Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Border Patrol Arrests Families in Louisiana Returning Home from Faith Event

By Rebecca Fontaine

On April 15, 2010, in Louisiana, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents detained over forty members of the Evangelical Latino congregation, “El Buen Pastor.” The families were returning home to Raleigh, North Carolina. The church members were traveling on Interstate-10 in Louisiana, returning from an annual jubilee in Texas, called the “Santa Cena” or Holy Week. The vans were not cited with any traffic violations; rather the stop and the arrests were motivated by CBP’s suspicion — based on Latino appearance — that the church members may be undocumented.

CBP claims that they can use race as a factor to make stops and arrests within a 100-mile radius of the border. CBP also claims that the southern shoreline is border territory.

Primarily families — men, women and children members of El Buen Pastor — were traveling in the vans. When CBP stopped them, the agents aggressively questioned the travelers. CBP agents handcuffed many of the men and took them away in patrol vehicles. Some of the churchwomen recounted the impacts they suffered at the hands of the CBP agents:

The officials were banging on the door. My sister in law told the officials to lower their voices. . . All of us were scared.

We said, “we are coming from a church event.” There were babies in the car and they were all crying. However, the officials did not change their tone. My niece is special needs and she started to moan and throw her arms around in the air. Her father was worried that she was going to accidentally detach herself from the feeding machine . . .

As my children watched the officers handcuff my husband they started to cry . . . As we were driven to the CBP office by the officers, one of my aunts was crying and upset trying to pray and sing hymns in a quiet voice. Everyone else was crying and the official just laughed, asking if God would save us from this.

CBP agents coerced the parents into signing documents they did not understand, despite trying to uphold their rights to remain silent and to consult with an attorney. The CBP agents threatened that if they did not sign, the men and women would be sent to separate detention facilities and the children would become wards of the state.

Everyone else was crying and the official just laughed, asking if God would save us from this.

For hours, the church members were crammed into the office as each family was processed. One churchwoman explained, “We waited in the office but there wasn’t really anywhere to sit. I remember my older son was tossing and turning because he wanted to sleep but there was nowhere to lie down. The children were crying.”

CBP Official: Like winning the lottery

The church members felt their rights were violated by the way officials treated them; CBP officials mocked them for wearing head coverings. Despite explaining that their dress is a way to demonstrate respect for God, the officials humiliated them, joking that the real reason they wear the veils is to disguise their messy hair.

The officers spoke of the church members as objects. “At the time of shift change a new official came in and I heard him say to the others, ‘Good job, congratulations.’ He told them they had caught a bunch and because there were so many of us it was like winning the lottery.”

The CBP arrest and treatment traumatized the families, especially the children.

A Call for Support

Now, church members are fighting to stop their deportation proceedings and uphold their human rights. With the support of Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), the families are fighting for suppression of removal in Immigration Court because the government did not legally obtain the information regarding the documentation status of the church members.

SCSJ represents the members in a suit against CBP for withholding public records about the arrest. SCSJ will also represent them in a suit based on emotional abuse CBP agents inflicted on congregation members and other violations of their constitutional rights.Buen Pastor is organizing with other faith communities and allies, in particular, Latino congregations that have suffered abuse by Immigration and other law enforcement authorities.

On February 18, members of El Buen Pastor led a vigil attended by over seventy people. They called on their faith to give them strength and courage to continue fighting for their human dignity.

Their next Immigration Court date is June 23rd, 2011 in Charlotte, NC. The congregation is asking for other Latino and allied churches to write letters denouncing the CBP abuses inflicted against them.

If your congregation would like to write a letter or you would like to become involved contact staff organizer, Rebecca Fontaine at

To follow the case, sign up on SCSJ’s Twitter or Facebook account.

Click here to read press articles about the arrest.


Photograph by Josh Davis

Rebecca Fontaine works at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice as an immigrants' rights organizing and as a bilingual immigration paralegal.

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