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Asylum-Seekers in El Paso TX

Carlos, Josefina, and their young son Gerson (not their real names) fled Cuba for the United States in pursuit of asylum protections. Because of certain restrictions in Cuba, flying to Guyana in South America was the closest they could get to their intended destination. En route with other migrants for safety, the three of them traversed unknown terrain, mountain ranges, and rainforests through South and Central America until they reached Ciudad Juarez in northern Mexico, along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Carlos, Josefina, and Gerson had been traveling for months.

By this point, Carlos, Josefina, and Gerson had been traveling for months, when by God’s grace they met Rev. Samuel Lopez, pastor of Frontera de Gracia (Border of Grace) Church in Juarez. Pastor Samuel had begun a ministry out of his church to serve and meet the needs of asylum-seekers arriving daily to the city. Even though they had few resources, Frontera de Gracia opened its doors to dozens of Cuban and Central American asylum-seekers.

To be able to continue this important ministry, Samuel reached out to his brother, Rev. Angel Lopez, who pastors at Third Reformed Church in Holland, MI, in pursuit of financial support. In addition to seeking financial support from both the Reformed Church (RCA) and the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), Angel reached out to the CRC Office of Social Justice (OSJ) for advocacy support, knowing that the OSJ had been doing policy advocacy for asylum-seekers at the U.S. southern border.

God continued to connect the dots.

God continued to connect the dots: Angel was introduced to Melissa Stek from the OSJ Team, who happened to be leaving in a few weeks for a delegation trip with the World Communion of Reformed Churches to El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Melissa added a day to her trip to be able to go to Juarez to meet Pastor Samuel and learn about Frontera de Gracia’s ministry.

During this visit, in early April 2019, Melissa was given the opportunity to meet and break bread with some of the asylum-seeking families being served by Frontera de Gracia -- including Carlos, Josefina, and Gerson. Some weeks after this visit, border officials gave the family notice that they could cross into the U.S., and with no place to stay and no family to reunite with, they were taken in by a friend and colleague of Pastor Samuel’s, Rev. Manuel Padilla, in El Paso, Texas. 

It is at this point in the family’s journey that this interview takes place: Melissa back at the OSJ in Michigan, and Josefina, Carlos, and Gerson in El Paso, waiting and hoping to find a more permanent place to live so that their asylum case could continue to be processed.

Watch the interview to hear directly from the family about their experience seeking asylum at the U.S. southern border.


Key points to remember after hearing this story:


1. This asylum-seeking family and countless others have obeyed the law and followed the rules.

Carlos, Josefina, and Gerson were not detained or required to wear ankle monitors because they broke the law. Like countless other families stuck at the border, they sought asylum legally (because seeking asylum is legal), waited their turn, and have done their best -- as best as they’ve understood -- to follow the orders of immigration officials every step of the way. “If we comply to their rules, we won’t have problems,” Josefina said. “I ask and sometimes I don’t understand them, but they are the ones that understand. I don’t know… We only have to comply.”

2. The U.S. government is endangering -- not helping -- families like these.

By complying with the expectations of the federal government, families put themselves in danger. Relatively new policies like the “Migrant Protection Protocols” (or “Remain in Mexico” policy) and “metering” have made compliance both difficult and risky, because they have forced people to wait on the Mexican side of the border while their asylum cases are pending, and forced people to wait in long lines (in the thousands) to be heard for their first asylum interview.

The myriad changes in immigration and asylum policy, including these, do not intend to process the high number of asylum seekers more efficiently, and they do not intend to protect asylum seekers from harm. They intend instead to deter people from seeking asylum in the U.S. by increasing the difficulty and danger inherent to the process. Instead of finding ways to meet the need of people who, by definition, have no other option for safety, the current U.S. policy is to make the safety of the U.S. a dangerous process.

3.The rules have changed and keep on changing.

Shortly after this interview took place in May 2019, Carlos, Josefina, and Gerson were able to move to another location in the U.S. where they could have more support and a more stable, long-term living situation. They continue to attend court hearings and work on their asylum case to be able to remain in the United States in safety.

Though Josefina and Carlos’s asylum process began just a few  months ago, the way asylum-seekers are received and processed since then has changed significantly, and asylum-seekers like this family have -- through a variety of complicated and confusing policy changes -- been barred from seeking asylum in the U.S. Nearly all asylum-seekers arriving today are barred from access to asylum because they are now required to first apply - and be rejected - for asylum in a country through which they travelled en route to the U.S.

4. Asylum-seekers and refugees are not the same -- and don’t compete for “space” in the U.S.

The number of refugees who come to the U.S. each year is set by the President (in consultation with Congress). A refugee already has their immigration papers upon arrival (they fled their country of origin and went through a long and rigorous vetting process while overseas -- and received permission to come to the U.S.).

The number of asylum seekers who are given permission to immigration to the U.S. is not pre-determined by the President or by Congress -- it responds to the need. An asylum seeker does not yet have his/her immigration papers when they arrive at the border (they fled their country of origin and go through the rigorous vetting process when they arrive).

In proposing for 2020 the lowest number of refugees for resettlement in the U.S. in the history of the program, one of the Administrations’ stated goals was to prioritize the humanitarian crisis at the border. To be clear, these are not the same pipelines, nor do they draw from the same resources. And the president is effectively shutting down both.

What can you do to support asylum-seekers and refugees? Using the Office of Social Justice’s action alerts, ask your members of congress to protect asylum-seekers and access to asylum and call House and Senate Judiciary Committee leaders to urge the administration to keep the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program in tact.

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