‘We offered the love of Jesus’
With federal agencies overwhelmed, churches at the border are stepping up to help with a flood of traumatized migrants (This is the first story in a series.)
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Heated, politicized language surrounding the border issue reached a boiling point on Aug. 3 when a 21-year-old man opened fire at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, killing 22 and wounding at least 24. Police identified the shooter as the author of an anti-immigrant manifesto published on an online forum where other white supremacists have announced their murder plans. There, the shooter defined his attack as “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas” and said he’s “simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of local churches in border cities from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas, were offering something very much lacking in the current national conversation: Compassion to fellow image-bearers of God. I visited several of them in Las Cruces, N.M., and El Paso, Texas, which share close economic and social ties with Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, El Paso’s sister city. The U.S. Border Patrol's El Paso sector, which encompasses New Mexico and two western Texas counties, has experienced the largest numbers of asylum-seekers released into the area.
AMONG THOSE ASYLUM-SEEKERS ARE CHILDREN who, after a long day of traveling, look to play. At Heart for the World Church in Las Cruces, I saw five children pop their heads into a vertical row by the doorframe and look up at church volunteer Freida Adams with soft puppy eyes.
Adams smiled down at them. “Qué necesitas?”
The kids suddenly looked shy and began fidgeting. One child nudged the tallest boy, and he offered Adams a pretty smile: “Libros?”
Adams nodded: “Esperas aquí! Iré a buscar algunos libros”—“Wait here! I’ll go look for some books.” The boy, who looked to be about 6, hesitated. Adams smiled and leaned down: “Do you want to come with me?” The boy’s face lit up, and he nodded eagerly.
“Come,” Adams said, holding out her hand. He capered over, and as he slipped his tiny hand into hers, she turned to me and whispered, “You see the trust that just happened?” She looked delighted.
It’s common for border crisis volunteers like Adams to see children cling to their parents with tight fists, eyes darting with apprehension. By the time Border Patrol agents release them from holding facilities to shelters and churches, these families have already been away from their home countries for months. Many fled violence, persecution, and poverty only to face an administration seeking to deter migrants from entering.
When the Trump administration stopped people from entering the port of entry to seek asylum, thousands sought to cross the border unlawfully and surrender themselves to Border Patrol agents.
The record-breaking numbers of Border Patrol apprehensions have dragged public attention to the border. President Trump has repeatedly condemned migrant arrivals at the southern border, calling it “an invasion.” He’s mocked asylum-seekers as tattoo-bearing, thuggish men who “read a little page given by lawyers” coaching them to fake sob stories—a very different spin from what’s actually happening: Most of the migrants approaching the border today are vulnerable families and children, and a vast majority don’t have lawyers.
For the churches that are doing whatever they can to help this much-maligned group feel safe, the task has not been easy.
Often by the time these migrants arrive at churches, they’ve been held in cells under horrible conditions and bused for hundreds of miles from facility to facility, not knowing where they are or what’s happening. Most migrants have heard about U.S. officials separating families, or have been separated themselves. So they hold their children close and refuse to put them down. The kids pick up on their parents’ tension, and they instinctively feel unsafe.
When Border Patrol drops migrants off at shelters, the first thing Adams does is touch the children—she cups their foreheads for signs of fever, bops little noses for signs of a cold, pats their bellies for signs of bloating. Those medical conditions she can fix as a nurse—but not the psychological ones. Once, she met a migrant girl who wailed all day and wouldn’t let any adult hug or console her. But it’s the look of stupor that most worries Adams: When she offers a doll to a girl who does nothing but stare back with dead eyes, she knows that’s the mark of severe trauma.
In many border cities, certain churches and nonprofits have been helping passing migrants for decades. What’s different now is the number of people crossing the border and the level of chaos in how various federal agencies are dealing with the situation. In the El Paso sector alone, Border Patrol agents apprehended 14,593 unaccompanied minors and 117,612 family units within this fiscal year.
Overcrowded and understaffed, the El Paso facilities have the worst reputation, with one observer describing the Border Patrol holding facility as a “human dog pound.” Custody logs show that agents had crammed up to 900 migrants in a facility designed for 125, breaking its own guidelines by holding them for more than 72 hours. As Border Patrol ran out of space, it resorted to keeping migrants under a bridge, where people slept on rock and dirt during cold desert nights.
By February, as the numbers kept soaring, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sent out a call for more people to help. The few churches helping weren’t enough.
In El Paso, a network of about 30 churches answered the call. In Las Cruces, 23 churches signed up. Almost all these asylum-seekers already have sponsors in the United States—family members, relatives, or friends who agree to house them while they wait for their court hearings. After ICE or Border Patrol drops them off, churches give them a temporary place to stay and help them plan the logistics of traveling to their sponsors.
In Las Cruces, Heart for the World Church has been receiving about 20 asylum-seekers every Tuesday since March. Green cots topped with blankets and stuffed toys line the back of a room; the kids’ play tables are piled with coloring books, crayons, and blocks; and an earthly aroma of chicken broth and simmering beans emanates from the kitchen, where volunteers prepare the main meal and pack PB&J sandwiches for the road.
