Will the White House lift the ban on Christians volunteering at overwhelmed detention camps packed with illegal immigrant children on America’s southern border?
That’s the question Texans Chris Liebrum of the Baptist General Convention and Arne Nelson of Catholic Charities raised with President Obama in a brief meeting in Dallas following reports that federal officials have turned away Christian groups bringing toys, blankets and food to the gates of the camps.
“Pastors and churches,” reports Todd Starnes for Fox News, “have been banned from helping the thousands of illegal immigrant children housed in border detention facilities run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, clergy in Texas and Arizona tell me.”
Congressman Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, planned to tour a detention center in Nogales but was turned away because his entourage included five clergy members, he told Robert Gehl for DownTrend. The facility houses more than 1,000 children from Central America.
“Grijalva planned to tour the facility with his daughter, who is the Tucson school district president, a rep from another congressman’s staff and the religious leaders,” reported Gehl. “When they tried to enter, a ‘person in charge,’ according to Grijalva, told them word came directly from Washington that the clergy could not enter.”
A public affairs officer for the Border Patrol confirmed to Starnes that ministers and church groups have been banned. “Due to the unique operational and security challenges of the Nogales Placement Center, religious services provided by outside faith leaders are not possible at this time,” the Border Patrol told Starnes. Coffin and a group of pastors from the Tucson area were hoping to provide spiritual encouragement and friendship to the hundreds of illegal immigrant children housed in a detention center in Nogales.
In Texas, Liebram told Melissa Barnhart for the Christian Post the private meeting with Obama “was productive” in honing in on solutions that will meet the state's most immediate needs in dealing with the border crisis.
However, no easing of the ban on churches or clergy helping out was announced.
"The purpose of the meeting was to find solutions in dealing with the border crisis in Texas," said Liebrum. "Our message and focus is on the children. We need to care for the children who are here now — that was my message to the president. We have a big immigration problem that needs to be solved; and it's the lack of a good immigration policy as to why this crisis, this disaster, has come about."
Following Wednesday's meeting, Obama held a short news conference and suggested that there wouldn't have been a border crisis had Congress passed immigration reform last year.
"Why aren't we passing comprehensive immigration reform which would put an additional 20,000 Border Patrol agents [on the border] and give us a lot of additional authorities to deal with some of these problems?" Obama asked. "That should've been done a year ago; it should've been done two years ago. It's gotten caught up in politics."
Liebram said the meeting with Obama included Texas Governor Rick Perry, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, Congressman Eddie Bernice Johnson (R-Texas), Grand Prairie Mayor Ron Jensen, Dallas County Commissioner Elba Garcia, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, Texas Health and Human Services Director Kyle Janek, Texas Public Safety Director Steven McCraw and the director of Baptist Child and Family services who has contracted with the shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio.
Are federal officials really banning churches from helping out with the flood of young immigrants crowding America’s southern border?
“Border Patrol told us pastors and churches are not allowed to visit,” Kyle Coffin told Starnes. Coffin is pastor of CrossRoads Church in Tucson, Arizona. “It’s pretty heartbreaking.”
Coffin asked if his church could provide the children with toys, blankets and food. But the federal government’s response was the same – no.
“It’s pretty ugly down there,” Coffin told Fox News. “They’re packed in there like sardines.”
Coffin said he was having lunch with four other ministers when they started tossing out ideas – ways their churches might be able to be an encouragement to the children being held. One of the other ministers placed a telephone call to Border Patrol and was turned away. So Coffin decided to make a telephone call, too – and what he was told was startling, says Starnes.
“They flat-out said no,” Coffin said.
What about just a pastoral visit to encourage the children? “They said ‘no,’” he said.
What about allowing pastors to pray with the children? “There was an immediate ‘no,’” he replied.
“That frustrates me to no end, to be honest with you,” Coffin told Starnes. “It drives me absolutely nuts that our government would turn us away.” He said churches are not even allowed bring soccer balls or play ping pong with the immigrant children. “We just wanted to go down there and have a presence because we care about people. That’s all we wanted to do. For the church to be available sends a message that the church cares.”
Churches in San Antonio, Texas, had a similar experience. Starnes says his source said a group of counselors urged officials to consider bringing in a priest or minister. “We were turned down,” Starnes’ source said.
“We had suggested they bring in a priest on Sunday,” the counselor said. “Instead, they had a girl playing a cassette tape of Christian songs. They denied those kids the opportunity to be with a minister.”
Coffin believes the government has overstepped its constitutional authority – and is trying to do the work of the church. “Back in the day, if you were in trouble and poor, the first thing you thought of was going to the church,” he said. “Whether it was for food, clothing, shelter or helping pay bills – the church was the front line. Now, it’s the government who is the front line.”
Pastor Coffin told Starnes he believes it’s time for the church to take back what the government took away.
“We’re not anti-government at all,” he said. “We think the government is equipped to do what they were constitutionally created to do – and not do the church’s job.”
Publication date: July 10, 2014