Amid policy changes, church keeps faith with migrants

May 25, 2023 | by Sam Hodges

Amid policy changes, church keeps faith with migrants

St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church in New York City is seeing large crowds each Monday morning as it welcomes migrants bused into Manhattan. The church calls them Miracle Mondays, and with help from partner organizations a range of assistance is offered, including meals, hygiene products and legal counseling. Crowds have steadily grown. Photo courtesy of St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church.

With last week’s big change in U.S. immigration policy, many politicians and others predicted a tidal wave of asylum-seekers coming across the southern border.

That’s not been the case so far. But United Methodists who assist migrants remain busy — and concerned.

“What I tell churches is: ‘Prepare for the unknown,’” said Billie Fidlin, director of outreach and justice for the Desert Southwest Conference and board president of the Arizona Faith Network. “Maybe the time for the surge has just not happened yet.”

At El Calvario United Methodist Church, in the border city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, the past few days haven’t brought a rush of migrants needing food, shelter, clothing, medical care and other help before moving on to connect with family members or other sponsors in the U.S. 

But, as the Rev. George Miller points out, traffic for the church’s ministry was steadily building long before the expected surge.

“The numbers have doubled since last year. Maybe even more than that,” said Miller, pastor of El Calvario.

Title 42 is the restrictive immigration policy that ended on May 11. Strictly speaking, Title 42 is part of federal public health law, but the term has become shorthand for a specific rule that allows the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to block entry of noncitizens in a health emergency. 

Invoked by the Trump administration early in the pandemic, Title 42 allowed for rapid expulsion of asylum-seekers on the grounds that they could spread the coronavirus. 

Title 42 has had many critics, including Church World Service, a United Methodist-supported nonprofit whose work includes refugee resettlement.

Church World Service issued a May 10 statement calling Title 42 “unique in its cruelty” to asylum seekers, many of them fleeing violence, poverty and corruption in their home countries. 

But Church World Service and others also take issue with Biden administration policies replacing Title 42, including one requiring many migrants to prove they have been denied asylum in another country before applying in the U.S.

“It feels like there’s a war on asylum,” said Alba Jaramillo, co-executive director of Immigration Law & Justice Network, a United Methodist-affiliated legal assistance nonprofit formerly known as National Justice for Our Neighbors. “Instead of facilitating people to access the asylum system, we’re creating more barriers.”

Few if any issues are more politically polarizing than immigration. Still, there seemed to be a wide consensus that the lifting of Title 42 would, at least in the near term, exacerbate an unstable situation at the U.S.-Mexico border, prompting many more people to try to get across.

The United Methodist Church’s California-Pacific Conference made an urgent call for donations to shelters at or near the border, given the anticipated influx.

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Sam Hodges is a staff journalist with UMNews.