitas, a Tucson shelter, shows how churches can come together in practice even if they seldom study each others’ social analyses. Catholics, Protestants and others have rolled up their sleeves to help those seeking asylum at the Mexican border. What began in 2004 with a few volunteers delivering meals to asylum seekers at the bus station soon became an overnight shelter, a “House of Wings.” Catholic Community Services leases a suitable building, pays a small staff to work with hundreds of volunteers. In several different locations Casa Alitas has assisted more than 35,000 people fleeing violence in dozens of countries.
Asylum seekers, the focus of this outreach, are in a different situation from migrants simply seeking to rejoin families or find work. International law and UN covenants commit all nations to offer asylum to those fleeing persecution and systematic violence at home. Nearly all applicants coming from Mexico have a sponsor in the US, usually family members or churches, to provide a temporary home until their hearing. Casa Alitas provides lodging for a night or two and helps with onward travel. Fewer than one-third of US applications are approved, however. Most will be sent back home.
Immigration authorities used to convey asylum seekers to Casa Alitas from many crossing points. In just one week in 2019, for example, when the shelter was housed temporarily in a former Benedictine monastery, 200 refugees arrived from El Paso. But the flow of migrants stopped abruptly early in 2020 when the Trump administration slammed the doors shut, citing Title 42 of US health law as grounds to exclude all potential carriers of the coronavirus. (Never mind that infection rates at that time were higher on the US side.) Asylum seekers, too, were sent back to Mexico. Soon there were 80,000 refugees and an uncounted number of other hopeful migrants crowded into border encampments, where Mexican cartels extorted protection money and Mexican police dared not enter.
The Biden administration has not yet lifted the Title 42 exclusion, but it has rescinded the return-to-Mexico policy for asylum seekers, a flagrant violation of international rules. Casa Alitas began to fill up once again in March and April.
Since I retired from teaching and administrative work, as well as my wife from her work for Michigan courts, we have also become migrants, fleeing Michigan for the Sonoran Desert when the snow flies. Living in Green Valley, between Tucson and the border, we see migrant trails crisscrossing our favorite hiking routes in Arizona’s “sky islands.”
When fellow members of our Presbyterian church in south Tucson told us of the urgent need for more volunteers as Casa Alitas, we signed up. We worked alongside Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Baptists, Unitarians, Mennonites, and others with no religious affiliation. A Mormon congregation makes meals, prepared off-site because the current facility has no kitchens. (Reheating a meal for thirty to fifty people with nothing more than a microwave and a warming pan is a challenge, we found.)
Today’s facilities could hardly be more different from the architectural gem, a stately Spanish colonial monastery, that was its home in spring and summer 2019. It moved to a detention facility no longer needed by the adjacent Tucson juvenile court. Volunteers have brightened the walls and the entrance with cheery murals, but the rooms are small concrete-walled cells with prison-issue steel toilets and lavatories. There is no mistaking the building’s intended use for confinement of wayward youth.
The number of asylum seekers who perch at the House of Wings for a night or two varies widely from day to day. Some volunteers sort clothing, others confirm travel reservations, others give rides to the airport or bus station. As “floaters” we did whatever was needed: making up beds, distributing linens, cleaning the common areas, heating and serving meals, and offering assistance to new arrivals as needed. We communicated with words if we could find a shared language, then resorted to gestures and smiles.
Asylum seekers were no longer being transported to Tucson: ICE’s new policy was simply to wave goodbye at the border post where they submitted an application. Churches along the border now arrange vans and buses to Casa Alitas or other shelters. Requests for assistance from federal authorities with shelter operating costs have been rebuffed, but local donors have been generous.
On one Monday evening in April we arrived for our shift to find about 30 people in the rooms and a crowd of children making a happy multilingual racket in the common areas. We served them dinner. The coordinator on duty told us a bus was expected about 9 pm from Yuma, three hours away, with 30 more refugees. Then came another phone call: there will be 60 people, actually, arriving at 5 pm. The bus rolled up at 7 pm with 50 passengers. We welcomed them, provided water and soup, and then scrambled to assemble a meal to heat up while they awaited room assignments.
There were young men and women traveling alone, couples with and without children (including a week-old newborn), sibling groups, and older adults with or without spouses and children. Although all had tested negative for Covid-19, volunteers and guests all wore masks. (Unaccompanied minors are directed to other shelters; those who test positive are sent elsewhere to quarantine or receive treatment.) While they ate, the coordinator on duty explained what the new arrivals could expect, what forms they should complete, and how to obtain clothes for themselves and their families – a critical need for those on their way to northern cities. She spoke in Spanish, and then one volunteer translated into Portuguese, another into Haitian Creole.
Many Central Americans have come to the border to escape civil war and gang violence in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, but they too are barred from entry under Title 42. In the group that had crossed that day at Yuma were Venezuelans, Cubans, and many Haitians. Portuguese conversations among Brazilians were part of the mix. Also in the group were a few Russians, Romanians and Syrians, all fleeing conflicts that had put them in danger at home. Many had been living in border encampments – or in hotels, which some could easily afford – for many months before they were allowed to apply for asylum and then wait in the US for a hearing.
There were nearly as many smartphones in the group as individuals, a reminder of the pervasive reach of technology even in the developing world. Posted instructions for the Casa Alitas network didn’t work for everyone, so I tried to help them connect. Puzzling out error messages in Spanish, Portuguese, Creole and Romanian was a challenge.
Although the US is at last honoring its obligation to offer asylum when it is justified, applicants still live in uncertainty for many years while awaiting a hearing. Tens of thousands have been turned back without being permitted to apply. Enormous numbers of other would-be migrants seeking employment, not asylum, languish in dangerous border camps, while US employers bemoan the scarcity of workers.
But some from many faiths have rolled up their sleeves to do what they can to seek justice and reconciliation in whatever modest way they can. Catholic Community Services, acting out their church’s commitment to the dignity and the rights of all, is an important part of that work. All of us who aspire to be followers of Jesus can learn from its example.