Being Familia When You Aren't Home for the Holidays

During the holidays, immigrant families are keenly aware of the cultural value of familia and how the decision to emigrate to the US has affected them.  While the word familia is literally translated as “family,” its meaning in Spanish is much broader than what immediately comes to our minds.

Ask the average anglo American about his or her family, and they’ll probably name their spouse, significant other, and/or kids – automatically defining family as a social unit consisting of one or more adults and their children.

But ask a Latin American or Latino about family, and they’ll name everyone from the immediate family to grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings and cousins, and may even include godparents and long-time family friends.  For an immigrant, the question, “Do you have family here?” is usually answered negatively, because their extended family and heritage is in their home country.

Each December (pre-COVID), we have hosted a Christmas party to celebrate our Latino familia.  As many as 75 to 100 people have filled the Smith home for an afternoon of food, fellowship, and familia.  We invite everyone, pack them in, and chaos reigns.  Everyone brings holiday foods.  Mexicans bring their jalapeños and hot sauce, and Salvadorans make pupusas.  And there is friendly banter over the merits of tamales wrapped in banana leaves over those wrapped in corn husks – and over the recipes from each country or region!

Several years ago, I realized the significance of this party.  Alfredo, a quiet young dad, was hanging out in the kitchen, and we began talking.  “You know,” he said, “coming to your house makes Christmas special.  It feels like familia here.”  He and his wife, Julita, have been in the states for over 10 years, and they have fond memories of large family gatherings in Mexico where the children played soccer and other games outside, the women provided a constant supply of special holiday foods, and the men gathered under the trees to talk about “macho guy” stuff.  They enjoyed Nochebuena, celebrating Christmas Eve midnight mass together, sharing gifts after mass, and eating tamales with hot ponche.  Many times the festivities extended through New Years’ Day.  In the US, there’s no extended family, just Alfredo, Julita, Eric and Ashley in their small trailer.   With luck, the adults get Christmas Day off from work.

Our last party was in 2019, pre-COVID, and the tradition has been missed by everyone.  There is even more of a need to come together as familia, to share the joy as well as the pain of these past two difficult years.  I pray that we will be able to resume this tradition as we look ahead to 2022.

Holidays are a great time to bring people together from many countries, with different cultures and traditions, to remind folks of what is truly important during this season of the year.  We share fond memories from the past, and celebrate the greatest gift of the season, the birth of Christ.  We are familia.

Poverty Migration is Increasingly Driven by Climate Change

A subsistence farmer’s crops in southern Mexico

Carmen knew the family was in trouble when her husband Pedro, a farmer, wore out his work boots.

Those boots were his only pair of shoes. “They literally fell apart,” she explained. “And we couldn’t afford to replace them.”

Juana’s dad was still living with the family, even though many of the other dads in her village had left to find work. “It was a struggle for my parents to provide school uniforms and shoes,” she said. “I know they made sacrifices so that my sisters and I could study.”

And one year, Juana remembers, one of those other girls had a brand-new doll. “Growing up, we never had toys, and to this day, I’ve never had a doll,” she recalled.

When Miguel’s family was sharecropping, having a large family was an advantage, as all the kids could help work the land. But a land grant and land ownership didn’t have the positive effect on families that it should have.

“Suddenly, we had too many sons and not enough land to go around,” he said. “They couldn’t begin and support their own families, and there was no cash to rent or buy more land.”

For decades, many Mexican and Central American families have depended on the land, and subsistence farming has been the norm.

There’s a place to live without paying rent, even though it may be a basic shelter with a dirt floor and no electricity. But it’s home.

The family is safe and together, and the family system supports each other. There’s almost always corn, beans and tortillas, and often mangoes, papayas or yuca, supplemented by rice.

Extremes in the climate are nothing new to this region. Alternating between rainy and dry seasons is the norm, with months of rain followed by months of drought.

Many of these countries are also affected by tropical storms and the accompanying heavy rains and winds. In recent years, the frequency and intensity of the extremes has changed, along with unexpected weather events.

Where farmers could once count on somewhat predictable weather patterns for planting and harvesting, this is no longer the case. This has had devastating consequences for small rural farmers and their families, who often live on the edge of poverty.

The rainy season starts later and has become more irregular and difficult to predict, and the intensity of rainfall has been increasing during the onset season.

Drought is also more frequent, and current trends suggest that the region is in store for a decrease in overall precipitation in the years to come. These changes make things hard for farmers.

Carmen’s husband Pedro calculated the timing for planting. However, rather than a gentle rain falling each day during the onset of the rainy season, the rains came suddenly, hard and heavy, and washed the new seedlings away.

He bought new seed and replanted them. This time, the harsh Central American sun was relentless, and no rains came. Pedro could only watch as his precious seedlings baked in the sun.

