Sacred-Public Partnerships and the Crisis at the Border

This article is part of the Sacred-Public Partnerships series, published in collaboration with Shared Justice, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. The series explores the ways in which faith-based organizations the sacred sector and government partner for good. Sacred-Public Partnerships focuses specifically on the intersection of the sacred sector, religious freedom, and government-administered social safety net programs and explores why partnership between government and the sacred sector is essential to the success of social services in the United States.

By Sarah Neiman

Immigration policy has long been the subject of fierce debate in American politics. In recent years, the crisis at the United States–Mexico border has escalated, as has rhetoric around issues like caravans, cartels, and children and families at the border.

The president has called the events at the border a humanitarian crisis, threatened to close the southern border, and has consistently advocated for a border wall to prevent illegal crossings. While illegal border crossing numbers are still significantly lower than they were during George W. Bush’s presidency, this past February marked an 11-year high with more than 76,000 crossings. The growing challenge for the Trump administration is providing for the needs of the increasing number of families crossing the border seeking asylum. With so many families waiting to be processed through a clogged and slow immigration court system, the U.S. government has struggled to adequately process and bring aid to those fleeing violence and poverty who are exhausted from crossing harsh terrains, hungry, and in need of medical attention. In March, Kevin K. McAleenan, Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, stated that, “The system is well beyond capacity, and remains at the breaking point.” 

The individuals and families crossing the southern border are often malnourished, dehydrated, in need of clothes, and far from their families and former homes. Along the southern border, faith-based organizations (FBOs) and churches, motivated by their faith-calling to help those in need, have stepped in to bridge this resource gap and often have partnered with government to provide shelter, medical services, legal aid and other needed resources. Oftentimes, the intersection of religious freedom and the social safety net is not considered. However, without the work of FBOs, churches and the cooperation between the government and religious organizations, the crisis at the border would be even worse.  


The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks as part of a significant restructuring of the federal government. The two primary agencies under the Department of Homeland Security that work at the United States–Mexico border are the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). CBP is responsible for monitoring and securing the border while ICE focuses on enforcing immigration laws inside U.S. borders. Very often, however, the agency roles are blurred and immigrants are bounced between agencies while they await hearings in the Executive Office of Immigration Review’s (EOIR) immigration court.

The surge in the number of families crossing the border began during the Obama administration, and ICE and CBP began to rely on charities and FBOs to help with immigrant welfare and safety. Under the Trump administration, unprecedented levels of families have crossed the southern border and the under-resourced government has struggled to adequately respond. On April 6, 2018, the Trump administration announced a “zero tolerance” policy in which all adults who crossed the border illegally were detained by CBP and processed for criminal prosecution. This meant that CBP was charged to separate children from their parents and take them to separate detention centers as their parents awaited criminal prosecution. In May of 2018, former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defended the separation of immigrant families, stating that the policy “has been that anyone who breaks the law will be prosecuted.”

 By separating children from their families, the government failed to recognize and protect the family as the most basic of human institutions. Stephanie Summers, CEO of the Center for Public Justice, wrote about this in a Public Justice Review article, explaining how the strict enforcement of immigration policies punishes the children who, under the direction and guidance of their parents or adult family members, follow them into the country. Summers went on to state, “The administration’s enforcement priorities are not safeguarding the family­ – they instead appear to be undermining families as a matter of course.” While it is the task of government to regulate immigration and protect our borders, Summers argues, it should not come at the expense of the family unit.

“The work of faith-based organizations and churches is often the difference between life or death at the U.S.–Mexico border

After widespread public outcry, which included many faith leaders, President Trump signed an executive order reversing the zero tolerance policy with the goal of keeping families together once detained after crossing the border. After U.S. courts in 2018 ruled that families cannot be held in detention centers for more than 20 days, an increasing number of families awaiting their hearings in immigration court were released into the country often with no housing, food, or medical care.

With so much of the Trump administration’s focus on detained immigrants facing criminal prosecution, little to no safety and security is provided for those who are released. Faith-based organizations, motivated by the call to care for the vulnerable, have provided much needed health, safety, and shelter services to immigrants. These organizations along the border have adapted to provide medical services to immigrants that develop illnesses and ailments from their journey across harsh terrain. Marcela Wash, a registered nurse in San Diego, stated that many immigrants come into the country with dehydration, scabies, rashes, respiratory infections, lice and other medical problems. The work of faith-based organizations and churches is often the difference between life or death at the U.S.–Mexico border, where the focus on individual and family wellbeing has too often been lost in the bureaucratic shuffle.


A string of churches, faith-based organizations and nonprofits along the California-to-Texas border provide wraparound services for immigrants who are seeking asylum, waiting for immigration hearings, or assimilating to American society. FBOs are often the first and only institutions to step in where the government has failed to provide vital services to immigrants. According to the New York Times, there is only one shelter-provider in San Diego that processes asylum-seeking immigrants. The Jewish Family Service of San Diego has assisted over 5,000 asylum applicants since it began running “on a wing and a prayer” in late 2017.

 FBOs and churches that provide aid are motivated to serve by their deeply held religious beliefs. Franciscan Conventual Father Tom Smith, director of the Holy Cross Retreat Center that helps house immigrants in Las Cruces, New Mexico, said, “I see what we are doing as a faith issue and a moral issue…We are providing shelter for someone in need—it’s the call of the gospel.” He cited Leviticus 19:34, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Jesuit Father Warren Sazama, pastor of Saint Thomas More Catholic Community in St. Paul, Minnesota, said, “We see it as a way of living out the Good Samaritan parable,” he says. “If you see someone on the roadside bleeding, do you walk by or help them out?”


 Religious institutions and organizations not only serve those in need in distinctive and holistic ways, but in many instances work in tandem with local, state, and federal governments to provide these much needed services. This can occur through government grants, contracts and other forms of partnership. Earlier in this series Comfort Sampong detailed various forms of partnership in “What Makes Partnership Possible? An Overview of Court Decisions, Legislation, and Presidential Initiatives.”

In order for these FBOs and churches to continue to serve, government must uphold their institutional religious freedom. Protecting an organization’s ability to serve out of its faith motivation is not only vital to a pluralistic society, it is also crucial in protecting the nature and breadth of services provided those in need. [KT3] Preserving FBOs’ and churches’ sacred identity and mission allows them to serve in unique and diverse ways to provide services that otherwise may not be offered. According to the Center for Public Justice’s Welfare Guideline, private organizations, like churches and faith-based organizations, “are close to the needs [of the poor] and devoted to alleviating them,” often making them the institutions best suited for distributing services.

In El Paso and McAllen, two border towns in Texas, local government, Catholic organizations, and charities have spent a combined $2 million on migrant relief efforts in recent years. Ruben Garcia, director of Annunciation House in El Paso, Texas, said, “Churches and nonprofit organizations are working with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensure that the families have access to food and services upon their release.” Annunciation House calls itself a “house of hospitality” to migrants, immigrants, the homeless, and refugees on the border. As many as one thousand migrants per day were being referred to them and their network of organizations. Their services include housing, providing clothes and laundry services, providing medical care, and providing food in a cafeteria. They are motivated by their belief that the “presence of Jesus in the Gospels is so completely in relation to the poor.”

Through sacred-public partnerships, faith-motivated relief efforts can supplement and complement the government’s role in providing resources and also provide services that the government alone would not be able to provide. We must encourage the participation of FBOs and churches in the social safety net and acknowledge their vital role and benefit to the communities that they serve. “Where there’s not enough resources or enough people or enough volunteers or enough government employees to help, it’s always been the faith-based community that typically not only provides backup but actually demonstrates leadership,” Arizona Governor Doug Ducey stated. “It has been these sanctuaries where people can find shelter and food assistance to follow the gospel message of Matthew 25 to help the least of us.”

Sarah Neiman is a second year law student at Baylor University in Waco, Texas and a former intern of the Center for Public Justice.


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