Staff of Border Servant Corps (BSC) in Las Cruces, N.M., spent the beginning of May on the phone, looking for congregations, individuals, social service organizations—anyone to offer room at the inn after May 11, when the U.S. government would lift the Title 42 immigration restrictions imposed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Title 42 allowed immigration authorities to expel migrants and deny entry to asylum-seekers. In May more than 50,000 people living in shelters along the U.S.-Mexico border were waiting to request asylum.

As the largest around-the-clock reception and sheltering campus for families in the El Paso Sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, BSC can welcome about 250 asylum-seekers a day. While Title 42 was in place, up to 2,300 asylum-seekers a month stopped at the BSC Hospitality Center for a meal, a hot shower, a change of clothes, short-term housing and assistance with travel arrangements. Lifting Title 42 was expected to bring many more.

BSC hoped to find groups that could welcome buses of 50 migrants for 48 to 72 hours, more congregations to sponsor asylum-seeking families and more funds. Founded in 1977 by Peace Lutheran Church, Las Cruces, the organization is funded primarily by a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and counts on its Lutheran partners to welcome everyone who comes in its door.

Who seeks asylum?

“We are living in an unprecedented time of global displacement,” said Dan Beirne, director for mobilization and faith relations for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS).

Of the 103 million forcibly displaced people around the world, nearly 32.5 million are refugees, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Processed in refugee camps around the world, they reach their destination countries with paperwork, sponsors and benefits in place, and they can work right away.

Asylum-seekers, by contrast, must present themselves to U.S. authorities and request permission to apply for asylum. Many are turned away. If admitted to the United States, applicants must file a request within a year of entry and, to be approved, establish a credible fear of persecution or torture if they return home. While they wait, families need sponsors, because asylum-seekers don’t qualify for federal benefits such as food stamps and must spend months, even years, seeking work permits.

In April, 40% of the guests at the BSC Hospitality Center were from Venezuela. Another 42% were from Colombia, Turkey and Brazil. Half were children traveling with their families. Many had spent as long as five years in a third country before arriving in the United States.

“The children of Venezuelan parents have birth certificates from Ecuador, Colombia or Peru,” said Kari Lenander, executive director of BSC. “Most have walked or taken ground transportation to the U.S. border.”

“There have always been strangers. This is our time to welcome them.”

Migrants and asylum-seekers stepping off the bus at BSC experience their first moment in the United States out of detention. Lenander and her staff greet them with fresh water, a welcome speech in several languages and, for children, an invitation to the playground. Guests with birthdays that month get a song and a present.

“We want people to relax and breathe a little bit and honor the humanity of the folks who are coming to us,” Lenander said. Most already have sponsors and move on to their final destination in three days. Those who don’t often remain in border communities such as El Paso.

Last winter, hundreds of asylum-seekers found themselves on charter buses headed to New York City or Washington, D.C., paid for by cities and states along the border.

“We just opened the doors and began helping those who needed to be helped,” said Juan Carlos Ruiz, pastor of Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Brooklyn. The congregation retooled its pandemic-era food pantry and kitchen to welcome new arrivals 24 hours a day and to house those with nowhere to stay.

“For people who have been through the jungle, the need is not only for food but for human connection,” Ruiz said. Volunteers help set up calling plans to reach families at home and replace phones lost on the journey.

The congregation, he said, is serious about its “moral and spiritual obligation to take care of the more vulnerable neighbor. We are the ones who are supposed to be doing that work.”

Messiah Lutheran Church in Marquette, Mich., is sponsoring Gloria (last name withheld for privacy) and her two sons, who arrived in September 2020 and will remain until their asylum trial in 2024. Members of Messiah and of nearby Baptist, Episcopalian and Congregationalist churches are walking with the family on their way to independence by accompanying them to the Honduran embassy for passports, driving Gloria to ESL classes and advocating for services in a school district with no other Spanish speakers.

“These relationships change your heart and mind,” said Molly Eversoll, a pastor of Messiah. Matthew 25:35-40 is the congregation’s guide, she said, noting that “our ethos is loving our neighbors as ourselves, and recognizing and actually doing something with our abundance that helps the world.”

Gloria recently secured her work permit and a job at a local hotel. Her oldest son, who lost his leg on the overland journey to the U.S. border, is so comfortable with his new prosthesis that he plays sled hockey during the Upper Peninsula’s long, cold winters. “Teenage boys are teenage boys,” Eversoll said. “They wear their shorts in the snow no matter how cold it is.”

A churchwide strategy for welcome

Before welcoming Gloria and her family, Messiah became a welcoming congregation through the ELCA’s AMMPARO strategy (Accompanying Migrant Minors with Protection, Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities). AMMPARO workshops and resources introduced members of Messiah to border issues and the alphabet soup of immigration statuses.

An educational immersion trip to BSC “was huge,” Eversoll said. By the time Gloria arrived, they had a good grasp on what lay ahead.

The AMMPARO strategy began in 2016, when nearly 60,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America were apprehended on the southern border. “The influx called upon the ELCA to make a more comprehensive response to migration,” said Mary Campbell, AMMPARO program director. Adopted by that year’s churchwide assembly, the strategy seeks to address the root causes of migration in sending countries; respond to the situation with companions, affiliates and partners; and advocate for migrant children and their families.