Carmen and Pedro watched this cycle over several years until Pedro’s work boots finally gave out. There was no money to replace them, and no money for more seed or for food, for school uniforms and shoes for the kids.

He didn’t want to leave his family, but with no options for loans and no savings left, his only option was to leave home and seek work.

Climate change directly affects small farmers like Pedro, but it also affects the overall economy, particularly in countries where a large percentage of the population works in agriculture.

As market crops like coffee or bananas are negatively affected, there is less work even as overall food prices increase. And migration, both internal and external, is necessary for survival.

The Climate Reality Project reports that “major climate-related displacement isn’t coming – it’s already started. Central Americans are buckling under the weight of soaring heat, powerful storms, changing precipitation patterns, and agricultural worries.”

Add to this the impact of other unexpected and extreme weather events, such as two back-to-back historically strong hurricanes (Eta and Iota) that killed hundreds and forced many from their homes, and the situation is dire.

Widespread poverty and food insecurity is a daily reality for many in this region, and families are forced to make difficult decisions.

With the rising cost of food and scarcity of jobs, people are forced to migrate beyond the boundaries of their own countries. Migration is no longer driven by a desire for “a better life”; migration is necessary for survival.

Juana left home at age 17. Her dad is no longer able to farm. Today, she sends money to support her parents, as well as boxes of used clothing, toys and other items.

Her mother distributes these goods to other families in need in their indigenous village in Guatemala. “The people there have nothing. There’s no work, no food. This is the least I can do,” says Juana.

Miguel, an Indigenous pastor in Chiapas, Mexico, prays regularly for the young men in his village who have “gone north.” He hears the stories from distraught families whose sons or daughters disappeared on the journey, or fell prey to the cartels, or are depressed and alone in the U.S.

He prays for his own sons, that they will not have to make the difficult decision to leave.

And Miguel prays for the weather, for crops and livestock to survive and for floods to not wash out the roads and isolate their remote village.

This article was originally published as part of a series in Good Faith Media highlighting the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

The Sound of Distress and a Call to Action

Dreamers continue to live in the shadows. (image by Katty Elizarova/

by Greg Smith

“Oh, I didn’t realize that.”  The words landed softly on my ear, almost inaudible.  That was all she could muster.  I guess there really wasn’t much more she could say.

The news on July 16, 2021 out of a federal district court in Texas hit the immigration world like a ton of bricks.  And it fell heaviest on Dreamers, the name given to the hundreds of thousands of young people brought to this country before age 16.  

The court ruled that DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was illegal and that all new DACA applications – even those pending a decision before United States Citizenship and Immigration Services – were blocked.  For now the ruling did not take DACA away from those who’ve already been granted its protections and right to work legally, nor did it deny current DACA holders from renewing their grant of DACA when the time comes.

But it stopped all new DACA applications in their tracks – permanently.

This is what blew away the young Dreamer I spoke with.  We filed her DACA application in February 2021, but USCIS had not yet granted her DACA.  Oftentimes court rulings affecting immigration processes or benefits do not apply to applications already filed with USCIS, but not this time.  In one fell swoop, DACA was ruled illegal and therefore all new applications and indeed the program itself was brought to a swift, callous, and merciless death.

By eliminating DACA, the ruling plunged a dagger into the hearts of 600,000 to 700,000 potential DACA applicants, young people who had been counting on DACA to access a job, or affordable college tuition, or a state-issued driver’s license, so many looking forward to stepping out of the shadows and into the light of a full life and greater social integration.

I told my young Dreamer that we would keep her file open in the event the ruling were reversed on appeal.  I told her we would pray and not give up hope.  I told her we would fight for her and all Dreamers yearning to breathe free and without fear in the only country they have ever known.

The fight, though, has proven difficult, and an outcome giving Dreamers the right to call the United States their home legally and officially won’t come easy.  What can you and I do to stand with Dreamers in their quest to build their lives in the US without fear?  Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Let your US Representative and Senators know you stand with Dreamers.  Let them know your extreme disappointment and displeasure that Congress has yet to fulfill the wish of 72% of Americans who favor protections and a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers.  You can find how to contact your Representative here and your Senators here.
  2. Look in your community for pro-DACA and pro-Dreamer groups working on a solution to this needless quagmire, and support and/or join their efforts.  Some great nationally-focused groups to check out are United We Dream,, and Unidos US
  3. Spread the news through social media, the op-ed section of your local newspaper, and other means about the need for a solution that protects and supports Dreamers.  Here’s a resource providing tips for writing a strong op-ed, and here’s a link to the district court ruling on DACA.
  4. Get to know what the Bible says about welcoming the immigrant.  Read Christopher B. Harbin’s On Immigration for an extensive, well-researched treatment of the Bible’s embrace of the immigrant and immigration.
  5. As you come to know Dreamers, both those who already have DACA and those who are now barred from obtaining a grant of DACA, let them know of your support and prayers.  Ask them personally how you can enhance your support.  Become a trusted friend with a listening ear.  Do unto your immigrant neighbors, friends, and colleagues what you would have your immigrant neighbors, friends, and colleagues do unto you.

