BORDER CHILDREN: LA MESA CHURCH FORUM HIGHLIGHTS PROBLEMS AND SOLUTIONS

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Hear audio excerpts from Morones' presentation from our East County Magazine radio show originally aired on KNSJ 89.1 FM:  http://www.kiwi6.com/uploads/new

By Miriam Raftery

August 24, 2014 (La Mesa)--Parishioners and guests at the United Church of Christ in La Mesa lined up to purchase T-shirts proclaiming “Love has no borders,” after hearing an impassioned presentation on the plight of border children August 17th.

Wearing a “Save the Children” tie, pediatrician Dr. Richard Short introduced guest speaker Enrique Morones, founder of Border Angels (www.borderangels.com) .  The church congregation has committed to support Border Angels’ efforts to aid immigrant children and families fleeing violence and poverty in Central America.  Over 60,000 have flocked to America seeking asylum here, including families and children placed in detention centers here in San Diego County.

“Everybody looks to the president or the mayor. But what can we do?” Morones asked.  He emphasized that the Central American refugees are fleeing to numerous nations, not only the United States.

He gave a chilling eyewitness account of the confrontation in Murrieta recently, where anti-immigration protesters awaited the first busloads of the immigrants in our region.  “I saw the worst of the American spirit when I saw these people shouting these horrible things at children. I had tears in my eyes,” Morones recalls.   But he says it was police, not protesters, who ultimately stood in front of the busses and stopped them. 

“There was a counter protester,” he notes, adding that the demonstrators “hit him, spit on him, and the police didn’t do anything.”

But when the busses carrying “moms and children” later came to a Chula Vista facility, the scene was far different, says Morones.  “WE had a press conference the next day and said `We’ll welcome these children. This could be our Rosa Parks moment,” he added of the opportunity to educate Americans about the immigration crisis.

Border Angels swiftly took in over 50 tons of donated goods—clothing, food and toys—enough to fill half a football field. The group  has lined up free legal services to aid those seeking refuge and has also sought to intervene directly to protect their safety.

Some have faced dangers even in the detention centers, beyond overcrowding. Morones said a woman in a Santee shelter reported her daughter was nearly raped.  “We called the Sheriff. They didn’t arrest the man,” he adds.

Border Angels rescued the family of four, paying to put them up in a hotel.  They have worked to find 25 families willing to be host families for unaccompanied children or families awaiting processing by immigration authorities or courts.  All host families undergo background checks. 

Some have faced backlash from groups espousing hate. A man who took in the immigrant family that Border Angels helped received death threats, Morones said. “The District Attorney offered him protection.” While anti-immigrant voices called for a boycott of the man’s business, Poppa’s Fresh Fish, others in the community came forward in support. “His business has quadrupled,” Morones reports.

More help is needed.  Morones said Border Angels needs water, toys, large suitcases, backpacks, gift cards (to take the children to the zoo or museums, for example) and cash.

More families willing to be temporary host families or foster parents are also needed. Most of the unaccompanied minors coming here have family they seek to reunited with, but that can be challenging. Morones told of a 10-year-old who thought America would be like a small town, where he could merely give the first name of his relative. 

Once relatives are located, the vast majority of the child immigrants are sent to stay with family while awaiting hearings to determine if they will be granted asylum, permanent residency, or deported.  In some cases, their family members are not undocumented, but have legal status in the U.S.

Some who have no family here are being held in facilities in Lemon Grove and El Cajon, where they stay an average of a couple of weeks, learning English, getting medical attention, and in some cases, winding up with foster parents willing to raise the children.

Parents in Central America are so desperate to save their children from death at the hands of gangs and drug cartels that they are entrusting them to strangers—and the way here is dangerous.  Smugglers lie and tell families that if youngsters come here they will automatically receive visas and can bring other family members later on.  Some children perish on the journey or are harmed en route. 

The influx has slowed, as word spreads that this is not the case. Morones predicts the number will likely reach 80,000 children arriving at U.S. borders and giving themselves up to Border Patrol by year’s end.  Mexican immigrant has already slowed 40%, but the new wave of Central Americans are now the highest population of immigrants. 

Many of those coming here now are the grandchildren of people caught up in civil wars or experiencing the results of NAFTA and CAFTA, free trade agreements that destroyed commerce and agricultural jobs in Mexico and Central America, sending people north across the border. The number one reason for Latino immigrants to come here is the desire to feed their families; number two is a hope to reunite with their family members, says Morones.

Nationwide, about 35% of all  undocumented immigrants are non-Latinos, mainly Europeans and Asians, whose visas have expired. The other 65% are Latinos – but there are no visas available for them.

Morones seeks to dispel two myths about immigration.

“Myth number one: “People say get in line. There is no line,” he says of those of Latino heritage.  Those applying are asked how much money they make, so those most in need are unable to get visas to come here if they live in Mexico, Central or South America, he says. Morones own parents came here on a visa before he was born, but now those are no longer available to people in similar circumstances.

