“El Paso is a different place from other parts of the country. The flow of immigrants is our lifeblood. In 2014 there were many families coming through from Central America. INS was going to release three hundred of them. They notified non-profits and aid groups. INS knew the community could find places to put people up overnight, and that was preferred to putting three hundred people on the street.”
Melissa Lopez is Executive Director of Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Service (DMRS), the largest legal service immigration provider in West Texas and New Mexico. DMRS’s staff of seven attorneys and ten paraprofessionals provides services to those applying for immigration and a variety of community education programs.
Although a ministry of the Catholic Church in El Paso, DMRS receives funding from a variety of sources including federal grants for refugee settlement, the Texas Access to Justice Foundation, the State Attorney General’s office, United Way, and small local contributors. “We are lucky in the diversity of our funding.”
DMRS is one component of a complex web of interests and organizations dealing with immigration along our Mexican border. One major focus is unaccompanied alien children. DMRS offers ‘Know Your Rights’ presentations and individual screenings to assess potential legal status. If they determine a child may be eligible for immigration relief, they can provide legal representation. However, the tangle of immigration regulation prohibits DMRS from providing direct representation to adults. Instead, they offer legal referrals and refugee resettlement services; including financial, job, and work permit assistance.
I wondered how illegals felt safe coming to a public place for services. “We have attorneys on site who know our client’s rights. We’ve established good working relationships with the law enforcement organizations. It would be a publicity nightmare for them to pick up people here. El Paso is riddled with law enforcement agencies with different responsibilities. We all respect the role that each of us plays in the process. A few weeks ago there were reports that law enforcement officials were sitting outside our building. I called the agency and addressed the issue immediately. ‘If you come down here, it would not go well.’ That is the first time we’ve had an incident in almost thirty years.
“The biggest issue we are seeing is more unaccompanied minors. There is the misconception that everyone came in 2014, but they are still coming. The violence in some parts of Central America has only gotten worse, not better.
“Nationally, we keep coming back to the same thing. There is a strong need for immigration reform. No matter what side of the issue we are on, at a minimum we need a better system. That is becoming more and more apparent as time passes. Obama initiated executive action because there has been no change in immigration since 1996. The system has been flawed for many, many years and not been tackled in a comprehensive way in a very long time.
In the past decade, the United States has reinforced our border. The fence is nearly continuous from California east. How does the reinforced border affect DMRS’ work? “Every once in a while Border Patrol will stress enforcement of a particular area. When they do that, patterns shift. If they make it difficult for Central American people to enter through El Paso, they keep going and try to enter through Arizona. The issue is more complex than people think. If it were just economic, the motivation to get in would not be as great as it is. When they can’t in at one port, people try other areas.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“If we continue in our current pattern of ignoring immigration issues, we are going to see things get worse. My fear is, everyone you return who has a legitimate fear for their life is being returned to harm’s way. Many of them return and are killed.
“I would like to be able to have a true conversation on both sides of this issue. The reality is scary that we can’t have this conversation.
“We can have a more humane immigration system, one that is less black and white and takes into account an individual’s achievements. An outstanding person should be able to come here and participate on their merits. I worry about what will happen in the U.S. if we cannot be more compassionate toward our immigrants.”