Central American asylum seekers, fleeing violence at home, may be released from detention centers to sponsors’ homes.
A volunteer lawyer informs migrants on what to expect when requesting asylum in the U.S., at an office in Tijuana, Mexico, Friday, April 27, 2018. Close to 200 migrants from Central America, mostly from Honduras, arrived in Tijuana seeking to enter the United States. (AP Photo/Hans-Maximo Musielik)
Unitarian Universalists have agreed to open their homes to asylum seekers who traveled as a caravan through Mexico from Central America in hopes of being legally admitted to the United States.
UU-related organizations are also providing legal support and other assistance to the caravan members, who are mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. So far, more than 200 have been allowed into the U.S. to begin the asylum process but dozens more are still waiting at the border in Tijuana, Mexico, where some are still deciding whether to apply for asylum in the U.S. or in Mexico.
“‘Love your neighbors’ is the promise we make each other,” said the Rev. Jill Cowie, minister of the Harvard, Massachusetts, Unitarian Universalist Church, who is sponsoring a young woman who is fleeing with her six-year-old daughter from gang violence in El Salvador. “To create artificial boundaries on any level is against our principles and values of the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
The woman and her child arrived at Cowie’s Boston-area home on May 12, after being housed in the Karnes County Residential Center, a family detention facility in Karnes City, Texas. “They’re amazingly intact and in good spirits, and we are slowly trying to connect them into the community,” said Cowie.
Cowie said she originally offered her home for two months but would consider as long as six months in order to give the woman time to find a place to live and begin working.
Cowie and her husband have spent over $1,500 of their own money to pay for the family’s airfare to Boston and clothes for them, as “they came with nothing,” Cowie said. They are also planning to post bond, another significant cost, so the woman won’t have to continue wearing a home detention ankle monitor, she said.
The Rev. Kathleen McTigue, director of the UU College of Social Justice, and her husband, Nick Nyhart, have been paired with a young trans woman from Honduras who is now in a U.S. detention facility. They have offered their home to her for six months but don’t know when she will arrive.
McTigue traveled with a faith delegation to Honduras in January that called on the U.S. to take responsibility for its support of a 2009 coup that contributed to that country’s current political instability, which in turn led to people seeking asylum in the U.S.
McTigue said she and Nyhart decided to share their Boston-area home with an asylum seeker “because we believe safety from harm is the most fundamental human right.”
Josh Leach, associate for Programs, Research, and Advocacy at the UU Service Committee, will be sponsoring two parents with their minor child who are now in the U.S. He doesn’t know their country of origin and doesn’t know where federal agents have currently placed them. “We’re gravely concerned about the possibility of family separation,” said Leach, a lifelong UU, who said he has had a long interest in refugee rights and “the ways in which U.S. foreign policy has been implicated in human rights abuses abroad, including in Central America.”
The Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen, senior strategist at Side with Love, and Hannah Hafter, senior program leader for activism at the UUSC, helped organize UU support for the Pueblo Sin Fronteras caravan, including finding sponsor homes for asylum seekers who are admitted into the U.S.
Heather Cronk, co-director of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), traveled to Tijuana to work on matching asylum seekers with Americans willing to sponsor them.
Nguyen said she doesn’t have firm numbers yet on how many UUs are sponsoring caravan members.
President Trump and his administration have loudly condemned the caravan. But seeking asylum at the border is “completely legal,” said Hafter, who added that the caravan members are complying with U.S. and international protocol in their efforts to enter the country. Turning away asylum seekers without considering their petitions for asylum is not legal but has been happening with impunity in recent years, she said.
Members of the legal team at UURISE (UU Refugee and Immigration Services and Education) have traveled to Tijuana to help asylum seekers understand their rights and the asylum process. They help asylum seekers prepare for their “credible fear” interviews with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in which they demonstrate that they have a credible fear of returning to their home countries. Other members of UURISE provided breakfast for the marchers who walked from Los Angeles to greet the caravan in Tijuana, said Katia Hansen, president and CEO of UURISE.
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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