Regarding asylum-seekers, the ELCA “unequivocally supports the right for people to be able to seek asylum from fear of persecution and violence,” said Giovana Oaxaca, AMMPARO’s program director for migration policy.

ELCA members live out that position by accompanying people in detention, voicing their concerns to policymakers and sponsoring families. AMMPARO has provided sponsorship training to its 223 welcoming congregations, 47 sanctuary congregations and other ELCA partners. The training helped another Messiah Lutheran Church—this one in Amherst, N.H.—prepare for a family from Ecuador.

When the mother toured the renovated church building that would be her home, she “cried tears of joy,” said member Doreen Rinas.

“Refugees have a national system to support them, but asylum-seekers have nothing.”

Messiah helped the mother find an immigration lawyer and is supporting her and her two children while she waits for a work permit. Members also transport the 4-year-old to preschool and the mother to ESL classes.

After St. Andrew Lutheran, a welcoming congregation in San Diego, turned its empty community center into housing, a family of seven from Haiti moved in for 10 months. Three years later the community building has served as transient housing for about 50 people, all from Haiti. The Pacifica Synod AMMPARO Network connects St. Andrew with nearby ELCA congregations that walk alongside the families as they enroll children in school, see doctors and lawyers, and learn English. “Together, we could do more,” said Sarah Sumner-Eisenbraun, a pastor of St. Andrew.

Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Seattle has walked alongside 27 asylum-seekers in nine households since 2018. Word gets out. “It’s something like the Underground Railroad, where people tell others that this is a place you can be safe,” said Joanne Engquist, a pastor of Gethsemane.

Accompanying migrants and asylum-seekers is a relationship, not a project, she said. “It’s going to be years and years, not months and months,” she added. “But it is absolutely transforming for our community of faith and for our sense of what God calls us to do and to be.”

A long Lutheran welcome

One long journey ends when asylum-seekers are admitted to the United States and settle with sponsors. Then a second, more complicated journey begins. Lutherans are companions here, too, offering what LIRS calls “the Long Welcome.”

“Our work doesn’t just stop with meeting them at an airport,” Beirne said. “We want refugees and asylum-seekers not just to survive but to thrive.”

LIRS engages congregations in the Long Welcome in several ways. Through its Fresh Change initiative, congregations gather and ship new clothing to BSC and other border ministries for asylum-seekers leaving detention. The Emmaus Network equips congregations to answer the biblical call to welcome the stranger by standing and advocating alongside these new neighbors.

The network’s “one-stop shop” welcome centers help asylum-seekers figure out housing, work permits, the school system, court appearances and other steps to making a life in the United States. Some are located in congregations, such as the one opening this summer at Christ Lutheran in Baltimore, thanks to a $450,000 gift from ELCA World Hunger. Some are operated by LIRS or an affiliate group. Other welcome centers, such as the one at Good Shepherd in Brooklyn, are independent.

“Refugees have a national system to support them, but asylum-seekers have nothing,” said Alicia Vasquez-Crede, associate director for asylum services at the LIRS Welcome Center in San Antonio.

Welcome centers bridge that gap. As clients and caseworkers assess new arrivals and make a plan with them to find a lawyer or enroll in English classes, “the idea is to work toward those goals together so, at the end of six months, they feel more empowered,” she said.

“We want refugees and asylum-seekers not just to survive but to thrive.”

The Welcome Center at Lutheran Community Services Northwest in SeaTac, Wash., mentors teens from Afghanistan and Ukraine who entered the United States under the Humanitarian Parole program. Its attorney and legal aides also educate clients on the application process and advocate on their behalf as friends of the court.

That’s important, because courts are confusing places with a specialized language and procedure. Missing a hearing or failing to file paperwork greatly increases the odds of being deported.

The AMMPARO Guardian Angels program helps young people as they attend hearings in juvenile immigration court. “We are silent, we pray and we show the judges that vulnerable people, especially unaccompanied minors, are part of who the church is called to accompany,” said Justin Eller, assistant to the bishop for care and community, who coordinates 22 volunteers in the Southeastern Synod.

Between 15 and 25 young people attend the morning hearings, sometimes with an adult, more often alone. The Guardian Angels are mostly silent, but if asked, they may answer a question or share information about free legal resources.

“There have always been strangers,” Eller said of his work. “This is our time to welcome them.”

A hemispheric issue

“Every country in the Western Hemisphere is looking at mass migration,” Oaxaca said, “and asking themselves, how do we respond in a way that honors our commitments and honors the people we have to protect?”

For Rinas, relationships with real people humanize global statistics. “If you actually get to know one family or even a single asylum-seeker, everything becomes more dignified and filled with humanity,” she said. “You discover it’s not just a number, but a person with feelings and good and bad experiences.”

The 500 people who come to Good Shepherd every week for food, clothing, and referrals to housing and lawyers “don’t deplete our oil jar,” Ruiz said. “The resources keep coming. Generosity is a hallmark of the resurrection, and when you work out of that frame of mind and heart, you know that God is sustaining us and providing for us, and we are just basically means of God’s agency.”

To read the ELCA social message “Immigration,” click here.

Anne Basye
Basye, a freelance writer living in Mount Vernon, Wash., is the author of Sustaining Simplicity: A Journal (ELCA, 2007).

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