For the past two months, federal authorities have been turning away clergy and nuns who’ve been trying to minister to detained, unaccompanied migrant children from Central America. But that situation is beginning to change.
In mid-July, an Episcopal priest in Arizona and a nun in Texas were among the first to receive invitations to provide pastoral care at detention facilities, where U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been overwhelmed and hard pressed to develop visitation protocol.
According to Bishop Kirk Smith of the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, children detained in the Tucson area got a pastoral visit in mid-July from the Rev. John Smith, rector of the Church of St. Michael and All Angels in Tucson. Bishop Smith said the rector brought along his guitar.
“They wanted to sing songs with him,” Bishop Smith said. “They wanted to have prayers with him. People asked him for a blessing.”
Bishop Smith added that children are reportedly getting all their basic needs met, including good food, clothing and accommodations. The only area where they seemed to have been deprived was in the area of spiritual care prior to Rev. John Smith’s visit.
In McAllen, Texas, Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley said she recently received permission to start making daily pastoral visits at a new facility that opened the week of July 20. She’s now preparing a list of prospective visitors who will be vetted before they’re cleared to visit the new site, a converted McAllen warehouse that can house up to 1,000 children in spaces partitioned by chain-linked fencing.
Since October, more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors have arrived in the United States, mostly from the countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. As minors, they have rights under a 2008 law to receive a court hearing and petition to remain in the United States.
Before they’re handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services and its Office of Refugee Resettlement, migrant children stay in detention facilities run by Customs and Border Protection. Church leaders have been concerned that the children, who are primarily Christians, are not getting spiritual guidance and comfort at this trying time in their lives.
“Most of the children have just come through a very traumatic journey,” said Leah Sandwell-Weiss, convener of the Border and Immigration Program Group for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona. “And they were fleeing very traumatic situations in a lot of cases. So they need to be helped and taken care of as much as possible.”
Pastoral visits are important both for the children’s emotional well-being and for monitoring the conditions they’re experiencing, said John-Michael Torres, spokesperson for La Union del Pueblo Entero, a community organizing group in the Rio Grande Valley.
“It’s to show them the love that they deserve and also to find out how they’re being treated and make sure they’re treated correctly,” Torres said at a pro-migrant rally in McAllen on July 19.
Having faced deadly threats in their home countries, many of the children will likely be seeking asylum at court hearings in the United States, explained Harlan York, an immigration attorney in Newark, New Jersey.
Yet the practice of detaining asylum seekers is coming under increasing criticism this summer as monitoring groups raise concerns about potential harm it can cause. The United Nations refugee agency is calling on countries worldwide to end the practice, especially for children.
“Detention of asylum seekers … increases anxiety, fear and frustrations, and can exacerbate past traumatic experiences,” the UN agency said in a July 3 news release. “For children, the effects are particularly serious because of the devastating effect detention can have on their physical, emotional and psychological development, even if they are not separated from their families.”
As the immigration crisis escalated on America’s southern border, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol did not accommodate volunteers, nor did it authorize local clergy to make regular visits. Safety and efficiency concerns made civilian visits of all types unfeasible, according to Border Patrol spokesperson Omar Zamora.
“We’d end up opening it to every civilian that wants to just walk in and take a tour,” Zamora said. “We want to protect the children. We don’t want them to feel like they’re in a zoo with people just coming to look at them.”
Some local clergy in border communities say they’d like to visit detained minors, but they’re not pushing to get access. They instead plan to do pastoral visits only if they’re invited to do so down the line.
“We’re not pressing for that kind of access because when you press government for that kind of access, it can’t be granted to just us. It has to be granted more across the board,” said the Rev. Jim Nelson, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in McAllen. “If we pressed for that now, we’d open the doors to people that shouldn’t be there – possible pedophiles, that sort of thing. And we don’t want them in there.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Photo: Sister Norma Pimentel with Rey Garcia, a logistics specialist with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. (G. Jeffrey MacDonald photo)