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Hispanic evangelical group offers to house migrant children in churches

A migrant mother and children ride a freight train on their journey north to seek refuge in the U.S., in Palenque, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

(RNS) — The head of the largest Hispanic evangelical Christian network in the United States announced it will offer to work with the Trump administration to provide resources and shelter to migrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Speaking during a call with reporters Monday (July 1), the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said his organization plans to launch a campaign to offer aid to immigrant children held in detention centers at the border.

The effort, which organizers are calling the “For His Children” campaign, will involve sending “shipments and cargo and truckloads of resources to the border,” including shoes, clothing and hygiene products, Rodriguez said.

“We have boots on the ground literally now working with our current administration in addressing some of the needs of these children coming over,” he said.

When a Religion News Service reporter asked if the campaign would involve churches providing shelter or foster homes for migrant children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, Rodriguez said yes.

“That’s part of what we have in the rollout of the campaign,” he said. “It’s part of it.”

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez in 2013. Courtesy photo

It was not immediately clear how many — or which — children the group might be able to take in. No details were available about what kind of government approval the process would require. It was also not clear whether the children would be housed just in churches or also in homes.

The Kairos Company, the communications firm that organized the call, told RNS churches who participate in the program plan to offer housing to children who would otherwise end up in detention centers, but noted they have not yet secured approval from the U.S. government to do so.

“In the meantime the churches will provide the necessary basic necessities and we are opening up churches to accommodate just in case the detention centers cannot hold the children or their families,” a spokesperson said in an email. “The church becomes a temporary housing facility for those seeking asylum or coming over the border undocumented and were captured in the process.”

The spokesperson also noted that the initiative will be led by the NHCLC, but not limited to their network.

RNS also asked the U.S. State Department about the potential program, but they deferred to the Department of Homeland Security, who also did not immediately respond. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — which assists with similar programs — also did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Rodriguez said For His Children is “revamping” a previous partnership with the humanitarian organization Convoy of Hope. That partnership began in July 2014 when unaccompanied children arrived in the U.S. under former President Obama.

The NHCLC president listed as potential partners Gus Reyes, director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ Christian Life Commission, and Rev. Eli Bonilla, lead pastor at Bethel Christian Church in Orlando, Florida.

“Our preferable choice is for people to come here legally, not illegally. We want to stop all illegal immigration for a number of reasons, including the humanitarian reason. My heart broke when I saw these kids. I don’t want these kids to be in danger or to suffer at all,” Rodriguez said.

“If they do come here, we want to be a blessing to them. We really want to help them.”

Still, he said, he saw something “drastically different from the stories I’ve been hearing in our national discourse” when he requested a visit to a detention facility last week in El Paso, Texas.

“I was shocked at the misinformation of the crisis at the border.”

He and a delegation of pastors from the NHCLC had full access to the facility, which they toured for at least an hour, he said.

It appeared to be a “summer camp environment” where children had television and snacks and cordial relationships with guards, Rodriguez said. No one was sleeping on floors or cement, and storage areas were full of clothing and hygiene products.

People protest against U.S. immigration policies on the American side, right, of the Mexico-America border near Tijuana on Dec. 10, 2018. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres

Rodriguez said guards emphatically told him they had not altered the center for the visit but acknowledged he was not allowed to speak with the children.

James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, similarly grabbed headlines last week with a newsletter documenting his visit to the border at McAllen, Texas, alleging “the media and leftist politicians have not been truthful about what is going on there.”

Both Rodriguez and Dobson are represented by The Kairos Company.

The Evangelical Immigration Table also visited the U.S.-Mexico border in late June, as revelations about the dire conditions of children within detention centers made the news. Its delegation included the National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson and World Relief President Scott Arbeiter, as well as representatives of Bethany Christian Services, the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the Assemblies of God.

The NHCLC is a member of the Evangelical Immigration Table.

Afterward, the Evangelical Immigration Table sent a letter addressed to President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and members of Congress.

That letter asks for immediate funding for border facilities, urges the U.S. to respect its own laws regarding asylum seekers and expressed concern about Trump’s so-called “Remain in Mexico” program.

In a recorded press call about the letter, Anderson said there are churches throughout the U.S. that are “eager to welcome families and provide for them.

“We just need federal policies that would allow them to be able to do that,” he said.

Anderson also asked Congress to “find a bipartisan solution to this tragic situation.”

One issue preventing churches and faith-based agencies from helping asylum seekers is the “Remain in Mexico” program, which is sending asylum seekers back over the border to Mexico while they wait for their cases to be heard in U.S. immigration court, according to Matthew Soerens, national coordinator of the Evangelical Immigration Table and U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief.

Another issue is that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has run out of resources to place children with agencies like Bethany Christian Services that are authorized to provide foster care for children until they can be reunited with family, Soerens said.

Also, churches would need government approval and oversight to take in children. Not just anyone can show up and offer to foster a migrant child who has been separated from his or her family at the border, he confirmed — and that’s “for good reason.”

He added, “You have to protect children.”

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

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