Every day we read new headlines about the lack of human dignity for migrants crossing our southern border to begin new lives in the United States, but what can we do about it? That was the topic of our recent community meeting, “Immigration Crisis: Lives at Risk at Our Southern Border.”

Father Peter Gyves, SJ MD, Founder and President of A Faith That Does Justice, introduced the topic with the reflection that “undocumented people live in the shadows and in fear,” setting the stage for a fruitful discussion that began with a social work student who emigrated to Ecuador as a child and spoke about her experience volunteering in El Paso. She said the most important work she did was helping to restore “dignity and humanity” to the migrants with whom she worked and remarked on the fears of those who crossed the border with children who were no longer in their custody.

Westy Egmont, Professor Emeritus of Macro Practice at Boston College School of Social Work, started the conversation by describing 13 ways we can help:

  1. Donate money. Organizations like the Immigrant Justice Coalition, Casa Del Migrante, Lawyers for Civil Rights, A Faith That Does Justice, and ActBlue are great options.
  2. Speak out. Talk to your relatives and pray for those who don’t have food and are longing to share in the American dream.
  3. Talk to your public officials. Go to town halls and district meetings to ask them what they are going to do about this.
  4. Donate goods. Families at the border have nothing in their backpacks – they need diapers and toys for their children.
  5. Work for a pro-immigrant candidate. Find candidates not on the basis of their party, but work for those that promise to do something about this crisis.
  6. Foster a child who came across the border independently. These children need a loving home to protect them and help them through the process.
  7. Organize your parish. You are stronger together.
  8. Learn who from your town is being deported. Work together to support them and help them.
  9. Visit those who are detained. They are tired and scared. Give them humanity.
  10. Attend a conference at the border. Meet others taking action and make a difference.
  11. Organize people to go across the border. People do this for a living and can help you.
  12. Transport people to the Burlington ICE office for their meetings. Migrants have trouble getting to the office in the suburbs, adding another layer of challenges in their already difficult situation.
  13. Provide bail. People are coming across the border with nothing but the clothes on their backs and are arrested just for being here.

Egmont then shared a story of a woman who walks her dog along the border in the morning and brings people home that she sees crossing to feed them breakfast, despite the illegality of her action. “It’s against the law to be a good Samaritan,” he said. “God bless the good Samaritans.”

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, the Executive Director of Lawyers for Civil Rights, reminded us that these challenges are not only happening at our southern border, sharing anecdotes about the “ground swell of hate for just talking about civil rights for immigrants” that their Boston office has experienced. Espinoza-Madrigal shared a story of 2 youths from an East Boston high school who were removed by school resource officers and ultimately deported. He also shared stories of mothers coming to his office after 3 months in holding cells, unaware of the location of their children, and the stories of women in court seeking restraining orders against their abusers being picked up by ICE in the courthouse in Boston. He called on the audience to “speak up, use your power. Activate yourself when you see things that aren’t right.” He reminded us that we all need to be in the business of changing hearts and minds.

Finally, we heard from Father Pat Murphy, Director of the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, Mexico, a house for 150 migrants and refugees. He shared the story of a man named Jose living at the Casa del Migrante. He migrated from Guatemala, where he had no intention of leaving, but the gangs started coming around asking for $50 per week – more than he made. When he said he couldn’t pay, they insinuated a deal could be made with his 16-year-old daughter. He joined the caravan to protect his family. Father Pat explained that most people wo migrate will likely not have a legal right to asylum, but he reminded us that they have a right to human dignity. He told us we can “build bridges, not walls” and not just on the border but also places like Boston. “So much damage has been done to people’s hearts,” he said. “And as people of faith, we have to open their hearts. We have look at people not as a number but as a human being.”

Following the discussion, the audience asked thoughtful and insightful questions. Espinoza-Madrigal explained that there are dozens of different immigration programs. Asylum is most known because people must flee from persecution, but there other programs, such as “the dreamers” – people who arrived in the US as children and grew up here who are protected by DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). Tragically, DACA is being dismantled. Temporary Protected Status protects people who have immigrated from countries that have been devastated by manmade or natural disasters, such as the hurricane in Haiti or the civil war in Sudan. People can’t be safely returned so they remain here. Many have been here so long that they have raised children here and are an important part of our economy. For example, Haitians are overrepresented in home health aid industry.

A discussion emerged about protecting undocumented immigrants. The panelists recommended that people learn their rights, that we do a better job providing civil education about what democracy means, and that we find commonality and create dialogue across differences. There was a common thread amongst the panelists that too much of the animosity towards migrants is not related to law or policy, but to racism and hatred.

Father Pat ended the discussion on a positive note, saying of the migrants living at Casa del Migrante: “There is a lot of hope. People realize they have a chance at a new life.”