Elizabeth Wright, executive director of the United Methodist Church’s Justice for Our Neighbors-Austin, discusses current immigration and southern border issues during a Burnet County Democratic Club meeting. JFON-Austin has two immigration attorneys working with more than 180 people and on over 300 cases. Staff photo by Daniel Clifton
EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
The Rev. Mel Hazlewood had always considered immigration a political issue better left to elected officials.
However, after a recent journey to the Texas-Mexico border as part of an ACLU-led group and observing immigration courts, Hazlewood changed his mind. He hopes others will look at the challenges on the border and seek ways to help.
“I always thought it was a political issue, but we have a human crisis at the border,” he said during an August 20 presentation at the Burnet County Democratic Club meeting.
The retired pastor explained he didn’t fully grasp the depth of the problem until he saw it with his own eyes.
And, Hazlewood said, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat, Republican, liberal, or conservative.
“They’re people,” he said of the immigrants.
The basis of the August 20 presentation was to shed light on the border and immigration issue. While much is written and said about it in the media and from people with strong opinions on the topic, those speaking to the club Tuesday pointed out the complexity of the problem and how it can be approached compassionately.
Susan Mitchell shared how she, her husband, and her 80-something-year-old mother ventured to the border area to see the situation for themselves. They ended up becoming closely involved with helping a number of El Salvadorans work their way through the asylum process.
“They need a $10,000 cash bond just to get the asylum process started,” she explained.
She and her family have fronted some of those bonds, which are returned by the government when the person completes the asylum process. Of those they’ve assisted, Mitchell said, they’ve recouped 100 percent of the costs.
While some believe immigrants arriving at the border to be processed through U.S. Customs and Border Protection are only “gaming the system” so they can get into the United States, that’s not what Hazlewood, Mitchell, and others have experienced.
“They’re not gaming the system because they don’t know the game,” she said.
Justice for Our Neighbor, an outreach of the United Methodist Church, provides legal services for immigrants going through the asylum or immigration process. The Austin office, which serves most of South and Southwest Texas, has two attorneys currently handling 187 individuals and over 300 cases. (An individual may have more than one case.)
Wright said it’s true some immigrants allowed into the United States might not show up for court appointments or hearings, but it’s most likely because they don’t understand or know the rules.
“The statistics change dramatically when they have representation,” Wright said.
Unfortunately, many immigrants don’t have adequate legal representation or any at all. Organizations such as Justice for Our Neighbors try to provide those services, but, Wright pointed out, there are not enough attorneys working with these nonprofits to keep up with the need.
Even then, immigration courts are overflowing with cases.
Wright and Mitchell also want to educate people on the reason many immigrant families come to America — and it might not be why you think.
Many aren’t pursuing the American dream; they’re trying to escape a nightmare at home.
“They really don’t want to come here; they’d much rather be at home,” Mitchell said.
One family fled their Central American home after a local gang threatened to force their son to join the gang if the family did not pay them protection money. As a warning, the gang told the family to watch outside their home the next morning. What they saw was gang members gunning down an elderly neighbor as he was milking a cow.
“That’s what they’re escaping from,” Mitchell said.
“They’re fleeing their living nightmare,” she said. “Everything you hear about the horrors they face in Honduras, El Salvador, it’s true. It’s not about coming to chase the American dream. It’s about trying to stay alive or save their children.”
In the end, a quick fix to the border crisis doesn’t exist, but Wright hopes people will show compassion and mercy toward the immigrants.
But, that’s just a start.
“We focus on mercy, but we also have to think about justice. That’s the long game,” she added.
Helping immigrants isn’t always popular and can draw the ire of some. Hazlewood understands the criticism of assisting immigrants when there are already dire situations in the United States such as homelessness among veterans.
“We should help our homeless veterans,” he said. “What drew me to the border was how big it had became and because (immigrants) had died while in U.S. custody. I had to do something, something to help.
“If someone wants to help homeless vets, or others in the United States, I say do it. Find your place to help,” Hazlewood added.
If you’re interested in helping with veterans issues, contact Burnet County Veterans Service Officer Phil Pall at email@example.com. The HARTH Foundation offers equine therapy services for active duty military members and veterans. The foundation is looking for volunteers and financial support.