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Column One: A California city that became Little El Salvador feels the pain of separation from its parent

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Column One: A California city that became Little El Salvador feels the pain of separation from its parent

SENSUNTEPEQUE, El Salvador — 

The people who stayed behind in this Salvadoran hill town, and those who fled to California’s San Joaquin Valley, think of each other with mixed emotions.

Love and pain. Longing and envy. Gratitude and guilt.

Separated by 2,500 miles, Sensuntepeque, in central El Salvador, and the dusty farming community of Mendota, 35 miles west of Fresno, are joined as if by an umbilical cord of financial need and emotional codependency.

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Over the last three decades, Sensuntepeque, population 40,000, has sent migrants — thousands of them — to the United States. The San Joaquin Valley has become home to so many Salvadorans that the government of El Salvador opened a new consulate in Fresno this month, adding to those already in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Most Salvadoran exiles were desperate to escape endemic poverty, failing farms and the lingering torments of a long-ago civil war. But the mass outflow left many broken households in its wake.

“That they are so far away, without being able to see them, it is a nightmare, and the family is not complete,” said María Hilda Carballo, 53, whose two daughters left for the Central Valley years ago.

Maria Hilda Carballo lives in a house valued at just over $300,000, in the municipality of Victoria, El Salvador.

Maria Hilda Carballo lives in a house valued at just over $300,000, in the municipality of Victoria, El Salvador. The house was built by her brother, Julio Carballo, a resident of Mendota, Calif.

(Soudi Jimenez / Los Angeles Times)

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In California’s farm belt, communities such as Mendota, population 11,500, have come to rely on the sweat and muscle of Mexican and, increasingly, Central American migrants to extract profit from the land.

“This is a mini El Salvador,” said Miguel Urías, a native of El Salvador and co-owner of Antojitos Guanacos, a restaurant and bakery chain, and one of many Mendota businesses whose names signal their Salvadoran roots. “From six years ago to now, I see that we are arriving in droves.”

In return for the low-wage labor it receives, Mendota sends thousands of dollars in remittances back to Sensuntepeque and the surrounding departamento, or state, of Cabañas.

In 2020, despite the pandemic, El Salvador raked in almost $6 billion in remittances from the United States, an increase from 2019 of 4.8%, according to the country’s Central Reserve Bank. Cabañas in 2020 received a monthly average of $357 per household, second highest among the nation’s 14 states.

“The economy, without remittances, would not move,” said Edgar Bonilla, who was mayor of Sensuntepeque from 2006 to 2021. According to Bonilla, 75% of Sensuntepeque’s population has relatives in the United States, and at least half of those receive remittances from a California town many never will visit.

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Money wired from California has launched businesses, bought homes and filled them up with consumer goods.

“They send remittances to these people every day, the banks are full every day,” says Rosa Barrera, 46, who sells fruit, juices and snacks.

Rosa Barrera offers juices, fruits and snacks next to the central park of Sensuntepeque.

Rosa Barrera offers juices, fruits and snacks next to the central park of Sensuntepeque, where visitors from abroad come to reconnect with their families.

(Soudi Jimenez / Los Angeles Times)

In many ways, the relationship between these kinfolk communities is mutually beneficial and harmonious. But there are strains.

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Dollars dispatched from California have turned this corner of El Salvador into a commercial hub — it now boasts 10 banks and financial cooperatives — but also made housing costs soar. Inequities are more visible than in times past.

While more homes in Sensuntepeque now sport flat-screen TVs and late-model cars in their driveways, the region’s roads remain cracked, its schools underfunded, its medical clinics lacking in supplies.

The disruptions go deeper. In the downtown area of Sensuntepeque, whose Indigenous name means “400 hills,” some houses now cost up to $300,000, while a lot of about 2,700 square feet goes for $10,000, said Paul Nimrod Salgado, a real estate agent. Those are princely sums in a nation where the yearly per capita income is $4,000.

