At the June 3rd Council meeting, the Shepherd of the Hills Council voted to approve the hosting of asylum seekers on a trial basis. Shepherd will host two rounds of asylum seekers (about once per month) and evaluate the success of those two trial runs to determine if the church should continue hosting. The Council felt confident in its representation of the congregation based on the congregation’s feedback at the Q&A information session with Valley Interfaith Project (VIP) that took place on May 19th as well as the feedback from the email survey that was sent out. That said, we would like to provide more details to some of the more common questions that have been asked.
First, however, it would be good to pause and be clear about definitions as defined by the U.S. government.
U.S. citizen – any person born in the United States, certain territories or possessions of the U. S., or is born of a parent or parents who were citizens at the time of birth. The right of jus soli has been an important ideal of the U.S. since its founding and makes it unique among many other countries that require blood lines as proof of citizenship.
Naturalized U.S. citizen – a foreign citizen or national granted citizenship after he/she fulfills the requirements established by Congress.
Permanent Resident (Green Card holder) – a foreign citizen or national granted authorization to live and work in the United States on a permanent basis.
Immigrant – a foreign citizen or national who has entered the U.S. legally. Often called Resident Alien.
Asylum Seeker – a person who has crossed a border and petitioned for protection (but not granted refugee status).
Refugee – a person of special humanitarian concern who has demonstrated that they were persecuted or have a legitimate fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, is not permanently settled in another country, and has been accepted for resettlement after a lengthy U.N. eligibility process. The U.S. has an additional eligibility process for refugees that it will accept. (Asylum Seeker and Refugee are two terms often misapplied.
Q: Who are the people that would be seeking asylum at our church?
A: Our southern border is receiving a greater influx of Central American migrants traveling through Mexico to reach the United States. These families and individuals, primarily from the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador), are seeking asylum from their countries whose governments are not able to control the violent and corrupt crime cartels. Families and individuals are often targets for these crime organizations, and the exploitation of children in these countries have reached dire levels. These asylum seekers are traveling 6-8 weeks from their homelands to reach the Mexico/U.S. They are then waiting for weeks to months at the border to be processed by US Government authorities to determine if they will receive asylum in the United States.
Q: Is it legal for us to host these asylum seekers?
A: Yes. In fact, ICE has specifically requested the assistance of communities of faith for this process. Any person who has been given asylum seeker status has been approved by US Government authorities to reside in the US pending their court hearing. They carry legal documents given to them by our government granting their asylum status. Specifically, Shepherd will only be hosting families with children (not individuals).
Q: What would be Shepherd’s role in assisting these asylum seekers?/What does it mean to host?
A: Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) must release families given asylum status after a certain number of days. Once released, the next part of the journey for these families is to reunite with loved ones here in the States. This family member or close friend who already lives in the U.S. is their legal sponsor while they await their court hearing. For these families, a best case scenario is for a church to step up and offer to host them for a few days after ICE releases them so that they may have food, shelter, and a means to communicate with their loved ones in order to make plans to get to their final destination. Part of the responsibility of the sponsor is to help pay the way for these families to arrive at their final destination. In a worst case scenario, ICE drops off these vulnerable families at a Greyhound Bus station and the family has to struggle to find out how to communicate with loved ones and how to eat for a few days until they reach their final destination. Remember – these individuals have left their home countries months ago and are very tired, possibly traumatized from their journeys, and most often have no money to get by.
Shepherd would be accepting a drop off from ICE and would host families for two nights in Fellowship Hall over a weekend. They would be dropped off on a Friday afternoon and then leave around Sunday afternoon. At Shepherd, these families would receive shelter, food, hygiene items, medical care if needed, and would be given tools to communicate with families who are arranging for their travel.
Q: How can Shepherd provide enough volunteers and goods?
A: We have received an outpouring of support from various partner agencies and churches. Valley Interfaith Project (VIP) will be helping to coordinate with ICE, will be arranging cots from the American Red Cross for us to utilize, will be arranging for portable showers, will be arranging for a medic, and will be assisting us throughout the process. St. Patrick’s Catholic Church has a few hundred volunteers (more than we need) who are able to prepare food, translate, and drive families to Greyhound bus stations or to airports. They are waiting for dates from us to assemble their volunteers. Additionally, local churches in Arcadia have offered to help us by preparing meals. The organization Gathering Humanity assists churches hosting asylum seekers by providing refugee backpacks for the families as they are leaving for the next leg of their journey. We plan to leverage this aid.
What Shepherd would be responsible for is providing space, a volunteer coordinator, and one overnight volunteer who would be staying with another overnight volunteer from another church or VIP. We will also be asking the congregation for donations of items to help with hosting. Jill Thomas and Gabi Young have volunteered to be the primary coordinators for the trial runs, but a larger team of coordinators will be assembled for ongoing hosting events if we continue them. In terms of donations that Shepherd members can assist with, we may be asking for collections of socks, underwear, gently used but cleaned bath towels, snack food, kids toys, etc. More details will be released once we know what is actually needed.
Q: What is the possible neighborhood reaction to us hosting asylum seekers?
A: Mary Curtis and Jill Thomas have attended an Arcadia Neighborhood Association meeting discussing our intent to host. The members of that association asked a lot of good questions and were overall favorable to us hosting. Some even expressed interest in helping the cause.
Q: Because we are a smaller congregation, would we be stretched too thin in doing this type of work?
A: The Council agreed to two trial runs so we can gauge the support we have from partner agencies as well as our own congregants. We are confident in the help we can leverage from other churches and organizations as well as our own church, but we will evaluate the success of the trials after we have completed two hosting events. Due to time and monetary commitments from the congregation, we have decided to postpone other summer outreach so that we can focus on successfully helping these vulnerable families as we first try this out. That said, our Fall and Winter outreach is still on track to proceed (i.e. Family Promise, ICM donations, UCC causes, as well as other holiday causes).
Q: Have we seen how other Churches do this work?
A: Pastor Rock, Jill Thomas, volunteers from VIP, and volunteers from St. Patrick’s have all visited churches doing this type of work to discuss the churches’ experiences and learn about best practices.
Q: How can I help out?
A: As we figure out the volunteer and donation opportunities for Shepherd, we will keep everyone posted! Thank you to all those looking to make a positive impact on the lives of very vulnerable families.