by Mary Campbell

A mom we’ll call Carmen and her two daughters fled Honduras after gang members began stalking her oldest daughter, whom we’ll call Ana. The gang’s leader wanted Ana, a teenager, to be his girlfriend.

Before this, the gang had threatened the family, demanding weekly “protection” payments from their family business. At first, they’d made the payments. Then the price increased, with more and more due every wee —to the point that their business was hardly viable anymore. When Carmen stopped paying, gang members showed up at her house, demanding money. Ana was there that day, and from that moment on, the gang members began following the teen whenever she left home for school or other activities. They would walk behind her, cat-calling and trying to stop her, even when other family members accompanied her. If she left the house in a car, they followed the car. Constant fear caused her to lose sleep and eventually to become unable to leave her home. Then came the death threats to the family. It was the final straw. Carmen made the difficult decision to take her two daughters and go to the United States for their safety.

At the U.S. border, the family was arrested and separated. Each of the three found herself in a different detention facility. Carmen had no idea where her daughters had been taken. Nearly 60 days after arriving in the U.S., she learned that her 9-year-old daughter had ended up in Chicago. They were finally reunited through the efforts of pro bono lawyers. The same lawyers were able to find 19-year-old Ana as well. She had been separated from her mother in Arizona because she was technically an adult. Later she was brought to Texas, ending up right down the road from the Family Detention facility where her mother was. Even so, it took weeks to find her.

While Carmen’s brother agreed to sponsor the family, he needed help to obtain food and legal representation for them,so he turned to his church. The congregation was able to help the family get an immigration lawyer, contribute toward some financial costs and accompany Carmen to her ICE check-ins and other appointments. While the congregation didn’t need to officially sponsor the family, they undertook some of the tasks of asylum-seeker sponsorship.

And then there is the situation of a young man we’ll call Jaime. Twice he fled to the U.S.from El Salvador. He’d been living in San Salvador, where a local gang extorted his business until he had to close, having no resources to pay them anymore. With his livelihood gone, Jaime was forced to move back in with his mother in another town in El Salvador.

The last time Jaime had lived in this town, he was shot by gang members and then testified against them in court. The police told him that although the gang member he’d testified against was in prison, they couldn’t protect him from the rest of the gang. This was the first time he had to flee to the U.S., where he stayed for a few months to let things cool down before going back home. Last October, gang members noticed that Jaime was back in town. Someone called his cell phone and told him that if he didn’t leave immediately, his whole household would be killed. So once again he fled to the U.S. This time Jaime was detained and sent to various private detention facilities, ending up in a facility in California, where crowded conditions and a lack of sanitation allowed the COVID-19 virus to spread quickly. Jaime contracted the disease. He was fortunate to be isolated from others while he battled the virus for weeks. Only partially recovered, he was sent back into the general population, where the virus was now spreading like wildfire.

In fact, the first COVID-19 death in detention occurred in early May 2020, just as I began to work with Jaime on a statement to try to get him paroled out of the private detention facility. He had already filed an asylum case to stay in the U.S., but he had no lawyer. My task was to try to get him out so he could save his life and have time to get an immigration lawyer and prepare an asylum claim.

As we worked on his statement, I learned that while he had a solid case for release from detention, he had no place to go. He needed a sponsor who could take responsibility for him before the court. That was when doors began to open. Some congregations in the ELCA AMMPARO network said they would help. AMMPARO stands for Accompanying Minor Migrants with Protection (amparo is a Spanish word meaning “protection”), Advocacy, Representation and Opportunities, primarily serves children and youth. one congregation involved with the network had a place for him to live. Another assumed fiscal responsibility for the donations and expenses related to helping him. Still another congregation provided the sponsorship letter and accompanying information. Sometimes it takes a village! Suddenly Jaime had what he needed for his release. Upon learning that these congregations would sponsor him, Jaime said, “This is the first time since October 2019 when I arrived that I have felt any sense of hope. I give thanks to God for you and these churches willing to help me. Truly you are messengers of God for me!”

Jaime had a strong case for parole, but before the motion for parole could be filed, he received a court date for a final hearing. Without counsel and sufficient time to obtain the documents he needed, Jaime was deported within 10 days to El Salvador. The congregations hoping to help Jaime were disappointed, but now they are ready for asylum- seeker sponsorship and are waiting for the next opportunity to sponsor someone else.

What about children under the age of 18 who need sponsorship? The ELCA AMMPARO program works with a network of congregations, some of which are welcoming, and others of which are sanctuary. The situation is still evolving, but congregations are finding a variety of ways to walk with asylum-seekers, most of whom are already living in the U.S., as well as others, like Jaime, who need sponsorship. AMMPARO and its partners provide training in how to sponsor an asylum-seeking individual or family already in the U.S. through the work of congregations, synods, shelters and immigration legal service organizations.

You can help

Does your congregation or small group want to help asylum seekers?

You will need:

  • Approval of congregational leadership to explore asylum- seeker sponsorship.
  • A team of people committed to work together for a year or more to walk with the asylees who will be sponsored.

The team needs to have:

  • No fewer than five people involved, including several who can communicate in the asylee’s language.
  • The capacity to raise funds for food, clothing, shelter, housing, medical care, legal fees, immigration case expenses, transportation and incidentals.
  • To ensure that cross-cultural training and racial justice work has happened or is happening, not only for the team but for the congregation.
  • Capacity to connect the asylees with legal services, either pro bono or paid.

If your congregation or its Women of the ELCA unit can meet the above criteria, consider signing up for ELCA AMMPARO’s asylum-seeker sponsorship training for congregations.

For more information, contact Mary Campbell, AMMPARO program director at [email protected].

Mary Campbell is program director for ELCA AMMPARO, the ELCA strategy to accompany migrant minors with protection, advocacy, representation and opportunities. She is a former missionary in El Salvador and a lawyer.

This article is from the April 2021 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.