The debate over unaccompanied children from Central America crossing into the U.S. is in large part a problem of our own making, says Emily Gray, executive director of World Relief DuPage/Aurora and a former missionary to Central America.
In an interview in World Relief's Wheaton offices, Gray said the violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador that has driven many children and teens across the border has escalated as parts of those countries have fallen under the control of drug traffickers and street gangs.
"The market for these drugs are on our streets," Gray said. "If there wasn't the demand, that would greatly reduce the need for the supply."
Gray, who has traveled to Honduras over the past 13 years as part of an organization called Mission Lazarus, said she has witnessed a dramatic increase in violence in that country.
"Honduras has about the highest murder rate in the world now," she said.
The gangs rob, rape, extort and threaten to kill those who do not cooperate. Families who pay to send their children to safety in the United States are often lied to and assured their children will be able to stay in this country, Gray said.
Faced with the violence, extreme poverty and lack of opportunity, some undocumented churchgoers in this country wrestle with the dilemma of whether to obey the law or act to protect their families, she said.
Gray is not advocating disregard for the law. But World Relief is among scores of evangelical organizations and leaders calling for immigration reform.
"We don't have a coherent immigration policy in this country," she said. "With the lack of immigration policy across the board, we struggle, and often times, fail to follow our laws."
World Relief is a Christian organization and immigration should be a concern of churches, Gray said. Although no Bible chapter and verse can be cited to say specifically what to do about unaccompanied child immigrants, Gray said the Old Testament refers to the treatment of "strangers" or "sojourners" 92 times.
"That to me says this is an issue that God cares about," she said. "I think the church needs to stand up for the compassionate treatment of people."
World Relief is among the organizations that formed the Evangelical Immigration Table in 2012 and identified six principles the group believes should guide immigration policy.
The principles are: respect the God-given dignity of every person; protect the unity of the immediate family; respect the rule of law; guarantee secure national borders; ensure fairness to taxpayers; and establish a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and wish to become permanent residents.
Local signatories to the principles include the Rev. Rob Bugh, senior pastor of Wheaton Bible Church; Bill and Lynne Hybels, founders of Willow Creek Community Church; the Rev. Randal Ross, senior pastor of Calvary Church in Naperville; and Philip Ryken, president of Wheaton College.
Members of EIT have met with members of Congress, sent letters, spoken at seminars, organized a prayer campaign and provided Bible study materials to churches on the subject of immigration.
Despite the efforts, immigration reform remains stalemated to Congress. Given the 57,000 unaccompanied children that have crossed into the U.S. since last October, many Republicans have called for a change in a 2008 law that requires unaccompanied children from non-continguous countries to have a deportation hearing before they are sent back. Because of the large influx of children, many now are held in government shelters and then placed with sponsors for long periods.
Gray said the problem is not with the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, but the lack of resources that have been allocated to move the process along.
"I don't think it (the law) is a problem because it's providing basic protection," she said.
Matthew Soerens, field director of the Evangelical Immigration Table, agreed. Also an employee of World Relief, he co-authored the book "Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate" and has spoken nationally on the subject.
Soerens said he is concerned the U.S. House is likely to change the 2008 law to allow the deportation of children without considering the dangerous conditions to which they will return.
"We're not saying everyone should be allowed to stay, but we are saying everyone should have a fair hearing," he said. "I think we need to be very careful and err on the side of protecting children."
Gray said she believes that not all, but some of unaccompanied children from Central America would qualify for refugee status. By definition, a refugee is someone who has been displaced or fled his/her own country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution or death.
"As someone who works directly with refugees, the parallels are striking in this particular case," she said.
An official refugee resettlement agency, World Relief contracts with the U.S. government to help refugees adjust in their new country. Partnering with churches, World Relief helps refugees find jobs, learn English and make connections within the community.
Gray said the DuPage/Aurora offices -- which together form the largest World Relief regional agency in the U.S. -- resettle between 1,000 and 1,500 refugees a year. The majority of them come from Myanmar (formerly Burma), Bhutan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and African countries. World Relief commonly works with the refugees during the first year they are in this country, she said.
World Relief DuPage/Aurora also provides education and legal services to 4,000 to 4,500 immigrants a year who are not classified as refugees.
Gray said World Relief's own work might have to be curtailed if the Office of Refugee Resettlement is forced to divert funds from resettlement programs to care for the unaccompanied children coming from Central America. Supplemental funding is needed to avoid that, she said.
"We don't want to pit one group against another," she said. "All of our programs are threatened, in part, by not having enough resources to do what we need to do."
Acknowledging that the problems and answers aren't simple, Gray said issues on both sides of the border need to be addressed. President Obama has reached out to the presidents of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to help. People in this country who care about immigration reform also need to contact members of Congress to urge them to take action on the issue, she said.
"I think that is the responsibility of all of us. We are a democratically elected republic form of government," she said.
"I just hope we as a nation would be willing to develop an understanding of the problems facing us ... and bring compassion for people to our decisions and not a passion for politics."