I have been learning gradually that what we are doing–connecting with an asylum-seeking refugee whom we have never met but who is now in detention, hoping to get him paroled to us so he can seek asylum in relative freedom rather than from prison—is kind of a new thing. No wonder it has seemed puzzling, iffy, and kind of ad hoc, with new developments at every turn.
Our whole immigration system has been devolving into an impossible glom of chaos, bureaucracy, and even cruelty for some time, not just under this administration. But in the Trump era the chaos has taken a vicious turn: keep everybody out, period, by any means necessary, even if it means separating families, imprisoning kids, deporting people back to countries where they face persecution and death. Watch the Netflix documentary series “Living Undocumented” for a sampling of what that means to actual human beings. (It is good, sometimes tough to watch, not unbearable.)
Still, as one of the subjects of that documentary says, you can watch these stories and then turn off your television and go back to your lives. Except my husband and I can’t. Nor can the new friends we have made who are also sponsors-in-waiting. We are caught up in the suspended lives and mood swings of three men who are now our friends and think of themselves as family members, call us Mom and Dad.
It is like Laura Coleman, a volunteer in the nationwide Asylum Sponsorship Project, told me in a phone conversation yesterday: “You hear the stories but you don’t swallow the stories until you get involved.”
That project is two years old and, as far as Laura knows, is the only one operating nationally. It is a response to the great border shutdown, which is entirely new. The border is closed but people keep coming because they are desperate. Laura says, “Things have never been this way before. Mexico has just arrested 800 people on the border. People aren’t even making it up to our border. People here don’t know how much of a minefield it is. Lives are in danger. They don’t just decide to walk 3,000 miles, leave their families behind, go into the unknown so they can go shopping at a Target every day.”
Her organization’s slogan is, “Trump closes doors. We open them.”
Maybe. I feel like we have grabbed a few individuals by the elbow and are trying to drag them through the iron door before it slams shut on them. We don’t know if it will work. But just last week another one made it through. Meanwhile, along with our guys, our hopes and expectations rise and fall. This week things seem to be breaking loose, maybe something will happen. Some deportation officers have made themselves available for interviews. Ben’s has told him that he will be given parole “if he qualifies.” Ben’s attorney has resubmitted the request for parole. We are trying not to hold our breath.
I admire the 100 or so sponsors Laura says her group has found through their website. I don’t think a website would have been enough to get us committed to something like this. It was the personal connection that did it. Heather Ghormley, a local Episcopal priest who works with the Anglican Immigration Initiative, took it upon herself to go to the border and across it, work with a local pastor there, meet refugees both in Mexico and the U.S., and draw on a local faith network here in South Bend concerned with supporting immigrants—including our congregation’s immigration committee. She asked for sponsors, she promised communal help. We thought we could do this, perhaps not realizing that this was a somewhat different kind of sponsorship than what is involved when refugees come through official channels (which are rapidly shutting down).
I am very glad we are doing this, are trying to do this, but the communal support is essential. The text messages that fly back and forth with our friends can be encouraging or discouraging on any given day but it makes all the difference to suffer and rejoice together.