And while remittances soar in Sensuntepeque, in Mendota residents face a housing shortage.

“It is very difficult because there are no homes available,” said Sindy Orellana, 19, a Salvadoran immigrant who is looking for a house for her family and currently pays $1,000 to rent a two-bedroom apartment.

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The farmworkers and restaurant owners of Mendota take pride in being able to subsidize their far-flung relatives. But some also feel the nagging burden of expectation, of having to work long hours while trying to master a new language.

Like other Salvadoran immigrants, Emérita Barrera first worked in California's tomato industry.

Like other Salvadoran immigrants, Emérita Barrera first worked in California’s tomato industry. In 2008 she started her own business, Ally’s Beauty Salon, located on 7th Street in Mendota.

(Soudi Jimenez / Los Angeles Times)

“To feel stable, you have to pay a very high price,” said Emérita Barrera, who immigrated to the United States in 1994.

::

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The 12-year armed conflict between the U.S.-backed, right-wing Salvadoran government and leftist guerrillas supported by Cuba claimed 75,000 lives in a country of only 4.5 million people at that time.

Remittances sent from Mendota have helped the Sensuntepeque area not only recover but attain a lifestyle unimaginable before the war.

In the hamlet of San Pedro, rising out of a scrim of cornfields and dirt streets, old mud huts give way to showy concrete block houses. A sudden blast from a truck’s loudspeaker breaks the subdued atmosphere.

A rider on horseback traverses the dusty roads of San Pedro, El Salvador.

A rider on horseback traverses the dusty roads of San Pedro, El Salvador.

(Soudi Jimenez / Los Angeles Times)

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“We have potatoes, cabbages and carrots!” a rough male voice intones. The same vehicle is hawking chairs, mats, plastic jugs and other consumer goods.

“The inhabitants here have the best telephones and televisions,” says Miguel Amaya, 25, a Sensuntepeque resident who works as a driver, watching the street scene unfold. “Do you think these houses are going to be owned by poor people?”

Down a slope, a few paces past a Catholic church, sits a two-story, four-room home with fine wood finishes and gilded columns. Its owner is María Hilda Carballo. One of her daughters, Maria Cindy, 29, immigrated to Mendota, and another, Griselda, 35, to nearby Kerman. They’ve not been able to see their mother since they left home many years ago.

Today, the sisters labor in tomato and almond orchards to scrape together about $200 each month to send Carballo.

“They both help me with what little they make there,” she said.

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Carballo’s spacious house was paid for by her brother Julio, who also moved to Mendota. She lives with another daughter and two teenage granddaughters. Previously, she lived in a house made of mud and pieces of wood while raising corn and making cheese to survive.

In the same hamlet, across a stream and up another steep slope, María Gloria Reyes, 49, lives with her husband, five children and a grandson in the $40,000 home paid for with help from her sons, Emanuel, 27, and José, 32, who joined the exodus to Mendota in the early 2010s.

Corn tortillas are prepared every day by María Gloria Reyes for her entire family in Cabañas, El Salvador.

Corn tortillas are prepared every day by María Gloria Reyes for her entire family in Cabañas, El Salvador, whose support depends on two children who live in Mendota.

(Soudi Jimenez / Los Angeles Times)

“Seeing the poverty here, they decided to go there,” Reyes said as she tossed tortillas on a griddle.

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In the uncertain weeks while her sons made the dangerous trek, Reyes felt despair and a pain in her chest, wondering whether she’d ever see them again.

“You don’t know what can happen on the roads,” she said.

Before their new house was built, Reyes and her husband, Leandro Membreño, rented a hovel made of clay and galvanized metal sheets. These days, Membreño has the luxury of spending more time relaxing in his hammock, but everywhere are reminders of a family apart.

“When you make a meal, you remember them,” Reyes said. The brothers’ favorite dish is the memory of their mother’s chicken soup.

::

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I had the dream of doing something different. Many people come risking their lives. We Salvadorans are very strong at climbing our way to get ahead.

