El Refugio is a ministry of hospitality and visitation serving immigrants detained at Stewart Detention Center, their family, and friends. Photo provided. 

Contributed by Jim and Ruth Mellinger
Thursday, October 11, 2018

​We are hearing the question "What can I do?" a lot these days as immigration rules change often and make life very difficult for those directly affected by the changing landscape.

Once again, here in LaGrange, Georgia, we are incarnated into the lives of people directly affected, through the households on our street as well as through our work with El Refugio (the shelter or place of refuge) that assists immigrant detainees.

We've heard a lot of shouting and anger from both sides of "the issue," but when you know the people, it is no longer just "an issue." It is the mother who wants to learn English, but has no time or energy to do so after working 50 hours a week and caring for her family of six on a minimum-wage income. It is the man who gets pulled over for a broken tail light and because his skin is brown. His name gets run through the system and he now faces deportation. (Who of us reading this fears that one minor infraction could mark the end of our family life?) It is the child who has a hard time concentrating in school due to the pressures and uncertainty she feels at home, and the snide remarks made about her behind her back and to her face.

This past summer, we had the joy of helping with a day camp we had for 26 children on our street who are first-generation immigrants. The children were so well behaved and such a delight to be with. For pictures and more about that, type "Casa Alterna" in the search bar of Facebook.

Then, Jim and I had the opportunity to serve at El Refugio hospitality house in Lumpkin, Georgia, and go to Stewart Detention Center with volunteers who actually came down from Greensboro, North Carolina, where we used to live. They were all part of Faith Action International House and have clients who are detained in Stewart ... more than eight hours from their homes, which is quite common.

While at El Refugio, I got the analogy that may help us all think about what we can do. Saturday around 5 p.m., the Greensboro group arrived. The 10 of them had just gotten settled into the 900-square-foot, one-bathroom house – along with three wives of detainees and a 3-year-old who were spending the night. At 5:30, I heard a loud crash outside the back window and saw a large 30-foot tree trunk had fallen over and landed on the jungle gym. Our first thoughts were ones of thanks that no one was outside, and that it even missed three of our cars by a mere five feet.

That night I found it hard to sleep on the futon in the living room and began to think about that tree trunk. To be honest, before the trunk fell, I wasn't even aware of it, nor did it have anything to do with my life. I didn't know or care that it was hollow and dead inside and could snap and be uprooted even on a clear, calm day. And that's how I began to find hope, even in the midst of all the depressing circumstances I was surrounded by. If that mighty tree trunk could fall so easily, perhaps the immigration system can change more quickly than I think possible. Perhaps all we need to do is work on softening the roots that are still holding up the dead wood.

The first root needing yanked free is how we talk about immigrants. We need to name them without bias or racism. No labels like "illegal aliens, infestation, or animals." Perhaps not even "undocumented." For the most part, they are non-documentable, meaning that there is no legal path for them to come to the United States, no line to get in, no forms or skills that would allow them entry.

This root is the easiest to pull out. Simply get to know someone who has one of these labels. Smile kindly at them in the store, volunteer with an organization that helps them, or better yet, invite them to dinner and become a friend.

While visiting our contact in Stewart Detention Center, we were in the same room with four other families there to visit their husbands, brothers, or sons. It's a hard place to visit since you are separated by a glass and can communicate only via the phone on either side. No physical touch whatsoever. The one mother asked me how we knew the man we were visiting. I explained that we didn't. We were there because he was on a list of men who hadn't had any visitors. She replied, "Thank you SO much for being kind to us."

The second root we hear all the time. "But they broke the law and shouldn't have come here in the first place, putting their children at risk." However, how are we to judge why someone seeks asylum and a better life? I don't know what I would do if my business was constantly threatened by a gang, or if my child was forced to join them or be killed, or if I had no means to feed my family, or if my spouse was constantly abusing me and threatening to kill me and my children. I think most of us would use whatever means possible to save the lives of ourselves and our loved ones. We can't stand by and let them suffer even more hardship and trauma than what they've already suffered to get here.

The third needing uprooted is the spiel that they are taking our jobs. I wish everyone could see the jobs most of these immigrants are doing ... cutting up chickens in 40-degree-temperature rooms so we can enjoy boneless chicken breasts at low prices, stapling heavy material around mattress frames so we can sleep soundly, stooping over plants all day so we can enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables, sweating in the hot summer sun so we can stroll on a manicured lawn, building houses with cheap labor so our mortgage payments are less than their housing rent, cooking food so we can savor exotic flavors. And the list goes on and on.

One man we visited at Stewart was there due to a work raid in New York state. He has now been in detention for nine months and has had no visitors during that time, has no idea when his case will come up, and has no access to a lawyer because the government doesn't need to give detainees any. Even if he could find a lawyer who would come to such a remote location, it would cost him $8,000 just to have his case taken on. And bail is often $15,000, if he could get it. So he sits and waits. His wife has given birth to their fourth daughter while he is at Stewart. He hasn't held her or seen any of them as it's too expensive and far for them to travel. Yet, the crazy thing is that he was picked up for working illegally and "taking a U.S. citizen's job," but in detention he is working/slaving for $1.00 a day in the kitchen so the for-profit prison doesn't have to hire and pay any of the local Lumpkin residents to do the cooking and cleaning.

The fourth root is that our borders are flooded with violent gangsters, MS-13 the primary and worst. But, once again, for those who want the facts, many are not even Latinos and have not entered through the southern border. Some are detained due to visas that expired by a few days, students who overstayed their visas, Africans who fled violence in their own countries and sought asylum here but got put in detention immediately due to the nature of their homeland, and the list continues. Gangsters are a minuscule part of the immigrant population.

The fifth root is the one that says they'll take over with their chain migration. Once again, wrong use of words. It's called "family reunification" and is what Melania Trump most likely used to get her parents to the United States. It doesn't extend to third cousins and great aunts. It is for immediate family and parents only. All faiths teach us that families belong together.

Protests are needed to increase visibility. Calls to representatives may help to challenge policies. But more important is the daily loosening of the soil each of us can do so these roots stop propping up the dead trunk. And let's pray that when it falls, no one gets hurt.

This post has been republished from Jim and Ruth's blog. To learn more about their SOOP service, check out JnR Journey Notes.






​Jim and Ruth Mellinger are dedicated SOOP volunteers and have dedicated this past year to service all over the United States. 



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