Mexican immigrants who were returned to their country from the US carry blankets they received during a distribution in Nogales, Mexico. Five United Methodist annual conferences, Global Ministries, UMCOR, and the Methodist Church of Mexico participated in the action. Photo: Tom Hazelwood/UMCOR
Bishop Minerva Carcaño invited me last weekend to come to Nogales, Arizona, to join the Covenant Council of the Desert Southwest Annual Conference in a distribution of blankets and health kits to people the US government had deported to Nogales, Mexico, just over the border.
Each year, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, captures and repatriates thousands of unauthorized immigrants. I suspect the average United Methodist, regardless of his or her opinion of immigration and immigration reform, has not given much thought to what happens to a person who is detained and deported.
My own sense was that an unauthorized immigrant, once caught, was simply transported back to his or her country of origin, and that was all there was to it. Last weekend in Mexico, though, after I listened to people tell their stories of repatriation, I learned more and my heart ached for these people.
I learned that deported persons are returned to their countries of origin with literally just the shirts on their backs. Personal items such as money, identification cards or documents, additional clothing, even medicine are taken away. If a group is captured together, even if they are members of the same family or husband and wife, I was told, they are separated and each one is sent to a different port of entry, unknown to the other. The objective behind these measures, of course, is to make it as difficult as possible for those who have been removed to reenter the US.
Into these difficult circumstances five United Methodist annual conferences (Southwest Texas, Rio Grande, New Mexico, Desert Southwest, and Cal-Pac), the Methodist Church of Mexico, the General Board of Global Ministries, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) have come together in ministry. Together with local ministry partners we offer assistance to people repatriated to Mexico, who literally have nothing.
The blankets and health kits Bishop Carcaño invited me to help distribute were provided by UMCOR. In all, UMCOR sent 10,000 blankets and kits to help stations along the US/Mexico border. The annual conferences and local ministry partners provide additional assistance, including medicine, food, clothing, and transportation for returnees to their cities or towns of origin. The humanitarian plight of the deported was our focus. Their needs cannot be overstated, and, regardless of one’s opinion of immigration and immigration reform, their plight must not be overlooked.
As we traveled through Arizona, we could sense that tensions were high. Immigration has been a hot-button issue in this state for some time. A teenage boy had been shot and killed recently by a border patrol agent. Only days before that, a border patrol agent had been shot and killed under circumstances that remain unclear.
Saturday morning, while we were distributing the blankets and health kits in Nogales, Mexico, we heard that Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and others had been shot in Tucson. We learned that some of those who had been shot had died. Our hearts were hurting, angry, and scared. We stopped where we were and prayed for all involved. Then we crossed back over the border into Nogales, Arizona. We reconvened at El Mesias United Methodist Church, where we debriefed, worshiped, and prayed.
Both in the stories of the deported immigrants and in the violence in Tucson, I was reminded of how in the midst of tragedy, Christ stands with us. God, through the power of Jesus Christ, gives us the courage and strength to walk into tragic situations like these and offer compassion and hope.
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be in Arizona last weekend and to be a part of The United Methodist Church’s ministry to the least and the forgotten.
By Rev. Tom Hazelwood, Assistant General Secretray, US Disaster Response, UMCOR