Two months have passed since that conversation with this young Dreamer. She’s begun another year of high school — her senior year, when she should be eagerly anticipating the same next steps as her classmates after graduation — college, a job, driving. And yet she’s still in limbo, still in the shadows, with no solution in sight.

Dr. Greg Smith serves as an Accredited Representative through the Department of Justice and assists many immigrants and refugees with low-cost immigration legal assistance.

Walls, Tables, and God’s Kingdom

by Renee Edington

I’m near the end of a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Student.Go internship. I’m Renee Edington, a seminary student at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky. This summer, I’ve been working with Sue Smith and Karen Morrow, CBF field personnel and two other interns on a social media campaign encouraging native born U.S. citizens to welcome immigrants to the United States.

A couple of weeks ago, Sue shared a picture she took of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and I’ve been thinking a lot about walls ever since. I’ve developed a hatred of walls. This wall has a stark beauty that draws me in yet how can I enjoy looking at it when I know the purpose behind the tall metal sheets is exclusion?

Walls. Dividers. Barriers. Why do we have walls? In a house, walls divide or separate the rooms. Walls keep people in. Walls keep people out. Walls protect people. Walls separate people. Walls include people. Walls exclude people.

Tall walls, short walls, climbable walls, walls topped with razor wire. Why? Protection, exclusion, safety? Who are we protecting? Who are we excluding? Who are we keeping in and who are we keeping out?

Walls provide boundaries. Walls can be helpful or hurtful. There are physical walls and invisible walls. Invisible walls can oppress and exclude people. Invisible walls can keep us from becoming the person God imagined us becoming. Invisible walls pop up along our journey and stunt our emotional growth or push us in a different direction.

The sermon in church last week was based on Psalm 8, which talks about the magnificence of God and glorifies in the amazement that God is mindful of humans. God thinks about humans and cares for us. In fact, verse 5 says that we humans are made a “little bit lower than God” (NRSV) or a little bit less than divine. We are all unique nearly divine beings created in God’s image. ALL of us are created in God’s image. ALL of us are a little bit less than divine. There aren’t levels of humanity. Every single one of us is special and unique and created in the image of God.

Therefore, why in the world do some humans decide to exclude other humans? Why do some humans build walls? If we’re all indeed created in God’s image and in fact, just a little bit lower than God, how did it happen that some people take control of others through construction of walls?

God gave us “dominion over the works of (God’s) hands.” God expects us to take care of the world and its inhabitants, not find reasons to exclude.

Sometimes I think we as Christians put up walls to God for people of other religions. I recently read something that mirrors my thinking. In The Good News According to Jesus: A New Kind of Christianity for a New Kind of Christian, Chuck Queen writes “I believe in Christian particularism, but not exclusion.” My simple interpretation of his explanation is this: Christians come to God through Jesus Christ. People of other faiths come to God through other paths. Because God is so big, and God’s kingdom is all-encompassing, I cannot put boundaries on the scope of God.

My favorite description of the kingdom of God comes from Rachel Held Evans in Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, “This is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.” When I think about this quote, I always add that they’re not at the table because they’re Christian, they’re there because they said yes to God.

In her 2012 interview with U.S. Catholic, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine makes a similar point from the Jewish perspective: “If God is the God of the world, then God can’t simply be the God of the Jews. God has to be the God of the non-Jews as well.” Just as Christians cannot claim sole ownership of God; neither can Jews. God is great enough for Christians, Jews, and other religions.

Then let’s start thinking about how we can tear down exclusionary walls, whether visible or invisible. Start with one wall, then another and another and another until every human who is created in the image of God (and that’s ALL humans) has a place at the table of God.

I started with a picture of a wall. I end with a picture of a table where all are equally welcome. May it be so in God’s world. Amen.

I Wanna Be Like You, Dad!

Photo by Szilvia Basso on Unsplash

Noboby’s perfect; we all make mistakes. But it’s especially hard when we make mistakes and there’s a little guy (or gal) watching, a child who just wants to be like their dad.

Two immigrant men I know have young sons who are their constant companions. They’ve taught their sons to fish and swim, to ride bikes and to play soccer.

These guys are both great dads and, right now, both are the primary caretakers of their young children.

But they’ve made mistakes and are paying for poor choices made due to the misuse of alcohol. They accept the consequences of their actions, but that’s not what really motivates them to seek help or change.

They’re motivated to change because of the look in the eyes of those little boys who want to be like their dads. Hearing a preschooler ask if Daddy is drinking again and suffering the humiliation of being handcuffed and hauled off to jail in front of their kids when they were stopped for driving under the influence were the catalysts for change.

