By Melissa M. Lopez
If you read the newspaper or watched the news over the summer, you no doubt heard a number of different things about immigration. Much of the information in the media was inaccurate or skewed. Unfortunately, the attention has not brought about much needed immigration reform. Instead, it created a steeper divide and brought about disappointing changes.
Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, Inc. (DMRS) is a ministry of the Diocese of El Paso that provides representation in immigration cases to individuals applying for immigration benefits as well as those trying to maintain their current immigration status. For the past 28 years, DMRS has been serving immigrants in times of crisis, and this summer was no different. When the number of children arriving was at its highest this summer, DMRS expanded services to ensure that as many children as possible would receive a Know-Your-Rights presentation. Contrary to media reports, many of the children advised that they had left their home because someone was threatening them or their family. For many of the children choosing not to join a gang means they will likely not live to see their 18th birthday. Given the choice between certain death and the possibility of life, making the treacherous journey to the United States seems like the easy choice.
In addition to serving immigrant children, DMRS served a number of immigrant families over the summer. The federal government was so overwhelmed by the number of individuals entering the United States through the borders in South Texas that it began flying those individuals to other cities along the Southern Border to be processed. There were over 2,500 individuals brought to El Paso for processing. The El Paso community responded by providing hospitality coordinated by Annunciation House. DMRS staff and other local providers conducted Know-Your-Rights presentations to the families. While they may not have intended to come to El Paso, they left El Paso armed with very valuable information.
Within weeks of the federal government announcement that it would begin detaining families at the Artesia Family Residential Center (AFRC) in Artesia, New Mexico, DMRS began providing Know-Your-Rights presentations to the women and children. Since July 18th, DMRS has been visiting the AFRC every week and providing no less than two Know- Your-Rights presentations. In addition to the presentations, DMRS also meets with the women individually to further assess their case and determine if referring their case to a pro bono attorney is appropriate. Serving the AFRC is no easy task. Artesia is a 3 ½ hour drive from El Paso. Unless the services can be provided in one or two hours, providing services at the AFRC requires an overnight stay. As a result, you can imagine how few services are available. Unfortunately, DMRS does not have sufficient resources to provide legal representation to the families at the AFRC. But, the families at the AFRC have been blessed to have the assistance of a number of volunteer attorneys that traveled from across the country to represent them. I hope that these attorneys will continue to volunteer their time to represent the families at the AFRC because without them many of the families would be forced to go before an Immigration Judge without an attorney. DMRS intends to begin providing assistance to the families that do not have an attorney in the near future in the form of group workshops designed to provide an understanding of the process, what is expected of them, and what information they need to gather and present to the judge who hears their case.
In addition to these services, it was business as usual this summer. We filed residency applications, citizenship applications, represented individuals in immigration court, represented survivors of crime and domestic violence, and helped resettle refugees. The media attention divided many areas of the country, but DMRS and the El Paso community showed how immigrants should be treated. Between the hospitality provided to thousands by Annunciation House, their partners and volunteers and the Know-Your-Rights presentations provided by DMRS and others, the El Paso community showed that people seeking safety and security in the United States should be cared for, not detained. There are a number of ways that the federal government could have reacted this summer. I wish that they had chosen to react in the same way that El Paso did rather than choose to detain women and children.