By Jeff Brumley
Baptist disaster relief agencies are pressing hard to determine what, if anything, they can to do aid the immigrant children flooding into the nation along the southern border by the tens of thousands.
While some help has already been rendered, organizations ranging from Texas Baptist Men to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship say it’s getting harder for volunteer-based groups to get access to the young immigrants as the federal government becomes more involved. Some of them also report growing criticism from Baptists and other Americans politically opposed to the presence of undocumented foreigners in the United States.
“We have received a lot of negative comments, and most don’t leave their names and [phone] numbers,” said Terry Henderson, state disaster relief director for TBM.
Comments include accusations that providing aid to immigrants only encourages them to keep coming.
“I say you need to come here and see before you make these comments,” he said.
Not that such criticisms are keeping aid agencies, including Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army, Baptist and other churches and organizations, from sending help.
Since May, they’ve been working in Texas border cities like Brownsville, Laredo and McAllen to meet the needs of what has grown to the estimated 50,000 unaccompanied immigrant children who have crossed the border so far in 2014. In May, TBM was asked by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide volunteers to help undocumented immigrants.
They are arriving in the U.S. in desperate conditions and being housed in shelters and detention centers. The scope of the situation is being described as a major humanitarian crisis.
But there are some significant differences between the border crisis and the natural disasters many Baptist and other agencies are accustomed to handling.
‘Ready to provide compassion’
For one, it’s much more complex because it’s both a domestic and an international crisis, said Tommy Deal, national disaster response coordinator for CBF.
Deal said he’s been communicating with CBF of Texas about the border situation, but added some of the organization’s response also may come from its international disaster response operations.
Meanwhile, CBF field personnel located along the border already are working with local churches to find ways to help, he said.
However and whoever responds, Deal said, the immigration situation can definitely be considered the kind of event that calls for disaster relief.
“It can be called a man-made disaster because it’s an event that’s taxing the local communities’ resources,” Deal said.
The crisis is a challenge for relief groups because it’s being managed by several federal agencies, said Dean Miller, disaster relief coordinator for the Virginia Baptist Mission Board.
President Obama recently asked Congress for $3.7 billion to address the crisis. The money would be shared by the Health and Human Services, Justice and Homeland Security departments — all of which are managing parts of the response.
Miller said that’s different from the kinds of crises Baptist and other faith-based disaster relief groups are trained to handle.
“Some elements are similar — if we were asked to provide some temporary care for children during the day, for example,” Miller said via email. But “this is just so different [with] many more government agencies involved and the liability is increased.”
Due to those layers of jurisdiction, few know who to approach for permissions to respond — or even to learn what the specific needs are.
But the VBMB is preparing for the possibility that the government may transport immigrant children to Virginia, Miller said. He added they are also ready to respond to other states, if and when asked.
Miller said Virginia Baptists are “ready to provide compassion to an innocent group of children who need to feel the love of Christ during a difficult time.”
Even so, statewide and national groups are feeling the pressure to act.
“We are beginning to find places along the border where churches and other organizations have been responding since all this happened — and they are getting tired,” said Marla Bearden, disaster response specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
“They are reaching out to people other than their sphere of influence for help.”
At the moment, few have access to the child immigrants because they are sequestered in government-supervised facilities. But Texas Baptists are trying to make arrangements to create travel packs to be given the youth when they are transported to other cities, including Dallas.
She said there’s also a need for Spanish-language Bibles — with both Old and New testaments — for immigrants currently being housed at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
Otherwise, those wishing to volunteer more directly need to be patient while authorities work out if and how non-governmental agencies can help.
“We are very limited in what we can do,” Bearden said.
‘That’s the deal’
Bearden added that the border situation has a political dimension that other crisis situations do not.
“I spoke with a couple of volunteers who worked with the children, who went with the idea that we just need to turn them back,” Bearden said.
She added that their attitude didn’t last very long after arrival.
“Once they saw the conditions the children were in, it changed their hearts and it changed them.”
The children are dirty and tired and infested with lice when they arrive in the U.S., she said.
“Some of them are as young as 3 years old who came across unaccompanied,” Bearden said. “That’s pretty bad.”
There are some who can be helped more directly, Henderson added, including immigrant families who are being sent back to their native countries.
Between the time of their processing and their return by bus, they can do laundry at a TBM laundry truck in McAllen and take showers at a TBM shower trailer in Loredo.
The key is that something is being done when possible — especially when children are involved, Henderson said.
“If Jesus was standing here with us, what would he tell us to do? That sounds kind of basic, but that’s the deal,” he said.