United Methodists Stand With Immigrants in Texas
Story and photos by Nicole Bell*
“When the combined force of a powerful nation and powerful commercial interests trample on human rights of the people without power, people of faith must stand up and speak out,” says Harriett Olson, Deputy General Secretary of the Women’s Division.
|Daisy Machado from Union Theological Seminary in New York and Cindy Johnson, intern with the Women's Division, pray.|
Standing up and speaking out is exactly what a group of faith-based communities did on Jan. 9, 2010, in Raymondville, Texas. United Methodists and Pax Christi gathered with many other organizations and church communities to hold a prayer vigil and public witness at Willacy County Detention Center calling for the closure of for-profit detention centers like Willacy, which have a history of denying basic civil and human rights to immigrants.
Commonly known as “Tent City,” the detention center is a privately owned entity that holds roughly 3,000 immigrants. It is the largest in the nation, operated by a Utah-based management and training corporation under contract for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE).
Immigrants United Without Borders, Border Ambassadors, Grassroots Leadership, WILCO Family Justice Alliance, Fast For Our Families and others took part in the vigil. Central District Superintendent the Rev. Francisco Campos also attended.
The center has had a series of allegations of horrendous conditions and abuse, including alleged sexual assaults on female detainees by guards, reports of detainees being fed rotten and inadequate food, and poor access to medical and mental health care.
Bishop Jim Dorff, who presides over the San Antonio area of the United Methodist Church, explained in a statement read by 16-year-old United Methodist, Derek Smith, why it is important for United Methodists to be concerned about immigration issues. “Immigration is an issue of this time and of this place and as United Methodists, we are called in this time and this place to address this issue of immigration with a voice of compassion of justice,” he said.
In addition to reform within detention centers, the groups say reforms need to be made in all aspects of immigration. This should include a pathway to citizenship for migrants in the United States, protection of workers’ rights regardless of status, the unification of families, and human border policies that respect human rights.
This public witness was a powerful testimony to United Methodist Women’s commitment to welcoming the migrant and upholding the human rights of immigrants in detention. The day began with testimony from those affected by or concerned about human rights of immigrants in detention. Sonia Cruz, president of the United Methodist Women local unit at Westlawn United Methodist Church, read a litany from United Methodist Women’s 2010 Program Book.
The group marched to the gates of Tent City, led by musician, Pablo Pelegrina, a migrant songwriter from Arizona who witnessed the atrocities at the border firsthand and wrote his own music in response.
The Rev. Daisy Machado, professor of church history at Union Theological Seminary, and others gave strong statements about the need to change current detention and deportation policies and the need for just immigration reform in the United States. When asked in an interview why she was in attendance, Ms. Machado proclaimed, “We are here to claim not only their rights as human beings but to call our nation to understand that this is an issue not just about breaking the law, about criminalizing, but it’s an issue about human rights, it’s an issue about human dignity.” Ms. Machado announced, “We are here to say to our government, yes we can and yes we must.”
Event organizer, deaconess, and United Methodist Women intern Cindy Johnson lead the call for basic human rights for all immigrants. Standing with Ms. Johnson was her father and her sister, the Rev. Lorenza Smith, who was a co-organizer of the event. “We call for an end to detentions and deportations until just immigration reform is in place,” says Ms. Johnson, who- earlier that week-gave a tour of the wall being built miles outside the Mexican border to student groups from Union Theological Seminary in New York and Methodist Theological School in Ohio. The students, lead by professors Timothy Van Meter from Methodist Theological School and Ms. Machado from Union Theological Seminary, had the opportunity to see and touch the giant wall created by Elbit Systems.
As United Methodists lead the way to immigration advocacy and reform, Women’s Division president Inelda Gonzalez offered in a statement hope for the future. Read by Kathy Currier, United Methodist Pastor for the West Ohio Conference and student at Methodist Theological Seminary, Gonzalez stated, “Today we are their voice and support for what the Lord laid out for each one of us. May we welcome our brothers and sisters in Christ to this great land.”
*Nicole Bell is the Kyung Za Yim Intern for Immigrant Rights for Resource Development and Communications.