Associate pastor Isabel Márquez (right) received a hug from a grateful migrant who found clothes after arriving at Oak Lawn United Methodist Church this month. (Tom Fox/Staff Photographer)


A warm North Texas welcome
Churches, nonprofit groups help migrants keep the faith
Staff Writer

Isabel Márquez, a Dallas pastor, hurried into a church hall full of confused immigrants. They had been deposited just minutes earlier by a federal immigration bus.

“You are no longer detained. You are free,” the jeans-clad pastor said in Spanish.

Immigrants in T-shirts, sweatpants and plastic shoes erupted in applause in a swell of emotions. They had crossed borders, jungles and rivers to get here.

The associate pastor at Oak Lawn United Methodist Church is one of many in North Texas on a mission to help growing numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers who are traveling through North Texas or settling here permanently.

There were more than 2.2 million border crossings last fiscal year, a record number of encounters, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.

And the numbers will likely climb with the possible lifting of a pandemic-related health order known as Title 42.

On Monday, responding to an effort by a group of Republican-led states, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts temporarily blocked the lifting of the order, which was set to expire on Wednesday. On Tuesday, the Biden administration asked the Supreme Court not to lift the limits before Christmas.

In November, a federal judge struck down Title 42, which has allowed U.S. border agents to expel migrants more than 2 million times without giving them a chance to apply for asylum under the justification that it was for pandemic safety.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser declared a state of disaster on Dec. 17 to deal with a deepening humanitarian crisis. El Paso city and county leaders said they expect a greater influx of migrants that could top 5,000 per day. Their plan includes working with nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, to bus people to Dallas, Houston, Denver, Phoenix and other cities with major airport hubs, allowing migrants to be transported to points across the U.S.

Dallas Responds, a collective of nonprofits and faith groups, expects that as many as six buses of migrants will arrive weekly at Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, said Almas Muscatwalla, the group’s liaison with border and governmental agencies.

The group provides meals and clean clothes, and then helps migrants get to the airport or bus station to continue their journey. The group needs more donations and volunteers, especially those who speak Spanish.

Other church groups in the city help those immigrants who have settled here. Those called to volunteer include pastors, church choir directors, social workers, lawyers, engineers and Girl Scouts.

“Everyone who comes here … very strongly feels for this community — for this group of people who deserve a better life, a better opportunity, a better approach to how they’re welcome,” said Muscatwalla.

The immigrants arriving at the Oak Lawn church have received temporary legal passage. But they must still fight to stay in the U.S. with asylum claims or with other legal arguments to prevent deportation. Even more immigrants find help at other churches and through immigrant networks as they settle in this job-rich region.

It’s unclear how many immigrants are actually settling here. One Telegram social media group for newcomers from Venezuela includes nearly 2,000 people. Two Facebook groups for Venezuelans in North Texas each exceed 8,000 people.

The immigrants’ needs are overwhelming. Backpacks and size 8 men’s shoes get claimed the fastest, said Callie Stewart, who runs the nonprofit Rio Valley Relief Project and volunteers at the Oak Lawn United Methodist Church.

Immigration lawyers are in short supply, too. Attorney Bill Holston recently delivered grim news to a pair of Venezuelans gathered at the Emanuel Lutheran Church in Old East Dallas. The Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, which Holston leads, had to turn people away because of backlogs in the immigration courts and other delays at immigration agencies.

Across North Texas, scenes of despair and gratitude like those play out weekly, offering a glimpse of what’s to come as immigration policies shift at the Southwest border.

Bringing order

At Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, the perfume of peeled oranges wafted through the church hall as about 50 migrants lined up. They ate cookies and peanut butter sandwiches and drank fruit juice at the day shelter inside the Gothic Revival-style church.

Migrants attached small stickers with handwritten numbers to their clothing — an effort to bring order to the disorder of their journey.

The numbers helped volunteers who darted in and out of hallways, identifying immigrants and bringing them to small tables to help them buy airline or bus tickets and get them on vehicles to those transit points.

Carlos Grajales, 23, stepped outside for fresh air, finding the warmth of sunlight.

The tall, lean man from Panama said he was relieved to be free. “I felt like a criminal in detention,” he said, explaining he had cuffs on his wrists, fastened to his waist and ankles. He spent nearly two months at the Bluebonnet Detention Center in Anson, a town of about 2,300 residents in Central Texas. The center is run by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

He planned to restart his life in California and apply for asylum. He fled Panama because gangs were after him. “My life stopped there,” he said.

A half hour later, Grajales picked out a new pair of Wrangler jeans. A volunteer surveyed the racks of shoes and pants and a depleted box of backpacks.

“No one gets more than five pieces,” Cassie Stewart told the volunteer.

“We have 100 [migrants] coming this week, and another 100 coming next week,” the volunteer said. “We are going to run out.”

Down the hall, Muscatwalla of Dallas Responds looked worried. She needed more help as she tried to match immigrants with flights and with rides to the airport. The immigrants or their families pick up the airfare.

Juan Castro, who came from Guatemala, was headed to the East Coast. He watched Muscatwalla’s face as she used a phone app to do her translating.

“Hang in there,” she dictated in English. “Be happy.”

