Letter from El Paso

Holy Migrant Family

Holy Migrant Family by Kelly Latimore

Heidi Cerneka reports on the latest from the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas

By Heidi Cerneka

El Paso is truly a unique place that has been in the news a lot lately. Despite all of our government’s talk of invading hordes of criminals, it remains one of the safest cities in the U.S. People still greet you on the street.

The other day I was walking home when a little girl, who was walking to the car with her mom, said to me, “What’s your name?” And 4-year old Julia Vargas (that was her name) proceeded to carry on a whole conversation with a total stranger (me). When I was leaving, Julia said, “Bye.” Then a few steps later, she said again, “Bye!” (of course I had responded). A few steps later, I heard, “See you later, alligator!” and I walked home with a smile.

Every day hundreds of asylum-seeking migrants are released by ICE into El Paso. An amazing network of hospitality centers receives them. The migrants prepare to travel to wherever their sponsors live while pursuing their case for asylum. The hospitality centers offer beds, meals, showers, basic first aid, hugs, warmth, and assistance in contacting sponsors. The sponsor is responsible for purchasing the migrant’s bus or plane ticket to their destination.

The next day the center transports people to the bus station or airport with a snack bag for the journey. Volunteers do all of this- cleaning, cooking, washing, phone calls, as well as collecting and distributing supplies and clothing donations. People’s generosity, kindness and solidarity is beyond amazing. Whenever there is a last minute emergency call for more help, people always respond. Many of the volunteers come from faith communities.

The immigration situation in El Paso – the wrong questions

It is hard to consolidate a complex situation that would require a panel of 100 experts to analyze, but I know for sure that we are currently arguing about the wrong questions.

We should not be talking about building walls and more detention facilities. If we got to the root of it all, couldn’t we agree that every human being deserves a life of dignity and abundance, food, safety, health, and education?

Central Americans are fleeing violence, poverty, hunger, corruption and state involvement in the violence. U.S. intervention for economic and military purposes has contributed to much of the violence and injustice. We have a responsibility as a nation to make reparations. We have a responsibility as human beings to work for a more just and fair world, and we are responsible as people of faith to welcome our neighbor with love and hospitality.

In my new ministry as an immigration lawyer here in El Paso, I will keep working on viable solutions for individual situations as well as on recommendations for the larger situation, but I can unequivocally say that the following are not viable responses:

  • Imprisoning people who have not committed any crime, and have credible asylum claims
  • Separating parents or grandparents or adult siblings from children
  • Leaving people sleeping on concrete under a bridge with no water, showers and only sandwiches for days
  • “Closing” the border.

So what should we be talking about? A fair and updated immigration law would be a good start. As would helping the countries of origin of many immigrants in a way that gets the aid and resources to the people and creates jobs. Let’s make farming a fair-trade industry; let’s commit to living wages for workers in U.S.-owned or based industries located in other countries. Of course that means that our favorite discount stores will be charging higher prices. But do I really want to buy cheap clothing because someone else is getting paid only $3 a day? Feel free to send me your thoughts and suggestions.

Immigration 101

Heidi's "Immigration 101" presentation for a recent Rockhurst University spring break immersion trip

Heidi’s “Immigration 101” presentation for a recent Rockhurst University spring break immersion trip

I live in a community house (Encuentro Project) that receives faith-based church, university, and high school groups that want to volunteer for a week and to learn about the border, immigration, and our call to get involved. So I have begun having a basic “Immigration 101” conversation with the groups over breakfast on their first morning, just to give them a context for the week.

Here are a few things we talk about:

  • Requesting asylum is a right guaranteed by the United Nations Convention relating to the status of refugees (signed and ratified by the U.S.) and by U.S. law
  • The people who are released by ICE are not here illegally nor are they “undocumented” (once they request asylum and are released from detention to pursue their asylum case, they have legal documents)
  • All the people released at the border still have to go through the rigorous asylum application process.
  • A refugee is a person who has been forced to flee their country of origin because of persecution, war or violence.
  • In order to gain asylum in the U.S., a person must demonstrate:
    – A well-founded fear of persecution because of race/ethnicity, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a “particular social group” (the most complicated category)
    – That she/he cannot return to his or her country or is afraid to return
    – That the state is either the perpetrator or is unable or unwilling to control the perpetrator
  • To even be considered for asylum, a person must pass an interview demonstrating a credible fear of persecution under the above requirements. They must meet other requirements like background checks and verification of prior entrances into the U.S., etc.
  • If they get through this hoop, then they can begin the actual asylum process. In Texas, judges grant only 3 percent of asylum claims. We have very credible and serious cases of persecution and violence that are denied here, cases that would have a better chance at a fair hearing outside of Texas.

Working at Las Americas

I am so grateful to have found my way to Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. The staff is young  mostly from the El Paso community  and committed to the work, our clients, and the cause of making the world better and more just.

As a new immigration lawyer, I have been tossed into the deep end, and my learning curve is dizzying. I have gone from feeling totally incompetent and inexperienced all of the time to totally incompetent only some of the time. Phew!

And I’ve had all sorts of “firsts.” The first time I said, “I am an attorney,” and showed my Illinois Bar card; the first time I signed my name as an attorney; the first time I appeared in court, and even the first time I had an entire hearing to represent someone’s asylum case. It still feels strange  and I still feel like someone is going to find out either that I’m not an attorney or that I’m faking. Friends and colleagues reassure me that this is all normal. So I keep going forward.

I am working with the “detained team.” Our clients are all people who have asked for asylum in the U.S. from their countries of origin. We represent them in their asylum cases while they wait in detention sometimes for more than a year. One person said to me, “I came here to avoid being unjustly imprisoned in my own country. Now I am imprisoned in your country, even though I have committed no crime!”

In another case, a Brazilian woman was separated from her 7-year old son a year ago. Her attorney originally asked me for help because she speaks Portuguese, and I have ended up involved in all of his efforts to reunite her with her son (for more on this case, see this story from the Daily Beast). I also had a gay client who fled persecution in his home country only to be mistreated and abused while in U.S. detention (see The Washington Post).

It is a wild ride, but I am grateful to be here at this moment and giving it my all to learn as fast as I can!

If you would like to donate to Heidi’s ministry, you can do so on our donation page by designating “Heidi Cerneka ministry account” in the comments section. 

Heidi Cerneka has been a Maryknoll lay missioner for 23 years and previously served in Brazil and Kenya. She earned her law degree from Loyola University Chicago in 2017 and reopened Maryknoll Lay Missioners’ presence at the U.S.-Mexico border in January 2019. She serves in El Paso as an immigration attorney with community agencies.

Comments are closed.