Fear (noun): “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.”
I am now on day 14 of physical distancing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s given me time reflect on the many stories that refugees and asylum seekers have shared with me since I first began working with refugees from Guatemala when I was 16. I cherish the stories, tears and many hugs that have been shared in this work over the past thirty-plus years. What has been so interesting to me is how much the fear and uncertainty that we are experiencing today in the U.S. parallels what immigrants deal with all their lives: fear, uncertainty and panic. My father has always told me, “You will never know what the other person is feeling until you walk a mile in their shoes.” Well, we are getting a bit of that opportunity now.
The early days of this pandemic are hard for almost everyone in the U.S., and devastating for those who have lost loved ones. But imagine how things will continue to get worse for the tens of thousands of immigrants that live in the U.S. today. Daily life is especially challenging and dangerous for those who are affected by U.S. policies barring legal entrance through asylum.
You may think this claim is crazy: what do you mean worse? How can that possibly be? Imagine being stuck living by the Rio Grande river along the U.S./Mexico border – awaiting court hearings – while living in inhumane conditions with your children. You fear the pandemic. You also fear going back to the violence at home. The normal legal opportunities for relief are closed – the port of entry, the immigration courts. And the organizations who offer a small but essential bit of relief from the U.S. side are no longer allowed to cross the border to bring the resources essential for survival. And you have a mounting fear that you or your family will not have enough medical care if, and more likely when, COVID-19 breaks out in the camps and shelters. The list goes on and on for asylum seekers that are affected by MPP (i.e., “Remain-in-Mexico” policy).
I also want to share with you the reality of what life is like as an undocumented person in the U.S. during this pandemic. Many of us nowadays are working from home under strict but essential physical distancing policies. Those who are essential workers are courageously going to work to carry out tasks that we depend on, especially in a time of crisis. Undocumented people, if they are lucky enough to still have a job, more than likely have one that is also “essential work.” However, out of fear of being stopped by law enforcement and questioned, many undocumented people are choosing to stay home. The risk is too great, the fear is too much. If they are stopped by law enforcement and are not able to produce whatever documents they are asked for, they risk arrest, detention and deportation without due process. Families are living in fear and are stuck in their homes. They rely on neighbors or church members go to the grocery store to buy food and supplies for them.
The other issue is that many undocumented people may not have jobs to return to after the pandemic is over. Many are employed by small businesses like restaurants, service workers and the hotel industry. Some of these may take time to rehire, if they do at all. Some of you may be saying, “Well, at least they will receive help from the federal stimulus package!” Unfortunately, this is also not true. Undocumented people – despite paying taxes and working essential jobs that have contributed greatly to our society – are not eligible to receive this or other kinds of benefits like the rest of the U.S. population.
I’m sharing these realities to shed light on what is happening in the lives of asylum seekers and undocumented people when the dust from a crisis settles. When the worst of this pandemic is over and the media moves on, these people will still be vulnerable and exploited. It is up to us to make things change “Who Christ has called to love our neighbor as ourselves,” to be the voice, the hands and feet of Jesus.
During this time of Lent, I ask you to be the body of Christ and share his love with your neighbors. Look with the eyes of Christ and find those who need your help. I am certain that in your neighborhood there are immigrants and undocumented people that need your help. Buy them groceries; drop off a home-cooked meal; practice the deeply held Anabaptist value of mutual aid; or just call them to give them words of encouragement and prayer. You can also support MCC’s work with partners who continue to respond to asylum seekers on the U.S./Mexico border, and are still finding ways to provide humanitarian supplies amid COVID-19.
I ask you to join me in prayer for all immigrants around the globe who are now living with the paralyzing fear we can only begin to imagine. Pray for safety, peace and that they feel God’s love through us.