— Emérita Barrera

Dogs bark on a dark, cold morning in Mendota. The clock says 5:30 a.m., but the parking lot of Sonora Market already has become an anthill as trucks cruise in and out disgorging farmworkers. They dash into the store and quickly emerge clutching coffee cups and sweet bread.

Farmworkers enter the Sonora Market grocery store in preparation for the hard day ahead.

Farmworkers stop by Sonora Market before sunup to buy hot food, water, sodas and ice for the hard day ahead.

(Soudi Jimenez / Los Angeles Times)

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It’s the daily routine in a community whose residents help stock the refrigerators and fill dining-room tables across America.

Abdul Obaid, a businessman from Yemen, said that the town’s demographic map has completely changed in the 17 years since his family established the Sonora Market and its nearby sibling, the Mendota Valley Food supermarket, both liberally stocked with popular Salvadoran fare.

“The Salvadoran population has quadrupled in a decade, and it is because people go where they feel at home,” Obaid added.

Originally developed in 1891 as a storage site for the Southern Pacific Railroad, Mendota was incorporated in 1942, and its prosperity hinges on the production of almonds, pistachios, melons, tomatoes and corn. In 2019 the county’s farmworkers yielded $1.5 billion in almonds, $962 million in grapes and $660 million in pistachios.

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When María Hilda Carballo’s brother, Julio Carballo, left El Salvador in 1994, he was 14 years old. Knowing that he could get work in Mendota harvesting melons and asparagus, he decided to go live with an uncle there.

It’s exhausting work, said Carballo, 42. “You have to go to work very early,” he said. “The cold is very heavy.”

A man stands near a row of large trucks.

Julio Carballo arrived in Mendota in 1994. After five years picking melons and asparagus, he became a truck driver and now owns a fleet of 25 trucks.

(Soudi Jimenez / Los Angeles Times)

He spent about five years in the fields before he got a business license and became a truck driver. In 2004 he took out a loan of $40,000 to buy his own vehicle and started his company, JCC Transport Inc. Today he owns 25 trucks and is in charge of more than 40 employees.

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Now that his entrepreneurial drive has paid off, and his immigration status is covered by the federal Temporary Protected Status program, he said, “I can retire tomorrow.”

Luis Fernando Macías, professor of migration studies at Fresno State, said that the work formerly done by Mexicans in Mendota is now mostly performed by Salvadorans. In the early years of Salvadoran migration, that sometimes gave rise to tensions.

“When I came, it was a bit complicated. The Mexican people looked down on you. There was always discrimination when you went to work,” said Tulio Vargas, 52, a Sensuntepeque native who arrived in Mendota in 1980.

Waves of Salvadoran immigrants have enlivened Mendota’s taste buds, serving pupusas, torrejas, mata niños bread and garrobo soup, named for its main ingredient, an endangered black spiny-tailed iguana.

“Now, it is a community only of Sensuntepeque, purely the department of Cabañas,” said Carmen Chévez, 69, who left El Salvador in the 1990s.

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Emérita Barrera arrived in Mendota thanks to a permanent residence request made by her husband. Though she’d studied cosmetology, she, too, started out in her adopted country working in the tomato fields.

After 10 years, she took a hiatus to obtain her GED, became a naturalized citizen, took classes at a Fresno beauty school along with some business administration courses, and eventually opened her own salon.

“I had the dream of doing something different,” she said. “Many people come risking their lives. We Salvadorans are very strong at climbing our way to get ahead.”

The trauma of leaving behind her parents and six siblings still haunts her. Her parents died in 2013, while Barrera was outside her native country. She last visited El Salvador in 2018.

Despite carving out better lives economically, Mendota’s Salvadorans face enormous challenges.

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According to the Census Bureau, 40.9% of Mendota’s population lives in poverty. In 2019 the average income per household was $31,237. An estimated 40% to 60% of the population is undocumented.

