COVID-19 / immigration

Churches are crucial to protecting immigrants, Mexican leader says 

By Elket Rodríguez 

People of faith are helping provide a buffer of protection between the coronavirus and thousands of immigrants along the United States border, a government leader in north central Mexico reported.

“The best (protective) efforts have been working side-by-side with organizations of faith, specifically the evangelical churches,” Enrique Valenzuela said of the government’s efforts to contain the virus and protect the population. “The merit goes out to the churches. Some of them stopped using their temples and converted them…to help social distancing during this pandemic.”

Enrique Valenzuela

Enrique Valenzuela

As general coordinator for the State Population Council, Valenzuela directs public efforts to serve immigrants in Chihuahua, the Mexican state strung along the U.S. border across from West Texas and New Mexico.

For months, Valenzuela has worked alongside churches to feed and shelter thousands of asylum seekers clustered in northern Chihuahua. The immigrants cannot enter the United States because of the U.S. government’s Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as “Remain in Mexico.” More recently, he also has been responsible for stopping the spread of COVID-19 among the refugees.

Valenzuela collaborates closely with Red de Albergues Para Migrantes (the Migrant Shelter Network), led by Fellowship Southwest partner Rosalio Sosa, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Tierra de Oro in El Paso. They operate about 17 shelters and refugee centers, mostly in Juarez, immediately south of El Paso, but also as far away as Palomas, 100 miles west into the desert.

Together, they have labored to help refugees as they await the U.S. asylum process. Recently, the intensity of the challenge has escalated.

The coronavirus is spreading in Juarez. At midweek, the city had experienced 47 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the death toll had climbed to 16.

Meanwhile, Mexican authorities are trying to protect immigrants who continue to arrive at the El Paso-Juarez border. Valenzuela estimates more than 12,000 refugees wait in Mexico for their U.S. immigration hearings at El Paso’s tent courts. And 2,000 of them live in Ciudad Juarez.

“The most dynamic border is Juarez-El Paso,” Valenzuela insisted. “One day, it’s not like the next one. That’s why we’ve been working for a long time on coordination,” he added, praising his partners in the churches.

Three weeks ago, Chihuahua’s governor ordered all non-essential businesses to close to reduce the contagion. Last week, Juarez’s mayor issued a stay-at-home order. In that context, the Chihuahuan government is working with the shelters to contain the spread of COVID-19. None of the migrants and refugee volunteers have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We are at a point where we can’t allow the shelters to operate at their full capacity, because we don’t want overcrowding. They are operating with half of their maximum capacity,” Valenzuela explained. “We are providing the shelters with cleaning products and sanitation materials, like bleach, hand sanitizers, gloves and masks. Medical material is being provided by other organizations.”

Velenzuela, c, in PalomasThe Mexican government has some COVID-19 tests, but they are being distributed according to the necessity, Valenzuela said. Government officials maintain contact with the shelters daily, in case immigrants are suspected of being infected..

The State Population Council is constructing a shelter to receive possible victims who ask for help. Even though the construction is not completed, the shelter began functioning last week.

Immigrant flow has reduced considerably in the past two months, Valenzuela said. Economic activity has stalled. Chihuahua residents are losing their jobs. The government fears the health system will collapse. Expectations for the future are somber.

“The uncertainty is so particular that we don’t know the impact,” he reported. “If it was difficult before, now it will get worse. It is very difficult to anticipate what will happen, but we are preparing to face this contingency.

“The biggest problem is estimated to be from the north. United States citizens and legal permanent residents are allowed to come to Mexico, but we aren’t allowed to cross (into the United States). The U.S. has more coronavirus cases than we have.”

In the midst of all of this evolving situation, Valenzuela is focused on one thing. “Nobody goes without food or medical attention,” he stressed. “My commitment is to treat the immigrants the same way we would like to be treated in their countries. We treat them as one of ours.”

Through the pandemic, Fellowship Southwest continues to support the shelter network Valenzuela oversees. FSW rents a Juarez compound that is home to refugees from Cuba. We support a distribution center through which all the food and supplies to the shelters flow and have bought freezers for the center. We provide primary operation support for the shelter in Palomas. And we provide additional funds every month to buy food and supplies for the immigrants. If you would like to support FSW’s Immigrant Relief Network, click here.

Elket Rodríguez, an attorney and minister, is CBF’s immigrant and refugee specialist. He lives on the U.S.-Mexico border, in Harlingen, Texas, and works with CBF Advocacy, CBF Global Missions and Fellowship Southwest.

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