By Megan Brandsrud, associate editor, ELCA Mission Advancement
After a December visit to the Chicago Immigration Court of the Executive Office for Immigration Review, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), reaffirmed the ELCA’s commitment to work as “church together” to bear witness and respond to the significant number of children and families fleeing Central America and Mexico.
While the number of children and families crossing the U.S. southern border is down from the surge in 2014, the numbers have been rising again and reflect a 106 percent increase from this same period last year.
Eaton attended court to observe the ELCA’s Guardian Angels program, a court-watch program that was started by the ELCA Southwest California Synod and has been replicated and implemented at the ELCA churchwide office in Chicago. As part of the program, English-speaking and Spanish-speaking volunteers attend immigration hearings to document proceedings and to meet with families outside of the courtroom to pray together, answer questions and provide information on legal assistance.
“In the short time we were in the courtroom, the judge heard 20 cases,” Eaton said. “In her conversation with us during a break she told us that the myth of Central American countries exporting gang members and drug dealers needs to be dispelled. The judge hears hundreds of cases each week, and in her experience, she has not seen violent criminals. Rather it is children and families who are trying to find a new life free of the chaos and fear in their countries of origin.”
Judge Jennie Giambastiani, who presided over the hearings Eaton attended, said “the need is great” for legal representation for the number of people arriving in the United States.
“The Guardian Angels program brings some measure of hope and comfort to children and families as they go through our legal system,” said Eaton. “Through prayer and presence in the waiting area and the courtroom, these people know that God is with them – Emmanuel.”