As immigrants come north, ‘Let Our Families Go’ caravan heads for border tent city

The goal of the trip, an organizer said, is to 'raise our voices and ensure that indefinite detention of asylum seekers does not happen.'

(RNS) — In July, Rabbi Josh Whinston volunteered to help a Guatemalan woman who had been separated from her family because of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy concerning migrants who crossed the border illegally.

During a four-hour drive from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Pittsburgh, he asked whether she would have fled her home country, which has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America, had she known that the U.S. government would separate her from her children.

No, she told him.

“That shook the earth beneath my feet,” said Whinston, who leads Temple Beth Emeth, a Reform synagogue in Ann Arbor. “And I think it changed me forever.”

Later, when a congregant asked Whinston what people in the congregation could do to resist what they saw as an inhumane policy, his first thought was, “Donate to the ACLU,” the American Civil Liberties Union, which advocates for immigrants’ rights.

Then Whinston decided more direction was needed. So he decided to gather a group of people and drive to a temporary “tent city” in Tornillo, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border about 40 miles southeast of El Paso, where more than 1,400 unaccompanied minors await their release.

On Monday (Nov. 12), the “Let Our Families Go” caravan stopped at Christ Church, a United Church of Christ in a St. Louis suburb, its third stop en route to Texas. By the time the group arrives in Tornillo for a day of action Thursday, there will be some 20 people in the caravan. About 50 activists are traveling from other parts of the country.

The goal of the trip, Whinston said, is to “raise our voices and ensure that indefinite detention of asylum seekers does not happen.”

The Trump administration announced in June that it would end its family separation policy, which officials said was designed to deter migrants from coming to the United States, following a public outcry. According to news reports, most of the migrant children have been reunited with their families. But the federal government has expanded the tent city in Tornillo to a capacity of 3,800, according to government officials. They have not set a date for its closure.

This undated file photo provided by HHS’ Administration for Children and Families shows the shelter used to house unaccompanied foreign children in Tornillo, Texas. The U.S. government says the West Texas tent shelter will remain open through the end of the year. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, that the facility will be expanded to 3,800 beds from its initial capacity of 360 beds. (HHS’ Administration for Children and Families via AP)

“Detaining children, especially in these conditions, is certainly not in their best interest,” wrote Victoria López, an attorney with the ACLU, who visited the camp in October. “It creates immediate risks as well as long-term physical and mental health consequences.”

She described it as a “moral disgrace.”

Rather than drive straight to Texas, Whinston and organizers decided to make stops in Indianapolis, St. Louis and Tulsa, Okla.

They heard that Christ Church had provided a makeshift apartment in its basement for a Guatemalan immigrant, Alex Garcia, who has been living in the United States for 13 years but now faces deportation.

“It just made sense to do it here because Alex’s story is the same story as those folks’ on the border — just different circumstances,” said Whinston.

The clergy and laypeople from various faiths in the caravan hope their effort is “the beginning of a whole movement,” said the Rev. Marie Duquette of King of Kings Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor.

“I think of Dr. Martin Luther King when he wrote ‘The Letter From Birmingham Jail,’” she said.  “He basically called out white clergy and said, ‘Where are you? We need you in this game.’ And so every march was bigger. That’s kind of what this is.”

Participants are relying on small donations and paying their own way, and they were staying at various homes around St. Louis, Whinston said. In Texas, they plan to stop at the Hope Border Institute, a Catholic organization that promotes protection for immigrants, and at the Tornillo camp for a vigil and protest.

More than 30 people attended the gathering at the church outside St. Louis despite the unseasonably cold temperatures and snowy roads.

Clergy from various churches and synagogues delivered a common message of opposition to the Trump administration’s policies toward people from Mexico and Central America. In addition to the child separation, the president recently said a caravan of migrants traveling north through Mexico contains “very tough criminal elements” and described it as an “invasion.”

Members of a U.S.-bound migrant caravan stand on a road after federal police briefly blocked their way outside the town of Arriaga, Mexico, on Oct. 27, 2018. Hundreds of Mexican federal officers carrying plastic shields had blocked the caravan from advancing toward the United States after several thousand of the migrants turned down the chance to apply for refugee status and obtain a Mexican offer of benefits. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Shortly before the midterm elections, he sent 5,200 troops to the border in what some observers labeled a stunt to increase support among his base before the midterm elections.

“We cannot stand silent and should not stand silent because we know that yesterday it was us and today it was someone else and tomorrow it will be someone else,” said the Rev. Darryl Gray of the Social Justice Commission of the Missionary Baptist State Convention of Missouri.

Erin Maloney drove from Jefferson City to St. Louis and planned to leave early Tuesday morning with the other activists. She had spent 13 years as a regulatory engineer with the Missouri Public Service Commission but retired in 2017 because she had lost faith in government, she said.

She was dismayed by Trump’s comments after the white supremacists’ rally last year in Charlottesville, Va., and by then-Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens signing into law Senate Bill 43, which made it more difficult for employees to prove discrimination in wrongful-termination lawsuits.

She also said she left her Episcopal church and its choir about two years ago because of congregants’ support for or acquiescence to the president’s policies.

This will be the 59-year-old’s second trip to the Tornillo camp — she went in June — and she plans to stay in Texas for a month to volunteer at Annunciation House, a nonprofit that provides shelter to reunited immigrant families. Her husband, children and grandchildren will remain in Missouri.

She explained, “Once you go to Tornillo it’s very hard to come home because they don’t get to.”