SAN JUAN, RGV – Bishop Daniel E. Flores says the Catholic Church and the United States as a whole has to do a better job of explaining the hemispheric problems that led thousands of Central Americans to flee their homeland.

The leader of the Diocese of Brownsville hosted a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. While in the Rio Grande Valley, the delegation visited detained migrant children and parents. He said more needs to be done to explain the “push” factor at work in countries like Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

“I don’t think we have gotten the message out how dire it is in certain parts of Central America, in terms of families that hear their children telling them, ‘the gang wants me and if I don’t go they are going to shoot me.’ That wider conversation of addressing the hemispheric reality is our responsibility, as a church and as a nation,” Floes said, at a news conference held at the San Juan Basilica.

“The Church in the Western Hemisphere has a responsibility and we do do it, to raise the reality that this is an hemispheric problem. It is not just a problem on the border here.”

Flores said he had recently spoken to families fleeing Guatemala and Honduras.

“They say, ‘My son will be killed here, they (gangs) will shoot him. He is 16. What am I supposed to do?’”

Flores said he agreed with his fellow bishops and archbishops that the issue of migrants trekking through Mexico from Central America in order to seek asylum in the United States is extremely complex and difficult.

“Talking to the immigrants to maintain the realism about what is moving people (to come to the U.S.), we get the sense that they would much prefer to stay home if they did not feel their children’s lives were at stake.”

Flores said there are some successes in Central America.

“There are church programs in Central America that are trying to revitalize neighborhoods. We hear about this. There are success stories,” Flores said.

Interviewed after the news conference had ended, Flores elaborated on his message that the migration of Central Americans to the United States is a hemispheric problem.

“When you talk to the young people, 15, 16 year-olds about why they left their country, a lot of them will say they would have wanted to stay because they have hopes there. People love their own native country but they felt it was a life and death choice,” Flores told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“I am not sure we understand or hear enough of that side of it. Oftentimes we assume people are coming simply because they want a better economic life or they want to take advantage of our social system. There may be elements of that in any movement of immigration. But the strong sense that you get from a lot of these young people is they have hopes, they have dreams and they have tremendous fear.”

Asked about the success stories, Flores cited recent news out of El Salvador.

“Talking to some of the government agencies, the numbers coming from El Salvador have fallen significantly. That is because of the great success in El Salvador in certain zones, to bring security and order so that kids can actually go to school and feel safe. So there are ways we can address those issues. It is a long term thing but if we only see it as a border problem and not realize that we can do some things as a hemisphere… the Church is certainly aware of that and tries to animate the governments in these different countries.”

Flores explained what he would like to see the Catholic Church do more of.

“We can do things at the hemispheric level that can address the push factors so that parents can have their kids at home and can have hopes that when they go to school they are not going to get shot. That is very real and it is why people make the decisions they do.”

Asked if the recent visit by bishops and archbishops to immigrant detention centers in South Texas had yielded more stories about violence in Central America being a big “push” factor, Flores said:

“Yes. When a child turns 12 they basically get taken. It is that dire. Parents want a better life, so they can wake up and not be afraid your child is going to be taken or killed. I do think the Church has an important role in making that dialogue possible across country lines. We have to talk and listen to what the young people are saying.”

Editor’s Note: The above story is the second in a three-part series focusing on a visit to the Rio Grande Valley by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Click here for Part One. Part Three will be posted on July 5, 2018.