Both men recognize the physical danger that their drinking habits have caused to their children. More importantly, these dads have come to recognize the damage that is done to their children’s mental and emotional health.

In a 1998 joint-study by CDC-Kaiser Permanente, 10 adverse childhood experiences (or ACEs) were identified as having a significant impact on the mental and physical health of adults.

One of these experiences is growing up in a household where there are substance abuse issues. This alone has motivated these dads to seek help.

While they may be motivated to seek help because of their children, they soon realize that they are other victims.

Many immigrants, asylum seekers and asylees have had their own share of ACEs and/or traumatic experiences during migration. According to therapist Michael Quirke, “a childhood that is scary shapes your nervous system and your brain. It creates a body that is ready to defend itself, or is adept at numbing, ignoring pain, and disconnecting.”

Substance abuse is a form of self-medication from the emotional pain, a means of escape from the overwhelming problems they face or of coping with depression or loneliness.

One of these dads, whom I’ll call E, is from El Salvador. His parents migrated and left him and his three siblings with a grandmother who was unable to care for them.

By age 12, he had run away from an orphanage and struck out alone for the U.S. to join his sister, who was barely 10 years older. With little adult guidance in his life, E became a father at 15, dropped out of school and was drinking heavily after the death of his baby son.

E’s next two significant relationships were with women who “just wanted to party.” He denies using drugs, but E admits that he’s an alcoholic.

One day, he saw his preschool son and step-daughter playing and realized that they were mimicking the actions of their parents when they were drunk. “They were staggering around and all,” he said. “It broke my heart. My kids deserve better.”

The other dad, J, is from Honduras, an asylee who grew up amidst gang violence in his community.

He was beaten and tortured by different gangs because he refused to join, and the police offered no protection, as they believed him to be a member of one of these gangs.

After numerous threats to their lives, armed gang members stormed his home as J and his family narrowly escaped through the back door.

The family split up, and J spent five months living on the streets of Mexico with his three-year-old son before entering the U.S. and requesting asylum.

J relates a harrowing experience of “trying to earn a few pesos for food” at a busy intersection in Mexico City and realizing that his son had wandered away and into traffic.

He also shared about being marked for assassination by one of the cartels, seeking sanctuary in a church and literally stumbling across the U.S. border to safety as they were being pursued by armed members of the cartel.

Many men in general, and many Latino men specifically, have a hard time dealing with their emotions, and this is reinforced by a “machismo” culture.

Men and boys are taught to be strong, tough and independent, and to express feelings, such as fear or anxiety, is to exhibit weakness.

Men, particularly those who have experienced trauma, are more prone to quick or explosive anger, more likely to isolate themselves from others and to avoid dealing with stress.

They often feel that everyone is against them and that no one would understand them. They avoid the appearance of vulnerability.

They often turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of dealing with the difficulties of life when they’re feeling overwhelmed.

Both E and J are taking steps to acknowledge the trauma they’ve experienced and the long-term consequences of not dealing with their emotions in positive ways.

It takes courage to break out of the cultural norms that they’ve been taught, to express vulnerability and to ask for help.

J has frequent nightmares, a common symptom of PTSD, and has difficulty trusting others and asking for help.

His primary focus is on the safety and security of his sons, ensuring that they never have to face the violence and insecurity that he faced. He realizes the key to their wellbeing lies in his ability to address his own mental and emotional health.

E has recently returned to live with his sister and her family, and his young son is with him. They’re attending church on a regular basis, surrounded by a supportive community. He says, “With God’s help, I can be a better person.”

Everyone makes mistakes. But these two young men exhibit a huge degree of courage, strength and faith, along with a fierce love for their children.

It is my prayer that these characteristics are the ones that will shine through and be most evident to their sons.

*This article was published on July 9, 2021 on Good Faith Media

Why Can’t We Be More Inclusive? God Is!

As followers of Christ, we need to find more ways to include people instead of finding reasons to exclude them.

by Renee Edington

I’m Renee Edington, a student at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and a summer intern* with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s (CBF) Student.Go program working with a team of CBF field personnel and interns on a social media campaign to encourage a welcoming attitude toward immigrants. I’m in the middle of a career change — leaving a lifetime of working in the behavioral health field to pursue a call to ministry.

I’m also working part time at a large pharmacy chain this summer. My particular store is a small homey neighborhood place where we have regular customers. They’re a fun mix of affluent homeowners, staff from nearby businesses picking up lunch, ballerinas from the school of dance, groups of preteen boys picking up their favorite bags of colorful candy, teen girls in search of the perfect nail polish, moms and their children making a quick trip in for sunscreen before they head to the pool.

There’s the gay couple who come in every so often and I have to suppress the desire to say “I affirm you! You’re awesome!” because that’s about me and my needs, not about them.

Then there’s the Door Dash delivery regulars who always ask me for help finding the items on their pickup order. One of them frequently seems lost, speaks with a thick accent and I wonder if he’s an immigrant.

