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IRTF Statement on Immigration Policy

The InterReligious Task Force on Central America was founded 37 years ago to honor the sacrifice and carry forward the legacy of solidarity of Cleveland’s church women who were raped and murdered in El Salvador. Living out that solidarity is as important now as ever.

At this moment, amidst the incredible suffering being caused by inhumane immigration policies, we call on people here in the US to look at immigration from the perspective of poor and marginalized peoples. To see them as Sister Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan did—with love, mercy, and compassion. To understand the root causes of their migration.

In Mexico and Central America, people struggle to survive day in, day out under the enormous forces of entrenched structural violence: the violence waged by US-sponsored militaries and militarized police forces, the violence of organized crime, gender-based violence, and the violence of incredibly unjust economic systems. These forms of structural violence place massive pressures on them, pushing them to make the very difficult decision to migrate north in order to feed themselves and their families. In order to survive!

As people of faith and conscience, we call for a humane and welcoming immigration policy: one that recognizes migrants as human beings—not as criminals but as refugees and asylum seekers escaping their homelands that are torn by violence, poverty, and exploitation.

Months before her untimely death in 1980, Sister Dorothy Kazel wrote to President Jimmy Carter and questioned the rationale of US policy supporting guns and war in El Salvador. She saw the death, disruption, and destruction it was causing. It was US foreign policy that fueled the civil wars in Central America during the 1980s, and it is US policies that continue to feed political turmoil in the region today.

Many coming here are seeking asylum from Honduras. In 2009, an authoritarian regime came to power by military coup in 2009, setting off a new wave of repression. In defense of democracy and human rights, a massive nonviolent resistance movement quickly sprang up. This broad coalition of peasant farmers, teachers, journalists, union leaders, LGBTQ activists, indigenous rights leaders, environmental defenders, water protectors (just like at Standing Rock)—are often criminalized and even targeted for assassination by the powerful US-supported oligarchy, which sees them as enemies of the state. Read that again: defenders of democracy and human rights are targeted as enemies of the state!

The violence faced by people in Central America comes in many forms.

Economic violence. Free trade agreements have been linked to massive displacement of small-scale farmers, unable to compete with subsidized agricultural imports that flood their domestic markets. Free trade also means more sweatshop labor. We enjoy the cheap goods while the workers live in poverty. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to become victims of human trafficking. Hundreds are kidnapped each year. They are forced to work on fields or in the streets as forced laborers and prostitutes.

Gender-based violence. A high tolerance of violence against women and girls means that violence becomes normalized; it is seen as a part of life for women. In the media, crimes against women are exhibited with crude images, and nobody seems to care about it. At home, domestic violence rates are as high as 50 percent. Femicide rates are also alarming. It’s not just the murder of women, but the murder of women because they are women. And the US Attorney recently announced that he is instructing the US immigration court system to refuse asylum claims for gender-based violence.

Gang violence. The most powerful and murderous gangs in Central America originated on the streets of the US. Then the gang members were deported to Central America, where they now deal in human trafficking and drug trafficking—all the while waging violence in the streets.

Military violence. Military power—in collusion with paramilitary forces—is used by Central American governments not for defense but to exercise repression against their own people. Military and police squash civil protest and repress those defending their land and water. The most vulnerable are the poor, frequently indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples. Their ancestral lands are coveted by large economic interests for mining, logging, cash crop production, hydroelectric dams—you name it. And the militaries and militarized police units do the bidding of the wealthy by forcing them from their lands, using intimidation, assaults, destruction of homes and crops, and even assassinations.

And who funds all this military force? Who provides the training? We do. The US taxpayer pays for security assistance to brutal regimes that exploit, repress, criminalize, and kill their own people. At places like Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (better known as the infamous SOA: School of the Americas, or School of Assassins), for decades the US government has been teaching the militaries of Latin America how to repress their populations with civilian-targeted warfare, including surveillance and torture techniques.

So, understandably, people flee. They make the arduous trip north through Mexico and arrive at our border. And what does our government do? Treat them as criminals. Separate families, ripping children from the arms of their fathers and mothers. Lock them up. Deport them back to the oppression they were fleeing, an oppression of our doing.

We must join together to create a mass movement for a more humane and compassionate response. In Cleveland, we at IRTF—along with strong partners like Jobs with Justice—have been convening an Immigrant Rights Collaborative for the past 18 months. The Collaborative is a team of representatives of faith communities and immigrant defense organizations that meet regularly to share information and plan coordinated strategies. We work on a number of things that have been coming at us non-stop since January 2017:

-emergency responses to detentions or raids

-detention visits

-bond funds

-support for families of detainees

-accompaniment to ICE check-ins, to Immigration Court

-legislative advocacy

-faith communities’ pledges of immigrant defense

-sanctuary support

-public education

-public mobilizations: marches, rallies, direct actions

As a community of love and compassion, it is time that we recognize our government’s responsibility (and our own complicity) in the push factors that drive people to leave their homes, to flee violence and destitution, to seek a better life, any life at all, in another country. It is our foreign policy and our corporate and consumer behaviors that create these conditions. So it is our responsibility to right these wrongs, to support peace and democracy in Central America.

But until these conditions are realized, we must exercise hospitality. We can and must turn this country into a place of welcome. We must demand that our government treat all migrants as refugees, grant them their internationally-recognized right to seek asylum. See them as our sisters and brothers who seek shelter and safety. Show them love and compassion. Welcome them with hearty hospitality. Be a people of solidarity.