In Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, Maria Cruz, 39, tried to establish a small beauty salon. Cruz’s brother was periodically sending her a modest amount of money from his home in St. Louis, and Cruz hoped a small business would allow her to support her family.
Cruz is divorced and her ex-husband does not financially support the family.
But a Tegucigalpa gang soon demanded that Cruz hand over the money she was making at the salon. They told her if she didn’t pay, her son, Clemente, 15, would be forced to join the gang and her daughter, Cristy, 13, would be raped.
After three months, Cruz gave up the business, and — without warning her brother — fled to the United States. The family embarked on a month-long bus ride before arriving at Piedras Negras in the Mexican state of Coahuila, a city on the U.S.-Mexican border. Cruz and her two children crossed the Rio Grande floating on tires. The family landed in Eagle Pass, Texas, where border patrol agents soon apprehended them.
Cruz says she wasn’t sure what would happen when she arrived in the United States.
“We plan to stay here because we cannot live in our country under the current conditions,” Cruz said in a recent interview at Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry, an agency under the Archdiocese of St. Louis’ Catholic Charities. “If we have to return I am afraid something will happen to my children.”
The family is awaiting to appear before a judge at the immigration courthouse in Kansas City. Clemente and Cristy are preparing to enroll at New American Preparatory Academy, a St. Louis school known for its international student population, despite uncertainty about whether they will be allowed to stay.
Even far from the border, in the heartland of America, the rippling effects of the current rush of children and families from Honduras and other Central American countries can be felt.
Reaction to news of strangers reaching the Midwest has been mixed.
While some in the region have expressed disapproval at the arrival of thousands of immigrants fleeing violent homes, others have rallied to offer support. Many religious leaders, some at opposite ends of the political spectrum, are standing up for immigrant families desperate for help.
Evangelical Protestants and the Southern Baptist Convention are both heavily involved in the immigrant rights movement. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, based in St. Louis, also has spoken out about the crisis.
The church is “praying for these children, that our Lord would guard and protect them, and that wisdom would be given to those who are tasked with making decisions regarding immigration,” said the Rev. Matthew C. Harrison, president of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
But chief among those standing up for immigrants are representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. In Chicago, Archbishop Cardinal Francis E. George has offered to house some of the children.
The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a Roman Catholic congregation of women religious, recently sent two St. Louis nuns to work in El Paso, Texas, at Annunciation House — a nonprofit that provides food and shelter to migrants.
“For me it’s been a shot in the arm,” said Sister Sandra Straub, who helped scrub floors and clean bathrooms. “It’s been a shot in the arm for humanity.”
“The most wonderful thing is to listen to their story.”
Sister Ida Berresheim, 86, described Annunciation House as a “house of stories.”
“People here are in a very sad shape when they come,” Berresheim said. “They are so relieved to be in a safe space and to have someone who respects their dignity.”
“It’s so heartening to see the generosity of the people here.”
Marie Kenyon, director of Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry, the largest provider of free legal services for the undocumented in Missouri, says the number of unaccompanied children the agency is representing has doubled. While the agency represented about 30 children last year, it has already taken on a greater number of cases in the first half of 2014. The agency says it is also handling an increasing number of cases involving mothers and children.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, federal officials released 121 unaccompanied children to Missouri families from Jan. 1 to July 7, 2014.
Overall, however, the number of apprehensions at the border remain low, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol statistics. The increase comes only in the number of children traveling by themselves, more than 57,000 since October. Agents have also arrested more than 55,000 families, most of them mothers with young children, many of whom have been released with a notice to report back to immigration authorities at a later date.
Although President Barack Obama has called on Congress to supply nearly $4 billion to hire more immigration judges and increase legal services for children, among other things, lawmakers appeared to be headed for summer recess today without resolution. A major sticking point has been whether Congress should support changes that would make it easier to deport minors from Central America, denying them asylum.
Meanwhile, Roman Catholic leaders have focused on the humanitarian crisis.
Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, sees the immigration crisis as the “opportunity for the Catholic community in this country to shine.”
Catholic bishops have for years tried to work on a practical level, pushing for immigration reform that would allow foreign nationals of good moral character to become lawful citizens by passing background checks and paying a fine.
“Such a program would help stabilize the workforce, promote family unity, and bring a large population ‘out of the shadows,’ as members of their communities,” reads a statement from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Leticia Seitz, head of Latinos en Axion, a St. Louis organization that works to bring Hispanics in the region together, says that for many of the immigrants “it’s not a matter of having a better life anymore.”
“It’s a matter of life or death.”
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Immigrant children reach St. Louis, far from the border
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