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Child detention at border outrages Catholics in state, nation

Laywomen organize vigil service in Little Rock to show support for immigrants

Published: July 25, 2019   
Aprille Hanson
Participants sing in Morris Hall Chapel at St. John Center in Little Rock during the Catholic Day of Action for our Immigrant Brothers and Sisters. The vigil was hosted by Catholic Charities of Arkansas, Pax Christi Little Rock and St. Theresa Church in Little Rock.

While volunteering at Casa del Refugiado, a 500-bed migrant shelter in El Paso, Texas, Roxana Beza, 21, listened to a 10-year-old boy, who had crossed the border into the United States, share how “people out there told him that they were tired of them and that they just wanted to kill them.”

At 10 years old, she herself had made the harrowing journey from Guatemala into the United States, remembering only moments, like “crossing a river, having someone carry me through a river and people screaming, ‘Get out of the water it’s too fast’ or ‘You’re going to drown.’”

Her father had come to the United States at around 17 years old, after she was born, to work three jobs in order for her to have heart surgery.

“Nobody wants to leave their country. It’s what people here don’t understand. We don’t want to leave our country, we don’t want to leave our culture, we don’t want to leave our families. We do it because we have to, we really have to,” Beza pleaded, trying to hold back tears. “We’re doing it because we know that’s the only way we’re going to survive.”

The St. Theresa parishioner spoke in Morris Hall Chapel July 18 at St. John Center in Little Rock to more than 50 people as part of the prayer vigil, organized by laywomen, for the Catholic Day of Action for our Immigrant Brothers and Sisters, hosted by Catholic Charities of Arkansas, Pax Christi Little Rock and St. Theresa Church in Little Rock.

The vigil was in solidarity with the Catholic Day of Action for Detained Immigrant Children, a gathering organized by 14 Catholic advocacy groups of more than 200 priests, religious sisters and brothers, lay Catholics and immigrants who gathered on the U.S. Capitol lawn to protest the administration’s treatment of immigrant children being held in detention centers at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the faith-based group Faith in Public Life. (See sidebar)

A June 25 article in Time magazine reported that more than 50,000 people were being held in ICE centers and about 20,000 children at U.S. Customs and Border Protection detention centers. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has about 11,000 children in custody. Children have been held weeks or months, in tight cell spaces “sometimes with no access to soap, toothpaste or places to wash their hands or shower.”

“Some reports have emerged of children sleeping on concrete floors; others of adults having to stand for days due to lack of space,” Time stated.

There have also been reports of sexual abuse of minors.

The vigil in Little Rock was poignant, opening with “A Hymn for Children at the Border.” Jennifer Verkamp-Ruthven, director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services - Little Rock, offered a prayer for the protection of migrants and refugees, and a statement penned by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor for the Catholic Day of Action in D.C. was read by Father Warren Harvey. Kristy Dunn, principal at St. Theresa School in Little Rock, read the Gospel, Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the good Samaritan.

Sister Iliana Aponte, DC, who works at St. Theresa School, had invited Beza to volunteer with her in the migrant shelter July 8-14.

“Some took more than 20, 30, 40 days, one and a half months to get here,” often running and hiking in extreme temperatures, Sister Iliana said. “But they never stopped. I asked why did you decide to come here? Everyone answered, ‘For security. To build a good future for my family.’ As we know these families are fleeing from countries with higher crime rates,” including Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico.

Maria Garcia, 21, assistant faith formation director and ESL teacher for St. Theresa School, came to the United States at 5 years old in September 2002 with her mother to reunite with her father. She remembers losing her Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal during her journey.

“I remember I was crying about, ‘I can’t go. I need my beanie, I need my beanie.’ That was the only thing that would remind me of security,” Garcia said.

She received her associate’s degree in elementary education in May from Pulaski Technical College. But upon her transfer to the University of Arkansas Little Rock, she learned because she is a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient, she is not able to be licensed to teach. She will continue working with students at St. Theresa next year.

“I had done everything right, what I thought was right. I had followed the laws, I learned the language, I met people and translated and interpreted for people and tried to be a good citizen even though I’m not one,” she said. “… So when I hear people tell me, ‘Oh why didn’t you just come legally,’ I tell them, ‘That wasn’t an option for me.’”

Dr. Sherry Simon, president of Pax Christi, told the crowd they could assist organizations working at the border and call Arkansas elected officials. She encouraged everyone to “step out of your comfort zone” by attending another church, shopping in a different area and striking up a conversation with a neighbor.

“I hope that you will find a way every day to begin taking down the walls in our town and in our own hearts; the walls that keep us ignorant of one another and keep us afraid of anyone who’s different from us. We must get to know one another and learn each other’s stories,” Simon said.

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