There’s the guy who comes in weekly to buy two large bottles of vodka. His hands shake. Every week it’s the same- he carefully concentrates as he counts out his cash and hands it to me, saying “You count that and make sure it’s right.” As I’m bagging his purchase, he reminds me to double bag each bottle because he’s walking. I wonder if he’s walking by choice or if he lost his license because of drinking. I wonder if he counts the minutes until he gets home so he can drink and shake off the beginnings of withdrawal. I smile and we have a brief conversation before he heads out the door.

There’s the young woman who comes in for emergency contraception. Is it for her? Is she buying it for a friend? What’s her backstory? How about the man who is the same age as my father (I know this because I’m required to check the ID of anyone purchasing liquor or cigarettes) who tells me he’s buying the cigarettes for his wife and how he hates secondhand smoke and how he wishes she would stop and how it’s really hard to talk to her sometimes.

In my required training prior to working with customers, one of the sessions focused on treating everyone equally — no judgement or assumptions. We were encouraged to treat everyone the same, regardless of color, dress, appearance, nationality, etc.

Guess what? It’s hard. I find myself making assumptions about all our customers based on how they talk, how they dress, how they pay, what they buy. I let my imagination take over and before I know it, I’ve created an entire storyline for each customer.

I’ve been judging people I don’t even know. There are customers I feel compelled to give extra help. I feel sorry for some customers. I feel empathy for others. There are customers I hope leave quickly. There are customers I hope return often.

What’s all this got to do with my summer internship? Several years ago (in my previous career path), a colleague said something that has stayed with me. We were talking about who was eligible to participate in the program we coordinated. I was being picky and listing all kinds of reasons why someone couldn’t participate because I was trying to follow guidelines from our funding source. She got frustrated with me and said “Why don’t we find ways to include people instead of finding reasons to exclude?” That was a truth I hadn’t seen before.

That was the beginning of a change in my thinking, both in that work setting and in Christianity. My understanding of God has evolved. God is big. Christians don’t have a claim on God. God is inclusive. I thought I was inclusive. I thought I was nonjudgmental.

Then I started this internship working with a team of amazing women to develop a social media campaign aimed at encouraging others to welcome immigrants. I find myself almost surrounded by immigrants- through research and reading or serving and interacting with people I believe to be immigrants at work or walking down the sidewalk to find our neighbor from West Africa on his front porch. He immigrated to the U.S. decades ago. He owns a thriving restaurant. Why do I inwardly react positively to him and his story and negatively toward other immigrants? Why can’t I be welcoming and inclusive of all people?

It’s time I acknowledge my own misperceptions and biases I hold about immigrants. Sure, I’m nice on the surface, but beneath I’m struggling with judgmental thoughts that I’ve pushed far away. Now that I’ve said that out loud, I can’t go back.

Looks like this is the summer I take one more step toward being a true follower of Christ. It’s time I address these biases and move toward full open inclusivity of others in my faith and my world in general. Actually, the two can’t be separated.

*Part of our work at LUCHA Ministries, Inc., is to encourage and mentor students, giving them opportunities to learn more about migrants, refugees, asylum seekers or asylees, and other newcomers in our communities.

Closed Schools Increases Vulnerability to Gang Recruitment and Violence

These boys will soon have to make difficult choices about their lives: stay in the village, or leave for El Norte (Northern Mexico or the US) in search of work.

It was a steaming-hot afternoon in southern Mexico.

We left the final small market town and traveled nearly an hour on rutted dirt roads to reach this indigenous riverbank community in Los Altos de Chiapas.

This was before the pandemic, and we had come to plan a church-based cattle co-op project.

Several young boys were eager to show us around. “This is our school,” one of them announced proudly.

It was early afternoon on a weekday, and I asked about classes. “Oh, we don’t have school this week; the teacher didn’t come.”

All four boys appeared to be between ages 8 and 12. “What grades are you in?” I asked them in Spanish. They looked puzzled and spoke in Tzeltal among themselves.

One small boy said that he was in the third grade. “Me too,” added a 12-year-old. The other two shrugged their shoulders and said that they weren’t sure.

The educational system appears to be failing these children. While data indicates a 70% literacy rate for the community’s approximately 475 residents, most persons age 15 and older have received an average of only three years of formal education.

Teachers come from outside the community and rarely speak the native language of their students, and children speak limited Spanish when they enter school.

Mondays and Fridays are teacher travel days, so children only have three days of classes per week. For students to continue studies past 6th grade, they must leave their village and go to a regional boarding school.  

Since the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns, I have been particularly concerned for the plight of the most vulnerable populations, including women, children and youth.

Students in Latin America and the Caribbean make up 60% of all children worldwide who missed an entire year of school due to COVID-19, according to a March 2021 UNICEF report.

