United Church of Christ immigration reform advocates in the Southwest conference are trying to help nine young people stay in this country after they were picked up during a protest at the border. The Dream 9, a group of undocumented young adults brought to the United States as children, had been detained at an Arizona immigration deletion center, held in federal custody for more than a week after staging an unconventional, and rather risky demonstration. Dressed in graduation caps and gowns, the group crossed the border from the United States into Mexico and then attempted to reenter the country at the Nogales, Ariz., port of entry. Knowing they would be arrested and possibly deported, the group aimed to shine a light on the harshness of the country's immigration system and the more than 1.5 million people who have been deported under the Obama Administration.
The five women and four men have returned home, released on parole August 8, to await the opportunity to argue their case for asylum before an immigration judge. Supporters of the group see this as an important first step in their bid to remain in the only country they have ever known. But some UCC immigration reform advocates say this could be a way to move their story out of the headlines before the group has the chance to make too much commotion.
"We are told that normally the asylum cases can take 30 to 60 days before an initial hearing is even scheduled, and the Dream 9 had been in custody for a little over a week," said the Rev. Randy Meyer, pastor of the Good Shepherd UCC in Sahuarita, Ariz., and member of the UCC's Collaborative on Immigration. "You know there is a lot of pressure to get these youth out of the spotlight because they shine a glaring and unfavorable light on the injustices of an immigration system that has spun completely out of control."
During their time in federal custody, immigration asylum officers determined that all nine youth had reasonable fear of persecution or torture in their birth country and, therefore, could not be immediately deported. News reports say it could take years to litigate their cases for asylum. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, there is an estimated 45-day wait for an initial asylum hearing and a six-month time frame to complete the process from start to finish. But Meyer said it's not unheard of for detainees who have already fled torture, persecution, and even the murder of their loved ones in their countries of origin to wait years in detention before being granted asylum and finally released. UCC immigration advocates are standing in solidarity with the Dream 9, making phone calls, writing letters and holding vigils, and Meyer said their case highlights many of the immigration system's core problems.
"We have made calls of support and written to our elected official for the Dream 9 because they have raised to the surface the injustices of our immigration system that separates and destroys families," he said. "They have demonstrated that we need not only the kids in our community, but we need their moms and dads, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers – the whole family together – for there to be wholeness and health.
"We support them because the Dream 9 have gotten behind the scenes of the immigrant detention system and exposed how destructive and unjust it really is – it's a place where rights are regularly denied, where communication is cut off, and dignity is squandered," Meyer continued. "The sad thing is that the people of the United States don't even know about the atrocities that are happening in their institutions as their hotel maids, gardeners and cooks disappear for weeks and months before they are bused back to a country where they have no connection and, in most cases, have never lived."
The UCC has a long history of affirming the dignity of immigrants and working for comprehensive U.S. immigration policy. Since 1995, General Synod – the main deliberative body of the UCC – has repeatedly called for a fair and human approach to U.S. immigration policy that protects families and respects the humanity of our immigrant brothers and sisters.