In the 2015-19 period, the high school graduation rate was 30.8%, and only 1.5% of Mendota’s population obtained a bachelor’s or other college graduate degree.

These statistics do not reflect the story of Jessenia Núñez, who will soon be able to display her law degree.

The daughter of migrant farmworkers from Sensuntepeque, Núñez was born in 1992 in Riverside County. When she was in second grade, her family settled in Mendota and pushed her to go to college — first UC San Diego, where she earned a political science degree, then UC Berkeley School of Law.

“I owe a lot to Mendota, to my parents, to my entire family who have always supported me,” she said. “I watched my parents struggle. They taught me to persevere.”

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::

Across the miles, the California farm town and the Salvadoran hill town still dream of each other. Tulio Vargas, still remembers the day he left Sensuntepeque, as an 8-year-old with his mother and two brothers.

“We went out at dawn,” he recalled. “We didn’t want to tell anyone.”

The Salvadoran military government and its ruthless state security apparatus were “disappearing” and killing anyone they suspected of sympathizing with the rebellion. Vargas said security forces were involved in killing his father and a fellow businessman. Fearing reprisals, the family fled.

Column One

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A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.

“We practically left the house abandoned,” he said.

The family initially settled in Belize, but two years later, at age 10, Vargas and a friend moved on to Mendota. Over the decades, he rose to become a farm administrator and, like so many others, sent remittances to his homeland.

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Back in the Los Remedios neighborhood of Sensuntepeque, an uncle has managed to hold on to the house where Vargas and his family once lived. Vargas now visits his hometown once or twice every year, though Mendota is home too.

“The truth,” he said, “is that El Salvador is one’s land, whatever it may be.”

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President Biden Signs Bipartisan Gun Safety Bill into Law

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President Biden Signs Bipartisan Gun Safety Bill into Law

On Saturday, President Joe Biden signed a bipartisan gun control bill into law.

According to USA Today, the law, called the Safer Communities Act, urges states to create “red flag” laws that would prevent people deemed dangerous from being able to legally obtain a firearm. It further eliminates the “boyfriend loophole” by adding “dating partners” to the list of violent domestic abusers banned from purchasing a gun and increases background checks of 18 to 21-years-olds seeking to buy a firearm.

Additionally, it includes “the first-ever federal law that makes gun trafficking and straw purchases distinct federal crimes.”

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“At a time when it seems impossible to get anything done in Washington, we are doing something consequential,” Biden said at the White House.

“While this bill doesn’t do everything I want, it does include actions I’ve long called for that are going to save lives,” he added before calling the bill the “most significant [gun control] law to be passed” over “the last 30 years.”

Noting that people have been calling on lawmakers to do something since the Columbine mass shooting in 1999, Biden said their cries have now been answered.

“From Columbine to Sandy Hook, to Charleston, Orlando, Las Vegas, Parkland, El Paso, Atlanta, Buffalo, Uvalde, and for the shootings that happen every day in the streets that are mass shootings — and we don’t even hear about them, the number of people killed every day in the streets — their message to us was: ‘Do something.’ How many times have we heard that? ‘Just do something,’” he said. “Well, today, we did.”

The new law came after a string of deadly mass shootings last month, including a shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two adults were killed, and another at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket where 10 were killed, and three were wounded.

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As Christian Headlines previously reported last Thursday, the Senate voted 64 to 34 in favor of the bill. The House then passed the bill on Friday with a 234 to 193 vote, sending it to Biden’s desk.

Fourteen Republican representatives joined all House Democrats in passing the bill.

Related:

U.S. Senate Pushes Forward Bipartisan Gun Control Bill

Bipartisan Group of Senators Reach Agreement on Framework for New Gun Control Legislation

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Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/jirkaejc


Kayla Koslosky has been the Editor of ChristianHeadlines.com since 2018. She has B.A. degrees in English and History and previously wrote for and was the managing editor of the Yellow Jacket newspaper. She has written on her blog since 2012 and has also contributed to IBelieve.com and Crosswalk.com.