As 2020 drew to a close, more than 97% of students across Latin America remained physically out of school, and schools throughout the region were fully closed for 158 days between March 2020 and February 2021.

Work with community-based projects in Latin America helps me to understand the factors that contribute to migration, and several key points stand out.

People want to live in safety and security, without fear as they go about the daily routine. 

People want jobs so they can earn enough to support their families.

People need hope for a better future, which often comes through educational opportunities.

In just a few short years, these children for whom education opportunities are meager at best will reach the age when many decide to leave their community to seek work.

Some will end up in larger towns and cities nearer home, but many will go to El Norte – to the United States or the northern states of Mexico where there is work in both agriculture and factories.  

Youth from rural, indigenous households with little education, no marketable skills and who live in poverty, have a bleak future in this part of Mexico and Central America.

They’re frequent targets for local gangs at home, and “going north” takes them into cartel country where they’re extremely vulnerable to either recruitment or exploitation.

Migrants often cite gang violence and the recruitment of youth as a major factor for migration. 

During COVID-19, with schools closed, teens have much more free time on their hands, and this has been especially good news for gangs and cartels. The young adults are a source of revenue for the cartels – they’re smuggled, trafficked, kidnapped and victims of extortion.

For some youth, gang affiliation provides a sense of belonging and a means for earning income to help their struggling families. For others, it’s a matter of life or death.

COVID-19 has devastated many families, particularly those living on the edge of poverty. Education provided hope, and the prolonged closing of schools will have long-term consequences.

Students fall farther behind in learning, and many will not return to the classroom. Without opportunities for education or employment, many will be recruited by gangs or violent extremist organizations.

This will exacerbate the desire to migrate.

With COVID lockdowns and border closings, many migrants are faced with few options. Colombia, Ecuador, Chile, Mexico, the US – these countries are already dealing with an overwhelming number of desperate migrants.

For children like my young friends in Chiapas, they are relatively safe in their rural, remote village, but the cost of obtaining land to farm and the risk of crop failures leaves them with little hope for the future.

Many will “go north” to seek employment to help their families, in spite of the danger. Every village family has its story of a youth who has fallen victim to extortion, rape and victimization by the cartels or recruitment by gangs.

In an ideal world, all children and youth would receive a quality education in a stable, safe setting that would provide them with marketable skills and tools leading to employment that pays a living wage. Post-pandemic, we should be strengthening communities by investing in sustainable development and improving educational opportunities. In this way, we decrease the risk of youth engagement in violent groups and also the need for migration.

*A version of this story appeared April 28, 2021 in GoodFaith Media.

One Too Many: The Tragic Intersection of COVID-19 and Immigration

LUCHA Ministries, Inc. recently lost its first client to the coronavirus. In addition to grief and loss, immigrants must also deal with the impact that the loss may have on the immigration status of others in the family.

by Greg Smith, Immigration Legal Services Program Director

2,757,339.  On this day, as I write this blog, that is the number of global deaths due to COVID-19.  546,825.  That is the total number of US deaths.  1.  That is the total number of clients LUCHA Ministries Immigration Legal Services have lost to the coronavirus.

That’s one too many.

Over the years, I’ve learned that an immigrant’s legal status in the US (or lack thereof) affects not only her or him but can have significant consequences for the entire family.  Positively, gaining citizenship opens all kinds of doors for the immigrant’s immediate family.  Negatively, a sudden deportation, or even denial of an immigration benefit, can cause indescribable trauma, stress, and fear of an uncertain future.

In late February, one of our clients – a gentle and sweet man from Central America in his mid-fifties, a father, a husband, and church member – died of COVID-19.  His pastor, and good friend of ours, told me the day after his passing.  I sat in my office chair stunned.  It hadn’t been that long since I’d seen him.  In fact, it was last November when we filed his immigration papers, with high hopes his process would be approved and he and his family would enjoy a measure of security they hadn’t known before in their adopted country.

But now he was dead.  His immigration process would stop.  His dreams for himself, for his wife, and for his children were gone.  With tears I mourned his loss as I sat in my office chair.

Quickly my thoughts turned to his wife, for all the obvious reasons, of course – the denial and grief she was experiencing, the shock of now being a single mother, the financial hardships she would face without the family’s primary breadwinner, the role of caregiver and comforter to her children she now assumed even as she struggled emotionally, even spiritually, in her own heart and spirit.

The obvious reasons soon led to a deeper concern – with her husband now gone, her chances of legalizing her own status had also vanished simply because her options for status  depended on the success of his immigration process.  And that was gone.  For now, her chances of emerging into the light of status security were put on hold, for God-only-knows how long.  

At that moment, it became crystal clear like never before not only how tragic COVID-19 is but also how unjust.

