Faith groups call on Biden to support Central American migrants, refugees

Honduran migrants travel by foot along a highway in Chiquimula, Guatemala, in hopes of reaching the United States border. Photo by: AP Photo / Sandra Sebastian / Bruce Detorres

More than 340 local faith groups across Central America, Mexico, and the United States have organized into a network to advocate for policy change to address the root causes of migration and are calling on President Joe Biden to reverse Trump administration policies towards refugees and migrants.

Grassroots and faith leaders seek to use the Root Causes Initiative to end the poverty, corruption, and violence that are some of the main drivers causing people — like nearly 8,000 people on the move last week from Honduras — to leave their homes. This requires rethinking how foreign aid flows into Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and better directing it to community-led organizations, said Alberto Alberto Velazquez, the director of Faith Communities Organizing for Action, which works in El Salvador and Guatemala.

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“We come to help them to develop their leadership and also be heard … They are the ones who define the issues they want to work [on]: if they want to work on improving a road in their community or they need a health clinic or they need safety in the community,” Velazquez said.

“Community organization from the churches, as we do, helps the people to realize they have the power to change everything in the communities through the faith. Faith is the most important thing because it gives you trust and gives you hope,” he said.

The Root Causes Initiative is organized around a seven-part action framework focused on community leadership development, promoting creation of jobs, support for democracy and eradicating corruption, promoting human rights and public safety, protecting the environment and action against climate change, demilitarizing borders, and expanding legal pathways for safe migration.

Representatives from the network met with members of Biden’s transition team, and hope to continue engaging with Biden’s administration now that he is president, said El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz. They encouraged Biden to turn away from the Trump administration approach of “criminalizing migration,” instead reversing policies that restrict where and how people can seek asylum.

Biden has already publicly committed to immigration reform, and after his inauguration Wednesday, sent a sweeping immigration bill to Congress that seeks to address root causes of migration by creating a pilot project to spur regional economic growth in Central America. He also signed executive orders halting the construction of the border wall, changing immigration arrest priorities, and urging Congress to create a citizenship pathway for DACA recipients.

The network also wants the administration to support community-led development, including closer engagement with faith groups.

“We think we can add some value to the considerations of what will be helpful in terms of addressing root causes. And so we want to offer our experience and our expertise to those who are trying to address these issues in terms of governments. Of course, the church is always addressing them,” Seitz said. “Don’t just put money into the hands of politicians on the national level in a country that can easily be corrupted. You have to listen, as they should, to people at the grassroots level and find ways to collaborate with them.”

The Root Causes Initiative is calling on the Biden administration to treat the current exodus of Hondurans as a migration crisis, by supplying humanitarian assistance and allowing people to apply for asylum. The group of migrants and refugees left Honduras in the wake of two back-to-back hurricanes in November that left nearly 300,000 people in temporary shelters. The region has also been one of the hardest hit by COVID-19.

Many faith groups in the network also provide assistance such as food and shelter to people who are making their way to the U.S. Brenda Peralta, who works with a network of Franciscans focusing on democracy and human rights issues, said that in addition to meeting these basic needs, religious groups can provide additional comfort to people experiencing a dangerous journey.

“They feel welcome and protected by the church,” Peralta said. “It’s more meaningful that the word of a priest or a layperson can give more moral and spiritual support to a person than a government institution can.”

The group of Hondurans on the move, which was met by law enforcement when it entered Guatemala last week, has now largely broken up, with some smaller groups carrying on northward and others traveling back to Honduras.

Requiring increased law enforcement in the region was part of the Trump administration policy to stop people on the move before they were able to reach the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico — a strategy the Root Causes Initiative wants Biden to reject.

“We have to continue to put citizen pressure on our government and that they stop militarizing the borders, because what they’ve done is move the wall to the border with Guatemala,” Peralta said. “A Christian or person of faith can’t stay silent.”

Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a Senior Reporter at Devex. She has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.