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‘Just an Innocent Man’: Texas Pastor Shot, Killed in Suspected Road Rage Incident

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‘Just an Innocent Man’: Texas Pastor Shot, Killed in Suspected Road Rage Incident

A beloved pastor in Houston, Texas, was shot and killed in a suspected road rage incident on Friday afternoon.

The Reverend Dr. Ronald K. Mouton Sr., who led East Bethel Missionary Baptist Church for 30 years, was shot and killed by another driver at around 4:19 pm while he was driving on the Gulf Freeway.

Rep. Sheila Jackson, R-Texas, and Crime Stoppers of Houston have released a $5,000 reward regarding information leading to an arrest of the suspected shooter, who remains at large as of Monday. According to Click 2 Houston, police say the suspect was believed to be driving a black sedan.

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Surveillance video from Pusch and Nguyen Injury Lawyers showed what happened before Mouton was killed.

As reported by The Christian Post, Mouton’s church and friends are aggrieved over his death.

“Dr. Mouton was known and loved by many. If you knew him, you would know him to be a gracious servant, a leader, and a friend. As we begin to cope with the reality of his passing, we ask that you would respect our family’s privacy during this time,” East Bethel Missionary Baptist Church wrote on Facebook.

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of Pastor Mouton. I got to know him when he worked with my late husband, Lonal Robinson, as he developed youth sports programs in the ’90s. His benevolence was meaningful to the children of the community,” one church member wrote.

Lee, a longtime friend of Mouton, remembered the reverend as a loving man who loved to serve others.

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“This was just an innocent man traveling on a road near his church where he worked all the time,” the congresswomen said. “He loves ministry. He was just doing the work of a pastor.”

Mouton, a graduate of Baylor University and Stephen F. Austin State University, leaves behind his wife of nearly 40 years, four children, 10 grandchildren, a twin brother, and other siblings.

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Stephen Barnes


Milton Quintanilla is a freelance writer. He is also the co-hosts of the For Your Soul podcast, which seeks to equip the church with biblical truth and sound doctrine. Visit his blog Blessed Are The Forgiven.

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Christian Leaders Celebrate the Overturning of Roe but Caution: ‘Our Work Is Just Beginning’

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Christian Leaders Celebrate the Overturning of Roe but Caution: ‘Our Work Is Just Beginning’

Christian leaders across the denominational spectrum on Friday celebrated the overturning of Roe v. Wade but cautioned that much work – in states and in local communities – remains to be done.

The court’s overruling of Roe sends the issue back to the respective 50 states, where legislatures and governors now will decide – and in some instances already have decided – what to do.   

Here are how seven Christian leaders reacted to Friday’s opinion:

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Lila Rose, President and Founder of Live Action

Roe v. Wade is over. Children will live because of this decision to overturn the constitutional fiction of Roe v. Wade,” Rose said. “… This decision is an important step forward for the protection of innocent life in our nation, but the work of the pro-life movement is just getting started. While overruling Roe is a necessary first step, giving states the prerogative to regulate abortion is not a final victory. While this decision will give states the right to protect their youngest citizens, many of our nation’s largest states, such as California, Illinois, and New York will still legalize and even subsidize the killing of our youngest children. We will not have true justice until the Supreme Court acknowledges the truth that under our Constitution, every American – born or preborn – has an inherent right to life protected by the 14th Amendment. 

“Science conclusively proves that a unique and biologically distinct human life begins at the moment of fertilization,” Rose added. “Every child regardless of their age, should be protected from the horrors of abortion and the abortion industry. Going forward, the pro-life movement must advocate for the Supreme Court to grant equal protection under the law to all humans, even from the very beginning of every human’s life. Starting today, every single state in our nation must act swiftly to codify protections for preborn children into state law and resource mothers and fathers to ensure the American family is healthy and ready to flourish without the grave violence of abortion.”

Rose wrote in a tweet, “Our work is just beginning.”