God’s mission is a mission of righteousness and justice.  God is about the business of lifting up the downtrodden and the hurting, the fearful and the forgotten.  God abandons no one and especially not the mournful, the meek, and the distressed.  We’ve seen this over and over in our ministry with the Latino and broader immigrant community since we launched LUCHA Ministries in 2004.  We’ve seen God working in the lives of those who suddenly face crises both of and not of their making.  Miracles and “happy endings” aren’t always the results.  But God’s presence always and  faithfully shows up.

So we’re praying and working for this family.  Our program’s volunteer immigration attorney, Bill Botts, has gathered a team to help this man’s widow assess her financial means and capabilities.  He’s also gathering a volunteer team together, with her permission and in partnership with her church, to finish repairs on her home begun by her deceased husband months before.

Ephesians teaches that we struggle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers in high places.  Against forces seen but mostly unseen.  Against powers that our feeble human strength is no match for.  Powers that make no sense, adhere to few rules, fight dirty and devastate as much as possible.  Powers so strong that death and destruction are often left in their wake.

Powers like a coronavirus.  Coming out of nowhere.  Unseen, diabolical, overwhelming and, all too often, deadly.

Our only recourse in the struggle against this foe is God’s mission of justice and righteousness. So we organize friends and fellow congregants in support of wives, children, husbands, and others left behind by the devastation of COVID-19.  Or we wear masks and social distance because our love of God  and our neighbors is greater than fears and falsehoods.  Or we get vaccinated and encourage others to get vaccinated – or, as my wife Sue has been doing, help enroll people for their vaccinations – as a crucial step in defeating this diabolic killer.  And we become advocates for vaccine equity. We do this because God’s mission of justice requires it.

It shouldn’t take 2,757,339 deaths, or even 546,825 deaths, to convince us to partner with God in God’s mission of justice in this world.  It shouldn’t even take 1 death.  God’s Spirit is working like there’s no tomorrow carrying out God’s justice in the world.  And you know, there may not be for our neighbors, for you or for me.

One death is one too many.  May we strive, in the power of God’s Spirit, to bring justice to those in our communities and our contexts for the sake of each one and as testimony to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Migrants as Imago Dei: Human Rights and our Responsibility

by Sue Smith

The Christian understanding of human rights begins with an acknowledgement of the imago Dei – that humans are created in God’s own image and likeness.

Every person has inherent dignity and worth, and certain rights just because we’re human beings. But with rights also comes responsibility.

Consider Article 14 from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: All persons have “the right to seek a safe place to live. If we are frightened of being badly treated in our own country, we have the right to run away to another country to be safe.”

But there is no responsibility placed on other countries to receive these persons.

That’s where we come in.

It’s not enough to simply say that people have the right to seek asylum or refuge. If we believe in this right and embrace the concept of imago Dei, we are compelled to speak out on behalf of a better immigration system, for receiving larger numbers of refugees, for ensuring that the most vulnerable are welcomed.

As a nation, we must provide asylum and accept refugees into our country.

In my work with migrants and refugees, I often talk with people about their experiences, both conditions in their home countries that caused them to flee and seek asylum and the actual process of seeking asylum.

Eva,* a young indigenous woman from a remote village in Central America, is energetic and spunky with an infectious smile.

In her mid-20s, rumors began to circulate in the village that she was a lesbian. Eva sought support from her evangelical church community, but she was labeled “evil” and told she was no longer welcome.

Eva’s parents were told by village leaders to “put her out.” They were reluctant to do so, but a mob came and threatened to burn her parents’ home with the entire family inside if Eva remained in the village.

Eva packed her bags and fled to the US, for both her own safety as well as that of her parents.

Eva was not safe in her own village, among her own people, or in her own country.

Jorge* is seeking asylum. He’s a quiet, respectful teen, a good student who is active in church and college bound. He helps out with his two younger, US-born siblings. His four adult siblings live in El Salvador.

Jorge’s parents tried to keep their sons safe from gangs by bringing them to the US. The two older brothers were both deported, and one was quickly recruited by a gang.

This brother’s gang involvement keeps his siblings and their families safe. “But my brother is getting too old, and now the gang wants me to replace him,” says Jorge.

Jorge is in the United States with his parents because he’s not safe in his own country.

Nina’s* story is one of being kidnapped, raped and held hostage by one of the Mexican cartels. She looks into the face of her newborn son and wonders who he is. “Maybe he’s Mexican, or Guatemalan, or Honduran,” she says. “I honestly don’t know. But I still love my baby.” Nina cannot return to Central America or Mexico; both she and her son would be murdered for having escaped.

Roberto* tells of torture by gangs and harassment by the local police. He has nightmares and relives the beatings and being shot and suffers from PTSD.

He fled his Central American country with his wife and three preschoolers just minutes before gangs burst in and destroyed his home. He was granted asylum and cannot return to his country.

Each day, those of us who work with migrants and refugees hear these stories and walk alongside people who are hoping to find a safe place to live and raise their families. There’s no question that each of these persons is created by God, in God’s own image, and are persons of dignity and worth.

