By Stan Friedman
TAPACHULA, MEXICO (January 1, 2015) — Editors note: Since the beginning of the year, some 70,000 unaccompanied minors, most of them from Honduras and El Salvador, fled to the United States to escape extreme violence and poverty in their native countries. In June alone, 10,622 children were apprehended along the Rio Grande River.
Since then, the number of children has slowed to a relative trickle of several hundred a month, and the media coverage has dwindled to almost nothing. But many of those who already arrived still are awaiting hearings to determine whether they will be deported, and the conditions that led to the exodus remain.
In recent weeks, Covenant News Service spoke with three women whose attention has remain fixed. Itzel Yared Morales Gutierrez is working with children detained by authorities on the border of Honduras and Mexico; Margarita Monsalve, pastor of Navegando con Cristo church in Torrance, California, continues to work with children and families; and Shelley Kurth is preparing to help children who have been transferred by the Border Patrol to the Grand Rapids area in Michigan.
Itzel Yared Morales Gutierrez works in this Mexican city close to that country’s border with Guatemala where the journey of unaccompanied minors often ends. Either they are apprehended by the Mexican authorities, or they are enslaved by gangs and traffickers.
“It is most amazing to work with them but it is a population that requires many things and comprehensive attention,” she writes in one of several translated emails. It also can be emotionally draining and discouraging work, yet it is something to which Gutierrez feels she has been called.
Gutierrez attends Iglesia Evangélica Misionera del Pacto in her hometown of Zaachila, Oaxaca, when living there. (She also is the niece of former Covenant missionaries Chuck and Sarai Perez, who ministered in Oaxaca, Mexico, and now live in California).
She earned a degree in international relations at a university in Oaxaca and then worked with Save the Children before leaving the NGO to work with a Mexican government organization that seeks to assist people seeking refugee status, those already declared refugees, or people the Mexican government believes need extra protections.
There is no Covenant congregation in the area where she is working so she attends a Baptist congregation and helping them launch a ministry to unaccompanied minors. So far, about 10 people are part of the ministry, and Covenant churches elsewhere in Mexico are seeking ways to help.
The government has greatly stepped up its border enforcement at the urging of the United States, which wanted to stem the tide of unaccompanied children reaching its borders. Gutierrez believes it is hypocritical of the Mexican government to expect the United States to take in more migrants while not doing so itself.
She has worked with people from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Nicaraguans, and even Arabs and Africans, she says. “They are motivated to leave by violence in their countries or because they are fleeing from being recruited by gangs, or they have been in gangs and want to get out,” Gutierrez writes in one of several translated emails. “They seek a better life or join their families who already are in the United States.”
Many of the children, some as young as 10 years old already are addicted to drugs, are without family, and have been forced into prostitution. “It has made me feel miserable when I complain about the life I had as a child.”
The children embark on a dangerous journey as they seek to make it to their own sort of Promised Land. But they often are preyed upon and forced into labor and prostitution.
Gutierrez says an encounter friends had when they tried to help a child is typical. The friends were leaving a dance when they saw a boy working as a vendor on a street corner. The friends noticed he had a nosebleed and stopped to ask him if they could take him to the hospital or Red Cross. The boy said he didn’t want the help.
“Then another boy who also was a street vendor got there and hit the boy in the nose and he yelled that the boy was his as if he were his property,” Gutierrez says. She says that getting kids to leave the street for safety can be difficult because they are so afraid or have been brainwashed by those who have enslaved them.
Gutierrez says she is grateful for the emotional support given to her by Covenant missionaries Nils and Erika Clauson, who serve in Oaxaca. The successes she has had as well as her sense of call inspire her to keep at the work, she adds.
The denomination’s Kids Helping Kids project this year focuses on refugees.