Our work is just beginning

— Lila Rose (@LilaGraceRose) June 24, 2022

Roland Warren, President and CEO of Care Net

“For all who value the sanctity of human life, today marks a monumental day in our efforts to protect the unborn. In upholding Mississippi’s pro-life law and overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court has paved the way for states to make laws regulating abortion based on the values of their own citizens,” Warren said. “But changed laws don’t equal changed hearts, and the Supreme Court can’t outlaw unplanned, unexpected, and unexpectedly complicated pregnancies. Accordingly, regardless of how the laws of our land play out over the next several years, women and men will continue to face tough pregnancy decisions. In an environment in which abortion is more difficult to access, Care Net’s work has become more critical than ever.

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“Care Net will continue to support our network of more than 1,200 affiliated pregnancy centers, a national hotline, and a growing network of churches in their irreplaceable efforts to offer compassion, hope, and help to women and men at risk for abortion.”

Franklin Graham, President of Samaritan’s Purse and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association

“Roe v. Wade, passed 49 years ago, has resulted in the deaths of over 63 million innocent children in this country. Sadly, this decision is not an end to abortion — it pushes the battle back to the states,” Graham said.

“My prayer is that every state will enact protections for children in the womb and that our nation will value life and recognize the rights of our most vulnerable,” Graham said.

Karen Swallow Prior, Author and Professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

“Our work now is just starting: we must help and support moms, dads, and babies. Love them all – and in so doing making abortion unimaginable,” Prior said.

Our work now is just starting: we must help and support moms, dads, and babies. Love them all—and in so doing making abortion unimaginable. #RoeVsWade

— Karen Swallow Prior (Notorious KSP) (@KSPrior) June 24, 2022

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Bart Barber, President of the Southern Baptist Convention

“Southern Baptists rejoice at the ruling that the United States Supreme Court has delivered today in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization,” Barber said. “Since 1980, the Southern Baptist Convention has passed more than 20 resolutions on the question of abortion. 

“… As we stated just days ago in a resolution at our 2022 Annual Meeting, in a post-Roe United States, ‘We commit to stand with and pray for abortion-vulnerable women, to eliminate any perceived need for the horror of abortion, and to oppose Planned Parenthood and other predatory organizations or institutions who exploit vulnerable women for profit.’ State-by-state, mother-by-mother, heart-by-heart, we will continue our sacred work toward this goal.”

Kristen Day, Executive Director of Democrats For Life of America

“DFLA is excited about the political opportunities this decision creates for pro-life Democrats,” Day said. “We have made significant contributions to advancing justice for the preborn and their mothers, and will continue to do so. Today is a wonderful day and we enthusiastically recommit ourselves to the mission of protecting all human life from womb to tomb.”

Day urged states to assist women facing an unplanned pregnancy. 

“What are they going to do to support those women who no longer can [have an] abortion in those states?” Day told NBC. “How are we going to provide them with the opportunity and the support to parent, feed their families, keep their jobs and … have affordable health, health care, affordable childcare? … Let’s put women and children first and let’s provide the support, compassion to help them with a real choice to become parents.” 

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A news release said Democrats for Life “celebrates” the overturning of Roe.

Roe Overturned!!! Read the DFLA Press Release here! https://t.co/7Ist7G15PN

— Kristen Day (@ProLifeDem) June 24, 2022

Alveda King, Founder of Speak for Life and Niece of the late Martin Luther King Jr. 

“For 49 years, ‘we the people’ have had to endure a flawed and unconstitutional ruling from the Supreme Court that allowed unelected judges to create a national right to abortion that ultimately led to extreme actions, like late-term abortions, against the unborn,” King said. “Today, the Supreme Court has rightfully overturned that decision, sending the power to regulate abortion back to the elected officials at the state level. I have longed for and prayed for this day. And I will continue to fight for human dignity for everyone – from the womb to the tomb.”

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Pool


Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chroniclethe Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

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