Castro smiled as the translation came back. “Happy,” he said in English.

He clutched immigration papers that identified him and told him to appear in immigration court. Some immigrants have lost valuable identification documents, like passports. Those federal immigration papers would serve as identification for boarding flights.

The next day, more immigrants arrived from the Bluebonnet Detention Center, Márquez said. In recent weeks, the migrants have come from many countries, including Panama, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Turkey, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

Among them was Ada Garces, an exhausted woman from Colombia who carried a heavy Bible with elegant golden edges. The trip across Mexico was almost unspeakable, she said. “They try to kidnap and kill at the border,” she whispered. “People don’t want to talk about it.”

Then she grew silent.

‘Nobody kinder’

In Denton, Andrés Pacheco and his wife, Ana Fores, understand how U.S. immigration policy can be applied unevenly among immigrants. Who gets admitted and who gets expelled often depends on one’s country of origin.

Pacheco came to the U.S. as a college student from Venezuela, a country where a fifth of the population is estimated to have fled in recent years, according to a U.N. agency.

Fores, a native of Cuba, was brought to the U.S. as a small girl under measures that for decades favored those fleeing the communist nation.

Venezuelans and Cubans rank high among the countries that immigrants have fled in the last year. Cubans, like Venezuelans, have largely received passage into the U.S. They were unintentional beneficiaries of frosty diplomatic relations among the U.S. and those nations. Only in mid-October did the U.S. decide to use Title 42 to expel Venezuelans, after reaching an agreement with Mexico.

In 2014, an innovative legal clinic opened in Dallas on weekends led by a group of volunteers, including lawyers, teachers and tech workers. That’s when there was a high number of immigrant families and unaccompanied minors coming across the border, seeking asylum. Experts at the clinic taught immigrants how to represent themselves in court without a lawyer — or in legal language, pro se.

Pacheco and Fores were among the most dependable and sophisticated of translators who volunteered there. Now they lead the clinic.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the clinic moved to mostly video calls with fewer clients. Some sessions were held at Grace Grapevine, a nonprofit where many of the clients are undocumented, said Shondra Schaefer, chief executive of the organization.

“There is nobody kinder and more committed to this than Andrés and Ana,” Schaefer said. “It is a true personal passion for them.”

Pacheco, a former tech worker, is also the executive director of a Denton-based immigration nonprofit Opening Doors International Services. The clinic is headed by Fores and called Refugee Support Network.

“Last year, there were 2 million people crossing the border,” said Pacheco, referring to the Border Patrol detentions for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. “The legal system is completely underwater.”

There are now 2 million cases in the federal immigration courts. That’s more than triple the level in 2017, according to statistics kept by the nonprofit TRAC at Syracuse University.

Winning asylum cases often depends on how well immigrants tell their story of persecution. Fores is also a published poet, writing poems like “Elegy to a Refugee Girl,” based on her experiences as that child and working with other children applying for asylum in Texas.

What did you paint?

the teacher slowly questioned

the young child with the immense, sorrowful eyes.

And the girl looked up, giant eyes tearing,

voice quivering,

repeating softly

my mami, she whispered.

my mami was taken away.

A century-old tradition

In Old East Dallas, the Emanuel Lutheran Church has been serving immigrants since it opened its doors more than a century ago.

The church was founded by Swedish immigrants. The main sanctuary features crossbeams with a cross, a style typical of Swedish and Norwegian churches, said Rachel Ringlaben, a bilingual pastor who has lived in South America.

Through the decades, the church has welcomed immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, El Salvador and Mexico. Now, the church is helping Venezuelans who heard about their food pantry.

Leaders at Emanuel Lutheran work with a small cluster of other churches to assist the latest immigrants. Girl Scouts Troop 7725, a group of seventh graders, even collects coats and other winter clothing. Services range from legal chats to English classes.

Angel Castillo, a Venezuelan lawyer, arrived in El Paso in early October, days before the U.S. government started applying Title 42 to people from his country. By then, about 200,000 Venezuelans had already arrived at the border. Nearly all were given passage in to fight their cases in the clogged immigration system.

One recent morning, Castillo received legal advice from Holston, the lawyer.

“How long does an asylum case take?” Castillo asked.

“Four to five years,” Holston said.

But Holston said many legal nonprofits are overwhelmed due to backlogs in immigration courts.

He said his organization is receiving more clients than staff can handle.

A few days later, Castillo returned to the church for English lessons. He even recorded the lesson provided by retired engineer Mark O’Brien.

His 31st birthday had just passed. The staff surprised him with song and moist chocolate tres leches cake adorned with cookies. Castillo savored his first big bite.

O’Brien reflected on his work at the church. Nearby were canned yams, boxes of cream of chicken soup and bags of coats and sweaters from the Girl Scouts.

Migration is rising again, O’Brien said. “The Border Patrol guys, they are overwhelmed,” O’Brien said. “They are just trying to do a job.”

He views the North Texas churches as part of the solution for the border communities like El Paso, where migrants have even slept in the streets.

“Our town isn’t being strained,” O’Brien said. “The more you disperse people, the more you can help. I am not saying cities should help. But churches can.”

Twitter: @disolis