Federal government raids on ministries that serve immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border may generate outrage and sadness among those who aid “the least of these,” but certainly not surprise.
“Intimidation has become the government’s primary tool” in addressing immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, said Marv Knox, field coordinator for Fellowship Southwest, which collaborates with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in ministry and social justice advocacy along the border.
That intimidation comes in many forms. The Trump administration has ordered the denial of medical treatment, hygiene and food to those it detains in filthy processing centers, according to Fellowship Southwest workers and other firsthand reports. Immigrants, including children, have died in custody, and parents have been separated from their children. Immigration hearings are scheduled months away while their subjects wait in shelters and camps in Mexico.
And now it seems federal agents may be targeting faith-based ministries and their volunteers.
The Arizona Republic last week reported that U.S. Border patrol agents conducted a raid on a ministry in southern Arizona, arresting 12 undocumented migrants and briefly detaining seven volunteers.
The ministry that was targeted, No More Deaths, is an outreach of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Tucson. Its representatives described the raid as military in scope.
The U.S. Border Patrol’s elite tactical unit “descended on the camp with an armored tank, ATVs, a helicopter, and many marked and unmarked vehicles.”
The U.S. Border Patrol’s elite tactical unit “descended on the camp with an armored tank, ATVs, a helicopter, and many marked and unmarked vehicles,” the group reported on its website. “Agents armed with assault rifles chased and terrorized those that were receiving care, all while the helicopter hovered low above them kicking up dust and debris, making it nearly impossible to see. Border Patrol smashed windows, broke doors, and destroyed essential camp infrastructure as well as supplies.”
The camp, located about 11 miles north of the Arizona-Mexican border, provides water, food, medical care and rest for persons crossing the Sonoran Desert.
“Border Patrol’s continual surveillance and harassment of Byrd Camp keeps patients from receiving essential care,” No More Deaths said. “This criminalization of the humanitarian aid and medical care we provide is only a furtherance of the agency’s deadly policies. Border Patrol detains people in unsafe and deadly facilities where medical neglect is rampant and human rights abuses are well documented.”
The government waged a social media offensive, as well, dismissively describing the site on Twitter as a “so-called Samaritan Camp harboring illegal aliens.”
“The U.S. Border Patrol has long engaged in systematic human rights abuses, terrorizing migrants in the Arizona borderland,” she said. “For the second time in less than three months, they descended upon the No More Deaths humanitarian aid station. But offering humanitarian aid is not a crime. Migrating is not a crime.”
“As a religion which affirms the inherent worth and dignity of all people, we cannot and will not rest until the rights, humanity and human dignity of all people are honored and protected,” she added.
The raid also is an indication of how the increasingly cruel immigration policies enacted in Washington, D.C., are put into action along the border, Knox said.
He recalled former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions declaring, “We need to take away the children” of immigrants to presidential immigration advisor Stephen Miller, thereby advocating that the legal asylum process be made as difficult as possible.
“The emphasis has gone from safety in the U.S., to keep them out.”
“Some agents’ goal is to find anything wrong in order to say no as soon as possible,” Knox said. “The emphasis has gone from safety in the U.S., to keep them out.”
The detention of volunteers in the No More Deaths raid may be just another piece of the strategy. “If you can scare off the pastors and the churches and the ministry volunteers, then there’s no one out there to help them,” Knox said.
The current situation stands in stark contrast to years past, when agents would render medical aid and provide water to immigrants trying to cross into the United States.
“It used to be that the emphasis was to keep immigrants safe while they were here and to determine if they had a credible fear that brought them here,” Knox said.
And the truth is, there are some Border Patrol personnel who continue to operate with a humanitarian calling, he said, recalling a pre-pandemic training session for border ministry volunteers in Texas that was addressed by a Border Patrol agent.
“He said he felt that law enforcement means protecting people. He said they help people exposed to the elements. And when we asked him how he feels about immigrants, tears sprung to his eyes,” Knox said. “So, it’s good to know there are those who care about people and they aren’t all jack-booted thugs.”