“Myth number two is that we are a country of laws,” Morones adds.  He notes that in the past, American laws allowed child labor, slavery, and barred women from voting.  “Some laws are immoral and need to be changed,” he states.

Other myths are that immigrants are apt to be criminals; the Justice Department has said that undocumented immigrants are ten times less likely to be criminals than other people in America.  It’s also a myth that the immigrants could have serious health issues; health problems found are no worse than those among immigrants crowded into Ellis Island in the past and can be easily treated, says Morones.

So what will become of the 60,000 unaccompanied children who have already come here?

“Will they stay here? We hope most will, because most are very real cases of asylum,” says Morones.  He hopes people across America will open hearts and homes to help, because “Americans are good people.”

His group asked the Obama administration to take executive action.  Morones has met with President Barack Obama.  “I said, Mr. President, `aqui not alla’ (here not there).”  Following that meeting the U.S. government has taken steps to allow would-be immigrants to apply for visas in their homelands in Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. The effort aims to prevent people, particularly children, from risking their lives on dangerous journeys north to escape violence.  “It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Morones said.

He reminded the audience that many of their ancestors faced the same kind of anti-immigrant attitude now facing Central American and Mexican immigrants.  Benjamin Franklin wanted to send German immigrants back to Germany, he observed.  “There was a time people said about the Polish and the Irish,” he said. “..What about `Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses?’” he asked, quoting the inscription on the State of Liberty.

He asks why the U.S. gives billions of dollars in aid to countries in the Middle East, but not to neighbors in Central America now in need. “We’ve got to help those countries so that they can help themselves…We could be doing a lot more,” he concludes.

Border Angels began over two decades ago, helping migrant farmworkers living in shanty towns in Carlsbad canyons.  Later, living in Los Angeles during the riots that occurred after Rodney King was beaten by police, Morones helped organize a rally with African-Americans, Mexicans and Koreans calling for peace.  After moving back to San Diego in 1994, the year NAFTA was passed, he was horrified to see that big businesses could cross borders for commerce, but people could not.  

“This great country had said, `Mr. Gorbach2ev, tear down this wall,’” he recalled President Ronald Reagan’s words to the Soviet leader. “But the U.S. built its own wall.”

Since then, 10,000 people have died as a result of the U.S-Mexico border wall, Morones told the audience. “Every summer more people die from that wall than from the entire history of the Berlin Wall.” 

After an Imperial County group began putting water in the desert to help save lives of undocumented migrants, Border Angels began doing so, too.  Morones  told some horror stories, such as 5-year-old Marco Antonio, who asked his father for water on the journey.  “He asked 18 men for water and none would give him any water. Why? They were already dead.”  In another case, a woman died in the arms of her son, Jesus, after smugglers abandoned her and her young children because they were slowing down the group. 

The name  Border Angels came about after a Mexican TV host introduced Morones as the angel of the border, and the name stuck. The group is now a 501c3 nonprofit organization.

Morones travels annually to a graveyard in Holtville, where 650 migrants  are buried, many of them undocumented. The dead there include the first soldier killed in the Iraq War, an undocumented Guatemalan immigrant.  Border Angels is a faith-based organization; Morones brings crosses to lay at the graves so that the migrants will not be forgotten; Jews who have participated brought stones in their tradition to honor the dead; Sikhs have brought flowers. 

Morones has battled to shut down the Minute Men and block anti-immigrant legislation at the state and federal levels. He organized the immigrant marches on 2005, taking a caravan of 100 cars to Washington D.C., a 10,000 mile journey.  It sparked marches across the country, including 800,000 people in Los Angeles. Marches are held on the anniversary of that occasion every year since.

At the most recent, he met playwright Josefina Lopez.  She was inspired to write a new play, “Detained in the Desert,” that will debut Sesptember 19-20 at Plaza Bonita. One of the characters is based on Morones.

Each Sunday,  Border Angels holds services at Friendship Park, which was dedicated by former First Lady Pat Nixon, who stated, “May there never be a wall between these two nations.”

Border Angels recently organized a concert with symphony players on both sides of the border at the Park.  Earlier this month, Morones said he persuaded Border Patrol to open a rusted emergency door for the first time ever.  “A man said `I’ve never hugged my daughter,’” recalled Morones.  “I gave him a T-shirt as one of our volunteers; we just let them hug. It was a beautiful but very sad moment.”

He noted the partisan divide in Washington on immigrants. “Democrats want them to be citizens. Republicans want militarization of the border. But theimmigrants—most just want to be documented so they won’t be harassed by police.”

Morones recalled Mohatma Gandhi’s grandson visiting locally and telling a story of a man finding a large number of starfish washed ashore.  When he threw one back into the sea, he was asked why,  since it would make no difference to the many that would die. Gandhi’s grandson replied that it would make a difference to the starfish that he saved.

“That’s the power of one,” Morones concluded, urging everyone present to take action to help immigrants in need, especially children.

Recalling the confrontation in Murrieta, he added,  “Regardless of what you think regarding the issue, to take it out on the kids is just plain wrong.”