TIME Religion

Border Crisis: Central American Churches Try to Keep Children Home

Members of a Catholic church in a small town along the Guatemala and Mexico border hold a special mass celebrating the Virgin of Shelter.
Members of a Catholic church in El Pedregal, a small town along the Guatemala and Mexico border, hold a special Mass celebrating the Virgin of Shelter for undocumented migrants passing through their town, July 4, 2014. Meridith Kohut—The New York Times/Redux

Pastors in the United States and across Central America and Mexico have a new message: do not send kids to the border.

Thousands of children continue to cross the US-Mexico border without parents, and a growing group of Hispanic Christian pastors is urging churches across Central America to keep their children from making the trip. Their goal is ambitious: zero unaccompanied minors at the border by the end of the year.

The National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference/CONELA, a Hispanic Christian network that serves more than 40,000 churches in the US and 500,000 worldwide, is spearheading the campaign along with three other US-based faith organizations, Buckner International, Convoy of Hope, and Somebody Cares International. Together they hope to mobilize their member churches and partners in Central and South America to stop the children’s migration. “I believe it is wrong for parents to send children to the US border when the primary protective firewall for these children lies in a loving Christ-filled home where faith, family and education stand prevalent,” Samuel Rodriguez, president of NHCLC/CONELA, explains. “Correspondingly, as a nation and as people of faith, we must serve, heal and minister to those that have arrived in our nation because theirs, according to Jesus, is the kingdom of heaven.”

For now, the coalition is spreading the message primarily from pulpits and via a media campaign. The group launched a new website, ForHisChildren.net, on Wednesday, and is also beginning a radio ad campaign targeting some 500 radio stations, both secular and Christian, in Central and South America. Their message is direct: “How can we best protect our children? By making Christ the center of our homes, for a family filled with faith, hope and love stands as the primary deterrent against gangs, drugs and violence,” one of the Spanish ads says. “Keep your children home. Do not send them to the US border rather declare like Joshua, ‘As for me and my house, we shall serve The Lord.’”

NHCLC/CONELA leaders took this message to a gathering of 2,000 church leaders from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, in Guadalajara, Mexico, on July 10. The risk and likelihood of physical and psychological hardship, sexual abuse, and gang involvement, Rodriguez explained to the pastors there, outweighs the perceived benefits of letting children try to enter the United States. He asked pastors to share this message from their own pulpits: “Con Fe en Cristo y la familia junta; nuestros ninos tienen un future,” which translates as, “With faith in Christ and the family together, our children have a future.”

Beyond the humanitarian crisis at the border, the US faith leaders have political incentive to advise constituents to keep kids at home—vast numbers of migrating children continue to complicate the political challenge of passing immigration reform, which the leaders support. From October through the end of June, nearly 60,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended crossing the US border, and nearly all were from Central American and Mexico. The number of children under age 12 who have been caught at the border has more than doubled this fiscal year over last year, according to data obtained by the Pew Research Center. Earlier this week, NHCLC members met with White House officials and, separately, with Senator Ted Cruz to share their recent efforts to prevent children from illegally coming to the US.

Fermín García, pastor of the 7,000-member strong church Grupo Unidad Cristiana de México (Christian Unity Group of Mexico) in Tijuana, leads the NHCLC Mexico chapter, which includes thousands of Church of God, Assemblies of God, Foursquare and Methodist churches. He is working to spread the message across Mexico pastor to pastor, and this week he met with leaders of the Foursquare denomination at their national convention in Baja California to give them copies of the media spots to share with their local churches. Biblical principles, he explains, are what ultimately change kids lives, and that’s one of the reasons it is so important for pastors to spread the keep-kids-home message. “Parents don’t want children to fall into gangs or with poverty, unfortunately it seems they are finding the same thing, only now away from their family,” Garcia says. “Changes come with hearts being changed, not with money.”

Costa Rican pastor Ricardo Castillo Medina, who serves as president of the Hispanic Federation of the Assemblies of God, was initially surprised to learn of the campaign, but he quickly joined and helped to coordinate awareness and humanitarian aid for children. His network in the most vulnerable immigration zones is large—2,300 churches in El Salvador, 1,750 in Honduras, 2,600 in Guatemala, 5,000 in Mexico. The churches in his network, he says, now have instructions to share messages to keep kids home with their communities. Families need to know, he explains via email, that the risks involved for children seeking the American dream could turn it into a nightmare. “We can avoid children suffering abuse and exposure to inhumane conditions, and besides that it is a social-political problem,” he says.

Whether the overall campaign works on the broad scale remains to be seen. The motivating forces behind the children’s migration, like violence and poverty, have far from an easy fix. “Everything is still new and you can’t yet measure the impact,” Castillo says, “but I think we’re going to raise awareness so that children are not used.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser