More than one-third of residents living in the central San Joaquin Valley were born outside the U.S. but now make their homes in Fresno, Kings, Madera, Merced and Tulare counties.
Their presence here adds a layer of complexity to the highly charged political discussion over a caravan of thousands of would-be immigrants from Honduras and other Central American countries making their way through Mexico toward the U.S. As their trek continues, they’re drawing the ire of President Donald Trump, whose tweets and other public statements have criticized Mexico and the marchers’ home countries for not doing more to stop them.
The president’s rhetoric over the caravan, which The Associated Press reports has grown to more than 7,000 people since it started in Honduras, has captured the attention of a Fresno faith-based organization that helps people from other countries who come to the U.S. as refugees or seeking asylum from persecution, crime or poverty in their native land.
“In this caravan, most of them are from Honduras, where they have poverty and crime beyond what any of us in the U.S. can possibly fathom,” said Zachary Darrah, executive director of Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries. “They’ve said, ‘We’re getting out of here to find a better life for ourselves.’ ”
Unlike refugees who flee war-torn nations and go through a resettlement process administered by the United Nations, members of the Honduran caravan would arrive at the U.S. border – if they make it that far – with the likely intent of seeking asylum, Darrah said.
“Asylum seekers don’t have refugee status in their country of origin, but they’re escaping for reasons of political oppression or religious oppression, etc., where they feel like their lives or the lives of their children are threatened,” he said. ““They’re leaving and saying ‘Our lives are in danger,’ whether it’s crime or oppression or whatever is going on.”
Once they reach the U.S., immigrants have the right to have their asylum requests heard in U.S. courts. “What’s happening is that the U.S. wants to stop these caravans before they get here so the process goes in a different direction,” Darrah said.
When refugees are resettled to the U.S., they have legal residency status. Asylum seekers, by contrast, have no particular immigration status so long as their request is pending. “While seeking asylum, they’re given protections and they can’t be deported,” Darrah said. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll be granted asylum; if they are denied by an immigration judge, they are ordered to report back to their country of origin.
“It’s a hard road for a lot of folks. There’s no access to social services, no food stamps, no cash aid, and they cannot work legally,” Darrah said. “So even if they make it to the U.S., the process is challenging.” FIRM and other community organizations provide subsistence help for asylum seekers as well as services to support refugee families who resettle to the Fresno area.
Who’s already here?
The overall population in the five-county Valley region is about 1.27 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 estimates. Of that, census estimates indicate that more than 436,000 – about one out of every three people – were born somewhere outside of the United States.
A large majority of the Valley’s immigrants, more than 310,000, are from Mexico. But all told, there are residents here from more than 120 countries and every continent on the globe except Antarctica – including about 1,700 from Honduras, where the caravan originated earlier this month.
Following Mexico in the number of foreign-born residents in the Valley is India at almost 19,000, then Laos with more than 16,000 and the Philippines at nearly 15,000.
Given the number of immigrant residents who already make the Valley their home, and the nature of FIRM’s mission to help people in need, Darrah expressed concern with the increasingly polarized and politicized nature of the debate over immigration in general and the Honduran caravan in particular.
“This administration has been overwhelmingly clear that they’re not supportive of this process, this caravan,” he said. “Some of these comments about people who are escaping horrendous conditions to seek refuge here, it’s heartbreaking. … You just say, ‘Wow, that’s not reflective of what we believe.’ But it’s what we are reflecting around the world.”
“For us it’s not about a political conversation or a philosophical conversation,” he added. “We’re a Christian organization. God has called us to love foreigners and love those who are seeking refuge and aid. That’s what we do every day.”