Reflection from the Borderlands

Recently, Pastor Diana Linden-Johnson, Peace Lutheran Church El Paso, made a visit to an emergency youth shelter in Tornillo, Texas. This shelter is operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, which is a separate operation from the detention centers operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Pastor Diana shares about her experience and we offer our gratitude for her witness.

As a pastor in El Paso, Texas, I live and serve in close proximity to the realities of immigration in our country. This past summer, with news reports of families being separated at the border, an emergency youth shelter outside the small town of Tornillo, Texas gained a great deal of attention. Located about a half hour east of El Paso, there have been many protests and news articles about the site over the past few months.

While it was still forefront in the news, a fellow-member of the Interfaith Alliance of El Paso requested permission for religious leaders from the Alliance to visit the shelter, with the idea of engaging in conversation and providing spiritual care for the young people staying there. Four months later, with the proper background checks complete, we were given a time and date for our visit – October 17, 2018 at 10:30 a.m.

Not knowing what to expect, I prayed a great deal as I prepared for the visit. Through colleagues in the Border Conference who have been hosting migrants and asylum-seekers in their churches, as well as conversations with asylum-seekers themselves, I have heard a great deal about the conditions in detention centers operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), such as extremely cold rooms, inadequate blankets, limited food, and lack of access to bathrooms and showers. Because of this, I was quite apprehensive about what we might encounter at the shelter in Tornillo. 

My apprehension was not curtailed when, driving up to the gate, I saw guards and a fence topped with barbed wire. After parking, I was escorted, along with six other Christian and Jewish faith leaders, into a command center where lots of staff in uniforms were working in front of computers. Huge smart boards surrounded the room and contained information about everything from weather to video feeds to the number of youth staying there and their countries of origin.

Conversation with Kevin, the commander of the shelter, was tense in the beginning, and there seemed to be a sense of mistrust despite efforts to joke and put each other at ease. Among other information he shared, Kevin informed us that one of the distinctions between the emergency youth shelter operated for minors by Health and Human Services (HHS), such as the one we were visiting, and ICE detention facilities was that,“ICE regards people in their care as prisoners while HHS regards those in their care as guests.”

Following the initial opportunity for questions and answers he began a tour of the enormous facility. We were shown heated tents with neatly-made bunk beds where the boys slept, enormous tents where they gathered for learning and meals, a soccer field where they recreated, portable bathrooms and showers, portable offices where pro-bono lawyers provide consultation, laundry facilities, a supply tent containing everything from clothing to games to craft supplies, well-stocked and staffed medical tents, and another enormous tent where the girls stayed, decorated from top to bottom with paper flowers, filled with music, more bunk beds and tables for eating and education.

At the time we visited, there were 1300 youth ages 13-17 staying in the facility, primarily from Central America. Most of them were “unaccompanied minors,” meaning that they had made the trip to the United States on their own or had been separated from family prior to reaching the border. They were staying at the shelter in Tornillo until family members living in the United States and willing to serve as sponsors could be properly screened. Once released, the youth will stay with their sponsors until the time of their immigration hearings. Contrary to some reports, young children who had been separated from parents - the majority of whom have now been reunified - were never housed at the shelter in Tornillo.

Unfortunately, we did not have a lot of opportunity to engage with the youth themselves. We said hi, waved, smiled and exchanged some simple conversation. The conversation we did have made clear that their journeys had been hard, that they are ready to settle with the family they left home to come and stay with, but that their time in Tornillo was far from the worst part of the journey. Although we have since been invited back to provide worship services, we did not have the opportunity to provide any sort of spiritual care, as we thought we might.

As we ended our visit, my feelings about the shelter had shifted from apprehension to a mixture of emotions. While it is clearly a detention center, which is not ideal, I was at least heartened to witness that the youth there seemed to be receiving good care. They all had identical, but adequately warm clothes, heavy coats and hats for the cold weather, shoes and at least three meals a day. There was regular time scheduled for education and recreation, and opportunities during the week for prayer and worship, for those who chose to participate.

As my friend Rabbi Ben Zeidman reflected after the visit, anytime one group of people is given responsibility to care for another, they do so with the moral obligation to treat people like human beings, and be concerned for the welfare, health and dignity of the people they encounter. And while scripture does not give clear direction on exactly what 21st century immigration policy should look like, there are 92 verses in the Bible that call us to welcome the stranger. One of these, from Leviticus says, “treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, love [him, her, them] as yourself” (Lev.19:34) 

While I don’t pretend to understand the complexities of our immigration system or all the reasons why people decide to migrate, I do believe, like Rabbi Ben, that we are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. So, with another large influx of refugees coming into the city as I write, I am immensely grateful for the work of organizations in the border region like Annunciation House, Iglesia Luterana Cristo Rey, Peace Lutheran Las Cruces and Trinity Lutheran in Las Cruces, as well as all the individuals and congregations who support them, who have made commitments to provide hospitality for migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers . In these holy places, they receive the showers, food, clothing and care they need to prepare for the next leg of their journey.  Like the youth in Tornillo, these refugees are people who have been duly processed by ICE, who are wearing ankle bracelets, and who will be released to family until their immigration hearings. I am immensely grateful for those who provide hospitality, because it is in these holy places, where strangers are truly treated as guests, that they are received as Christ in our midst.

The work of our border ministries to offer temporary hospitality continues and the need for this ministry grows. Support for our border ministries can be given to the RMS Border Emergency Fund through the Rocky Mountain Synod website.


  1. That is wonderful, and I wish our country would take as good care of our
    homeless population who have been and continue to be with us.


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