Part of our responsibility as followers of Christ is to go farther than listening and responding to basic physical needs. We must acknowledge the abusive power structures and injustices that have caused others to seek asylum and refuge, and to offer hope to those who end up in our nation.

But where do we start?

First, we must put aside our fear, mistrust or even hatred for those who are different.

Migrants, refugees and immigrants are all created in the imago Dei, in God’s image, just as we are, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion or language.

Second, we must become more educated and informed about migration and displacement.

This necessitates a willingness to explore the role that we collectively played (or play) in the creation of certain conditions that led (or lead) to displacement.

Third, we must become actively involved in speaking out on behalf of and alongside those who are forced to flee in order to live in safety and security.

This is also part of the imago Dei, to join with God in the work of building God’s kingdom here on earth.

And finally, get involved in the life of an immigrant, refugee or asylee.

I closely follow the work of a network of pastors working both in the US and Mexico. While the situation on the Mexican border has fallen out of the headlines, the situation still exists.

One day, I mentioned pastor Lorenzo Ortiz’s name in a conversation with Nina. She knew of him and of his compassion and witness for Christ. He’s apparently well-known on the northern Mexico migrant route for his ministry to migrants and asylum-seekers.

While life in one of the network’s migrant shelters isn’t a permanent home, it’s at least a temporary safe place to live.

Pastor Lorenzo helps with food, transportation and shelter, but what he represents to Nina and other migrants like her is hope – hope from the knowledge that someone has seen their plight, has heard their cries, and cares.

This is pastoral care. This is the imago Dei in action.

The right to seek a safe place to live is enshrined in the UDHR to which the U.S. is a signatory. Yet, there is a continuing crisis at our border, with people who still hold out hope that we’ll live up to our commitments.

Perhaps 2021 is a good time to reflect on our attitudes about migrants and refugees, and to find our place in both advocacy and action.

*names changed to protect the identity of these persons

This article originally appeared December 9, 2020 in Good Faith Media.
Read more information about Pastor Lorenzo and his work at the border
with Fellowship Southwest.

Immigration Legal Services: Getting More than You Pay For

Assistance with Adjustment of Status for refugees and asylees
is one of LUCHA’s most popular legal services

by Sue Smith

LUCHA’s immigration legal services program is an essential ministry for low-income immigrants and refugees in our community.

Beginning in February, as more and more persons became concerned about the ability to pay for immigration-related appointments, LUCHA Ministries made the decision to waive our fees. Many of the families we serve were negatively affected by COVID-19 and struggling to pay even our modest costs for immigration legal services. We didn’t want to cause them additional financial hardships — or cause their immigration process to be delayed!

Thanks to our awesome supporters, we have been able to waive the charges for 62 low-income clients during 2020 (an average cost of $125/person) — and still cover our programming costs! And we plan to continue offering pro bono services throughout the remainder of 2020.

Our services offer a significant savings for our low-income clients, and provide them with access to quality legal services that is often unaffordable with private immigration attorneys.

One Central American family of four, all asylees who are applying for Legal Permanent Residency (“Green Card”) status, received pro bono legal services to process their applications to adjust status. Neither parent was working due to COVID-19, and even LUCHA’s basic fees for low-income individuals would have been difficult for this family. LUCHA’s regular charges would have been $450 for all four, which is less than 10% of the estimated $5,200 cost using a private immigration attorney.

Our staff also helps low-income clients apply for fee waivers from the USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Services), which resulted in additional savings of $4,425 for this family. Essentially, LUCHA was able to help this unemployed family not only apply for Green Cards, but save nearly $10,000 in the process!

Our legal services program began in 2016 with approval from the Department of Justice as a Recognized Organization and authorized provider of Legal Services. This DOJ program allows churches and non-profit organizations to provide legal services through a qualified Accredited (non-attorney) Representative. One of the requirements of the program is that our fee structure is “nominal”, or a fraction of the cost of what an immigration attorney would charge.

LUCHA Ministries embraces a holistic approach to service delivery. As we get to know families through one specific program area, we often discover other needs. We may discover legal services clients who may need food or emergency assistance grants, and clients receiving food assistance or benefitting from case management services may have questions about an immigration case.

And perhaps most importantly in our ministry, we listen. Counseling and pastoral care services are offered in Spanish, and we often offer to pray with clients regarding a particular concern or need.

Our model has been particularly effective during these difficult times of COVID-19. We’ve been able to talk with persons about their immigration status, identify those who are unemployed and need a short-term emergency grant or food assistance, or just simply need to talk with someone about the emotional distress and stress they are feeling.

As we go into the colder winter months, we will continue to focus on the basics: caring for immigrants by providing for crisis needs, including food, emergency funds for housing or medications, etc., and by being present and listening.

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