McALLEN, June 27 - While three members of Congress were visiting a Border Patrol detention center to witness firsthand the plight of thousands of undocumented immigrants, Equal Voice Network was holding a vigil outside a church where similar immigrants have been cared for.
Equal Voice’s Immigration Working Group wanted to show support for children and families arriving in the Rio Grande Valley and to draw attention to the causes and solutions of what many are calling a humanitarian crisis. The group had no hesitation in calling the immigrants “refugees” as they held candles and said prayers outside Sacred Heart Church in McAllen.
“Rather than look to the root causes of this mass exodus of refugees from southern Mexico and Central America, many of our nation’s leaders are treating the humanitarian crisis as a border security issue or are looking for ways to speed up the deportation process of these refugees. But this is not an immigration issue—it is a refugee crisis of people fleeing for their lives,” said Equal Voice spokesman John-Michael Torres.
The Sisters of Mercy charity group has also called the tens of thousands of immigrants fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras “refugees.”
One Valley community activist who is calling the Central American immigrants refugees is Ron Rogers of San Benito.
“According to the Oxford Dictionary, the definition of the word refugee in English is, ‘person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster’,” said Rogers.
“If one accepts the definition of Oxford Dictionary and guidelines on refugees as outlined by the United Nations, then we must believe the current crisis with immigrants coming from Central America is not just a humanitarian issue. What we have is a refugee crisis along our southwestern border.”
So, should the influx of immigrants, many of them unaccompanied children or mothers with children, be classified as refugees? The Guardian put this question to the three members of Congress visiting the McAllen Border Patrol facility.
Congressman Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, had the most detailed response. He said: “With respect to some of the legal questions that are going to arise as a result of the situation we are seeing, we have a legal process for that and the legal system itself will have to make that determination.
“However, I must say that I cannot believe there is a human being in this world who, having witnessed what we have witnessed, just a while ago, seeing the faces of fear and sadness and deep angst from some of the children and women that were in that facility, that no human in this world could not leave that building and leave those rooms without being heartbroken.
“So I think how we as a country deal with the influx of women and children that are coming from Central America, I think, is going to say a lot about us as a country in the future. Time will tell where all that ends up but I do believe that, to the extent that we have not acted on immigration reform, to the extent that 85 percent of unaccompanied children that are coming across are coming to be reunited with their family members, who are in all likelihood part of the 11 million people that are here, a great portion of these are working in our hotels, our restaurants, our construction sites, not just here in the Rio Grande Valley but all across this country, it just cries out for immigration reform.”
Congressman Rubén Hinojosa was also asked if immigrants fleeing El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in record numbers should be classified as refugees. The Mercedes Democrat said: “I do not want to get into definitions of terms - whether it is refugees or unaccompanied minors. The point is, when you deal with children you have to give it a very, very high priority and that is exactly what we as members of Congress are doing. We are putting aside many of the other priorities we have and are coming here to see it for ourselves and to see the children, to see the parents that are accompanying some of them. We call them family units. No question about it, it is very, very saddening to see a facility that is prepared to handle 350 to 400 of these folks, unaccompanied minors, and the facility has 1,000.”
Congressman Bennie Thompson is a Democrat from Mississippi. He is the ranking member of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Asked about the refugee classification, Thompson said: “The short term problem is the children are coming and we have to address it. As the Congressman (Vela) just said, we have to treat our young people in a manner that we all can feel proud about.
“So, whatever the definition is, they are here and what we have to do is work through the process of a solution. Long term we have to work with the (Central American) countries to say do the best you can to prevent anyone from just coming to this country illegally but that is a long term solution. It is a problem to address over time.
“What I saw this morning, on the faces of the young people, we have to help them. As the ranking member on this committee I will do that but I also support the policy of saying to those countries, you have to do a better job of educating your people that what they are being told and the reasons to come to the U.S. are not the reasons that really happen.”