At about 11 a.m., a bus pulled up at the church parking lot, and a group of migrants and their children entered the church, looking apprehensive. Once they all settled onto their cots, Freida Adams greeted them in Spanish: “Bienvenidos! We’re glad you’re here. You’re not in detention anymore. You’re here as our guests.” She then prayed for them.
As Adams spoke, the guests nodded and smiled. I could see their shoulders and facial muscles visibly relax. Their grip on their children loosened, and as the kids gingerly inched toward the Jenga blocks on a play table, they let them go. After a meal of chicken soup and tortillas, the kids ran outdoors to the playground, and soon the parents were pushing their kids down the slide, kicking a soccer ball in the field, or coloring together. It had been a long time since these parents played with their children.
Meanwhile, Adams was on her feet the entire day, taking care of the migrants, checking on medical supplies at the city shelter, and coordinating donations with other churches. I was with her the entire day and didn’t see her eat once. As a former missionary in Venezuela and Thailand, Adams is used to working with refugees, and she says these asylum-seekers share the same “shell-shocked” expressions. Adams says she knows that a meal and a hug won’t drastically change these people’s lives, but that’s not her responsibility: “What I am is the hands and feet of Jesus.”
Again and again, from church to church, I heard the same response when I asked people why they became involved: “We saw a need. So we offered the love of Jesus.” The alternative—leaving vulnerable families on the streets—is unacceptable. Las Cruces learned that lesson one stormy Mother’s Day, when the city shelter told Border Patrol it was full but the agents dropped 112 migrants off at a bus station anyway, leaving the city to scramble to find room.
And the people kept coming. As one volunteer in El Paso described it, “At first it was 100 people a day, and that was crazy. Then 200 people a day—that was, oh, insane. Then it kept growing and growing to more than 1,000 a day. There was just no capacity anymore.”
CHURCHES TAKE A HUGE RISK IN HELPING MIGRANTS. Some have lost members. Maribel Velasquez, pastor of the Spanish-speaking Church of God El-Elyon in El Paso, said she at first had no problem inspiring church members to get on board. In February, when she got the first call that a bus of 50 migrants was on the way to their church, volunteers rushed to the kitchen to unfreeze and fry whole chickens, boil rice, and push the pews aside to make way for cots. They set up a table on the stage to process people and used their own cell phones to call sponsors and arrange transportation.
The need was so great that Velasquez decided to open the church 24/7, receiving about 70 new migrants every day. At any given time, the church hall and sanctuary were filled with up to 90 people who complained of stomachaches after days and weeks of drinking water from the toilet, or ran fevers and colds from icy temperatures in detention centers, or suffered muscle aches after being cramped back to back, limb to limb in grossly overcrowded cells. Women were sick from wearing the same period-stained underwear for weeks. In four months, 7,986 migrants passed through El-Elyon.
Some church members began complaining about the smell. They said the migrants were destroying their church. Today, only 12 out of the original 80 church members remain. Velasquez doubted herself at first, but every time she thought she wouldn’t make it, every time the church ran out of food or supplies or funds, she saw that “God provided every time—not less, not more.” She took it as a sign that she was doing the right thing. Besides, she said, “Who’s going to be there for them if not the church?” Velasquez began to see her church not just as a shelter but a refuge for people to “connect with God at the altar” and begin the process of dealing with deep wounds and trauma.
Every volunteer I’ve met remarked on these asylum-seekers’ faith. When church volunteers offer to pray for them, they get excited—and often offer to pray for the volunteers as well. One immigration lawyer who’s not religious commented to me, “They’re stressed, but they’re also verrrrrry religious. They always say, ‘Dios me ayudará—God, God, God. God will touch the judge’s heart. God will help me. The judge will know I’m not a liar.’ They have so much faith in God.”
Freida Adams said something bigger is happening than a mere border crisis: “I believe there’s a movement of Christians coming into the U.S. A missionary force is coming. The Great Commission is theirs, too.” She sees in them a faith that many American Christians have lost—“a deep, abiding faith that’s come not out of comfort or ease but of struggle, persecution, want, fear, and threat. A faith where when all you have is that anchor of God’s presence, that’s enough.” So whenever she hugs the migrants goodbye, she tells them, “You’re here. Go and make disciples.” And whenever she meets other Christians who turn away from this modern great migration, she says, “Don’t miss this. Wake up! Wake up and be ready.”
Five days before the El Paso shooting, Velasquez sent me a text. Her church had been quiet for a few weeks after the U.S. government began sending most of the asylum-seekers back to Mexico under the “Remain in Mexico” program. But that day, ICE called her and told her it would again send 70 asylum-seekers each day to her church. She was back on her feet with other church volunteers, cooking and nursing and leading worship. Then the shooting happened, and ICE temporarily stopped sending them. For an extra safety precaution, she and her husband moved all the migrants remaining in the church to her own house.
“They all fit in your house?” I exclaimed.
“Yes, we work it out,” she said. “God is good.”
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