Faith leaders to U.S. authorities: Migrants have international right to U.S. asylum

"Our sacred texts tell us to tear down walls, to welcome the immigrant and to treat everyone as if they are God's children,” said a religious leader.
Faith leaders gather in support of the migrant caravan in front of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials, at the border fence between the United States and Mexico on Dec. 10, 2018.Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters
By Nicole Acevedo

Over 200 religious leaders and advocates gathered at the U.S.-Mexico border on Human Rights Day to send a message to the Trump administration, arguing that migrants stalled in Mexico who have not been allowed to enter the U.S. have a right under international law to seek asylum.

“As a Quaker who believes in our shared humanity … We’re calling on the U.S. to respect the rights of migrants,” said Joyce Ajlouny, general secretary of American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a Quaker organization that has worked with migrants and refugees.

AFSC brought faith leaders from different religious denominations together for a press conference at the Border Field State Park in San Diego on Monday to call on the U.S. to respect people’s human right to migrate, end the militarization of border communities and end the detention and deportation of immigrants.

“We keep being told that we need to make a choice between violence and decency. That we have to make a choice between upholding dignity or upholding the power structures that continue to oppress people here and all around the world while touting this title of ‘the freest nation in the world,’” said Imam Omar Suleiman at the press conference.

As the press conference was underway, U.S. officials said that the number of active military troops at the border would go down from 5,400 to about 3,000.

Once the conference ended, the hundreds of people gathered at the park started a procession towards the San Diego-Tijuana border in solidarity with the thousands of migrants who are living in crowded tent cities and shelters after having traveled more than 2,000 miles towards the U.S.-Mexico border in a caravan that started in Central America.

"We can do better. Our sacred texts tell us to tear down walls, to welcome the immigrant and to treat everyone as if they are God's children,” said Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis as she walked in the procession, holding a sign that read “El Amor No Conoce Fronteras,” Spanish for love knows no borders.

At the procession to the San Diego-Tijuana border, religious demonstrators were stopped by border patrol agents. According to AFSC, authorities at the border arrested 30 faith leaders.

As the demonstrations continued, demonstrators kneeled in front of border agents to bless the migrants in the caravan while singing a choir that went “we will walk with you, and sing your spirit home.”

In Tijuana, many migrants have waited numerous weeks for a chance to file an asylum claim at a U.S. port of entry.

“People who express a fear of returning to their countries have a right to examine if that fear is credible under domestic and international law,” said Nara Milanich, professor of modern Latin American history at Barnard College, to NBC News. She is an expert witness and interpreter in political asylum cases through the CARA Pro Bono Project, which provides access to legal counsel for refugees.

Prof. Milanich also explained that migrants don’t have to enter the U.S. through an authorized port of entry in in order to seek asylum, though there have been many reports of authorities turning away migrants at the border. As Prof. Milanich explains, this practice “violates the laws that protect them.”

“Turning people away at a port of entry, often times brings illegality,” said Milanich as she explained this practice essentially pushes migrants into the edge of desperation, sometimes opting to not cross through an authorized port of entry, which is one of the safest ways to get to the U.S.

According to data released by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on Monday, more people at the border are expressing an intent to apply for asylum or a fear of persecution.

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CBP authorities on the Southwest border reported “38,269 claims at ports of entry and another 54,690 claims between the ports, for a total 92,959” in fiscal year 2018 — showing a 67 percent increase compared to fiscal year 2017.

CBP commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan said in a press release that the increase in initial fear claims “is straining border security, immigration enforcement and courts, and other federal resources” and he sees it as one of the “vulnerabilities in our immigration system” that Congress needs to address.

The CBP does not mention the epidemic levels of violence countries in Central America that advocates say is one of the main reasons why so many people are fleeing Central America. AFSC says it will continue its efforts to assure that migrants’ rights are not being violated.

AFSC organizers say there will be more actions through Dec. 18.

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Nicole Acevedo

Nicole Acevedo is a staff reporter at NBC News Digital where she reports, writes and produces content for NBC Latino and NBCNews.com.