(WOMENSENEWS)–On Feb. 16 a group of women will be gathering in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to kick off a daylong pilgrimage to El Paso, Texas, along the border between Mexico and the United States, in honor of the Pope’s visit to the area on Feb. 17.
But they want to do more than greet him. They also want to draw his attention to what they see as the humanitarian crisis of refugees from Central America in the United States.
In last week’s debate, Democratic nominee hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both disagreed with the raids that have been authorized by President Barack Obama to arrest and deport unauthorized immigrants from Central America.
And while building walls and competing to outdo each other in tough talk against undocumented immigrants may be popular among GOP presidential candidates, these women say the leader of the Catholic Church does not agree with any of that and would not approve.
These women are part of a larger coalition that has launched a signature campaign asking the Obama administration to heed the Pope’s message of compassion for refugees.
"In a time when refugee families and children are being ripped from their homes, locked up in prisons and deported to life-threatening violence, we will walk with the hope that each step we take will bring us one step closer to Pope Francis’ vision of a nation that truly welcomes the stranger," said Juana Flores, co-director of Mujeres Unidas y Activas in San Francisco and a participant in the 100-mile pilgrimage, in a recent press statement.
This is just the latest nonviolent protest these female activists have been staging to change the U.S. government’s tactics toward immigrants.
The group at the core of these protests is We Belong Together, a campaign formed by two New York-based groups, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. We Belong Together has been mobilizing women against oppressive U.S. immigration policies since it was formed on Mother’s Day in 2010.
Lately, it has been especially active in the face of raids and deportations and what they see as negative policy announcements.
The most recent jolt came two days before Christmas last year, when news broke that the Obama administration will be deporting more than 100,000 families who have fled violence in Central America in the past two years. Within the first five days of 2016, it was reported that 121 asylum seekers had already been arrested as part of the initiative.
"We are outraged that the Obama administration saw fit to begin 2016, rather than dismantling its flawed policy towards mothers and children fleeing violence in Central America, by going into homes and snatching children from their beds and raiding families," said Andrea Cristina Mercado, co-chair of We Belong Together and campaign director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, in a recent phone interview.
The number of families and unaccompanied children from Central America attempting to illegally cross the U.S. southern border since 2014 has spiked, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said in a January statement. That had caused his department to begin "concerted, nationwide enforcement operations" to take into custody and return "at a greater rate" adults who entered the United States illegally with children. Since the summer of 2014, the department has removed and repatriated migrants to Central America at an increased rate of about 14 flights a week, Johnson said.
"As I have said repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration; if you come here illegally, we will send you back consistent with our laws and values," Johnson said in the statement. "This should come as no surprise… I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and accompanied children, will be removed."
However, Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, expressed something stronger than surprise.
"I am stunned about the lack of empathy for Central American immigrants whom [the government] is sending back to violence," Yeung told Women’s eNews in a recent phone interview. She said her group is asking Obama to show compassion towards asylum seekers and stop the raids.
"Our call to action right now is to ask the president [to] end the raids most immediately," Yeung said.
Yeung said her group has received reports of cases not going through the proper process. "These are people who are fearful and persecuted and are coming to the U.S. for safety," she said. "We should not expect them to go through the immigration [process] without an attorney and in a language that is not their first language."
‘Number of Precautions’
Johnson said the families are first transported to one of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) family residential centers for temporary processing before being issued travel documents and boarding return flights to their home countries. He said "a number of precautions" were taken given the sensitive nature of removing families with children, among them deploying female agents and medical personnel to take part in the operations.
He added that Congress has enacted a $750-billion aid bill to Central America to tackle crime, poverty and violence in the region. He also said the government is working on new mechanisms to screen refugees from the region and expand access to the
U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, which Johnson said is meant to "develop more legal alternatives to the dangerous and unlawful journey many are currently taking in the hands of human smugglers." He added that the government had received at least 6,000 applications for the program
However, Mercado, of We Belong Together, said Johnson has "no credibility" as an authority figure concerned with the welfare of refugees while he is conducting early morning raids on immigrant families across the nation.
"U.S involvement in Central America has a long history with many dark chapters," she said. "We cannot turn a blind eye to women and children who are fleeing to the United States seeking asylum. Our current practice of jailing these refugees is unconscionable. We must put an end to these ‘family detention centers’ once and for all."
Mercado and Leung both expressed dismay that the Obama administration is taking actions at odds with the spirit of the executive orders expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and giving deportation relief to undocumented immigrant parents of U.S. residents and citizens.
"I can’t pretend to divine what [their] intention is but it runs counter to the compassion that the president has expressed… it is contrary to the values he has exhibited in the past," said Leung, also citing the president’s passionate plea against gun violence.
The difference this time around, some analysts surmise, is that the Obama administration wants to show that it can control the country’s borders as its authority to regulate immigration is being challenged before the Supreme Court.
Mercado said the Obama administration should continue pushing for changes immigrant women and children need while his executive orders are being held up in courts.
Trapped in Detention Centers
We Belong Together is also focused on the problem of people trapped for long periods in immigration detention centers.
In September last year, We Belong Together arranged a 100-mile pilgrimage from a detention center in Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C., to see Pope Francis during his U.S. visit and to call for dignity and compassion for undocumented immigrants and their families.
It also launched "A Wish for the Holidays," a project that collected letters with messages of love and encouragement for hundreds of children who had to spend the holidays in immigration detention.
Now each of the 100 women who walked during the same pilgrimage has pledged to walk one mile on the 11th of every month in different parts of the country to continue this plea against family detention. Their first walk this year, held in January, came on the heels of raids by ICE against families who came over illegally from Central America.
We Belong Together walked in Atlanta, which Yeung, of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, said was one of the hardest hit states by the raids. She said they wanted to highlight the government’s targeting of Central American refugees.
"Women are the backbone of this movement, the large majority of activists who are defending their families and communities are women, but their contributions are often overlooked," said Mercado. "Which is why we decided to develop a campaign dedicated to lifting up the courage and leadership of immigrant women, while also reaching out to non-immigrant women, calling on all women to support this human rights campaign."
There were at least 11.3 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. And around 51 percent of the immigrant population in 2013 was female, said the Migration Policy Institute.
"Immigration reform is rarely thought of as a women’s issue, but in fact it is central to the fight for women’s equality. Millions of immigrant women who are part of the fabric of our communities, workplaces and schools are blocked from achieving their full potential because of a broken immigration system. They perform essential jobs, like taking care of our children and our aging parents, and are central to family and community well-being," said Mercado.