“Buenas noches,” said the voice on the other end of the phone. It took me a minute to recognize the polite and timid tone. It was Jose*, a young man whose family I have become close to at church. “Sorry to bother you this late,” he continued, “but I wanted to talk to you about something important – I’m considering going north.” My heart sank.
“You know what it’s like in my neighborhood,” he said. “Gracias a Dios I don’t have problems with anyone right now, but they know I don’t have work and it’s just a matter of time before They start asking me to “do favors”. That’s a business that I don’t want to get into.” Jose paused; “Once you’re in, there’s no way out.”
I did know what it was like in Jose’s neighborhood, a marginal community built on the side of a ravine at the San Salvador city limits, and he was right. They – the local clique or cell group of one of the major street gangs – control the area. Despite a large and well-staffed police post in the center of the neighborhood, it is known that drugs, weapons and cash move in and out of the community with relative ease. Surrounded by this pervasive culture of illicit activity, it’s nothing short of a miracle that Jose and his family have remained reasonably untouched as long as they have.
I wept silently and listened as he shared his fears and frustrations. He told me of the conversation with a coyote who could help him cross the border in a semi-truck for the fee of $6,000. Jose would have to pay half up front and the other half upon arrival, payment of which had been promised by a cousin living in Houston. I felt so helpless to respond. He had clearly given this a lot of thought; what could I possibly say that might discourage him from this decision? When your reality includes 16-year-old boys going missing, never to be seen or heard from again, and 13-year-old girls impregnated as a means to claim them as gang “property”, somehow the dangers, expense, and lack of guarantee associated with making the journey north seem like the better of bad options.
As heart-wrenching as it is, stories like Jose’s are not uncommon. And although we are becoming accustomed to a daily dose of dehumanizing rhetoric and heated political debate around policies and tactics meant to “combat the problem” of migration, the reality of the tens of thousands of children and families in desperate need of refuge is so much more than the terms “border emergency” or “humanitarian crisis” can express. These are our kin. While politicians on all sides are posturing, the ones whom Jesus calls the least of these his siblings – our siblings – continue to suffer without food and water in the desert, sick and without visitors in detention centers, and denied welcome as deportees.
Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, writes: “The measure of our compassion lies not in our service to those on the margins, but only in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.” As people of faith, we are called to respond compassionately to our siblings forced to choose between risking it all by leaving and risking it all by staying, and who have opted for the former. Jesus charges us to see immigrants and refugees as he does, as family, and to choose welcome. May it be so.
Paz y bien,
Kristi Van Nostran
It is with heartfelt gratitude and appreciation that I acknowledge the many individuals and congregations that are opening their hearts and their doors to offer hospitality and hope asylum seekers in our communities. And, if you are interested in learning more about the ways you and your congregation can get involved with the SoCal Presbyterian Immigrant Accompaniment Ministry, please reach out to me at PresbyWelcome@gmail.com.