Car­a­van’s trek res­onates in im­mi­grant-rich Val­ley

Merced Sun-Star (Saturday) - - Front Page - BY TIM SHEE­HAN tshee­han@fres­nobee.com

More than one-third of those in the cen­tral San Joaquin Val­ley were born out­side the U.S. but now make their homes in Fresno, Kings, Madera, Merced and Tu­lare coun­ties.

Their pres­ence here adds a layer of com­plex­ity to the highly charged po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion over a car­a­van of thou­sands of wouldbe im­mi­grants from Hon­duras and other Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries mak­ing their way through Mex­ico to­ward the U.S. As their trek con­tin­ues, they’re draw­ing the ire of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, who has crit­i­cized Mex­ico and the marchers’ home coun­tries for not do­ing more to stop them.

The pres­i­dent’s rhetoric over the car­a­van, which The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ports has grown to more than 7,000 peo­ple since it started in Hon­duras, has cap­tured the at­ten­tion of a Fresno faith-based or­ga­ni­za­tion that helps peo­ple from other coun­tries who come to the U.S. as refugees or seek­ing asy­lum from per­se­cu­tion, crime or poverty in their na­tive land.

“In this car­a­van, most of them are from Hon­duras, where they have poverty and crime be­yond what any of us in the U.S. can pos­si­bly fathom,” said Zachary Dar­rah, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Fresno In­ter­de­nom­i­na­tional Refugee Min­istries. “They’ve said, ‘We’re get­ting out of here to find a bet­ter life for our­selves.’”

Un­like refugees who flee war-torn na­tions and go through a re­set­tle­ment process ad­min­is­tered by the United Na­tions, mem­bers of the Hon­duran car­a­van would ar­rive at the U.S. border – if they make it that far – with the likely in­tent of seek­ing asy­lum, Dar­rah said.

“Asy­lum seek­ers don’t have refugee sta­tus in their coun­try of ori­gin, but they’re es­cap­ing for rea­sons of po­lit­i­cal op­pres­sion or re­li­gious op­pres­sion, etc., where they feel like their lives or the lives of their chil­dren are threat­ened,” he said. “They’re leav­ing and say­ing ‘Our lives are in dan­ger,’ whether it’s crime or op­pres­sion or what­ever is go­ing on.”

Once they reach the U.S., im­mi­grants have the right to have their asy­lum re­quests heard in U.S. courts. “What’s hap­pen­ing is

that the U.S. wants to stop these car­a­vans be­fore they get here so the process goes in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion,” Dar­rah said.

When refugees are re­set­tled to the U.S., they have le­gal res­i­dency sta­tus. Asy­lum seek­ers, by con­trast, have no par­tic­u­lar im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus so long as their re­quest is pend­ing. “While seek­ing asy­lum, they’re given pro­tec­tions and they can’t be de­ported,” Dar­rah said. But there’s no guar­an­tee they’ll be granted asy­lum; if they are de­nied, they are or­dered to re­port back to their coun­try of ori­gin.

“It’s a hard road for a lot of folks. There’s no ac­cess to so­cial ser­vices, no food stamps, no cash aid, and they can­not work legally,” Dar­rah said. “So even if they make it to the U.S., the process is chal­leng­ing.” FIRM and other com­mu­nity or­ga­ni­za­tions pro­vide sub­sis­tence help for asy­lum seek­ers and ser­vices to sup­port refugee fam­i­lies who re­set­tle to the Fresno area.

WHO’S AL­READY HERE?

The pop­u­la­tion in the five-county Val­ley re­gion is about 1.27 mil­lion peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus Bu­reau’s 2016 es­ti­mates. Of that, es­ti­mates in­di­cate that more than 436,000 – about one out of ev­ery three peo­ple – were born out­side the U.S.

A large ma­jor­ity of the Val­ley’s im­mi­grants, more than 310,000, are from Mex­ico. But there are res­i­dents here from more than 120 coun­tries and ev­ery con­ti­nent ex­cept Antarc­tica – in­clud­ing about 1,700 from Hon­duras.

Fol­low­ing Mex­ico in the num­ber of for­eign-born res­i­dents in the Val­ley is In­dia at al­most 19,000, then Laos with more than 16,000 and the Philip­pines at nearly 15,000.

Given the num­ber of im­mi­grant res­i­dents who make the Val­ley their home and the na­ture of FIRM’s mis­sion to help peo­ple in need, Dar­rah ex­pressed con­cern with the in­creas­ingly po­lar­ized and politi­cized de­bate over im­mi­gra­tion in gen­eral and the Hon­duran car­a­van in par­tic­u­lar.

“This ad­min­is­tra­tion has been over­whelm­ingly clear that they’re not sup­port­ive of this process, this car­a­van,” he said. “Some of these com­ments about peo­ple who are es­cap­ing hor­ren­dous con­di­tions to seek refuge here, it’s heart­break­ing. … You just say, ‘Wow, that’s not re­flec­tive of what we be­lieve.’ But it’s what we are re­flect­ing around the world.

“For us it’s not about a po­lit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion or a philo­soph­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion,” he added. “We’re a Chris­tian or­ga­ni­za­tion. God has called us to love foreigners and love those who are seek­ing refuge and aid. That’s what we do ev­ery day.”

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