Our immigration and border policy has been broken for a long time. Not just broken, the laws that govern migration and border protection are inhumane, racist, economically problematic, and unChristian.
In the past weeks, since the Administration took a “zero tolerance” policy, anger has been growing. Hearing audio of children separated from their parents, seeing photos of children in cage-like enclosures, learning that lawmakers are being denied access to tent-cities where children are being held, these are all causes for alarm. Stay angry. Even though the president has made a moderating change he’s says will keep families, stay angry. The system is still racist, inhumane, and broken. Our nation treats people who arrive at our border in a way that should make us angry.
Families have been separated by our broken policy for a long time. Nine summers ago I had a seminary internship providing pastoral care alongside a mobile medical clinic in San Diego. I spent most of that summer in parking lots talking with members of “mixed status” families. Some folks were on anxiety medication, their stress was so high because a family member had been deported in a raid, kids had been separated from parents. For decades Church leaders have been calling for specific changes to our immigration system which would allow for family reunification. We need more visas to keep families together, not fewer. The laws currently being proposed in congress would reduce the number of visas. Families would be separated.
One piece of the current administration’s rhetoric is partially true. They claim more kids and families are arriving at our border. That’s true. Their reasons are not. They say more children are arriving because news spread in Latin America that if you arrived with a child, you couldn’t be turned away. The administration is dangerously wrong.
In recent years the profile of the undocumented immigrant has changed. More children and families are arriving, but it is not because they want to use kids to play the system. Unaccompanied children and parents with kids are running from a growing epidemic of violence in Central America. Families are trying to escape death threats and aggressive recruiting of their children by the gangs. (A report from Cristosal, a Central American Rights Organization details interviews with people who tried to find asylum in the United States).
How do receive those who are fleeing violence?
The United States refuses to listen to the stories of those who arrive on our Southern Border. We automatically classify folks as “economic migrants,” unless they can prove otherwise. (Our current policy also ignores stated labor needs from the agricultural and business communities when considering how many visas to grant, another way the system is broken). The United States assumes that children and parents are lying when they say they are fleeing violence. We ignore the documented growth of violence in the migrants’ countries of origin We ignore our own culpability when our lax gun laws allow an arms trade which fuels the violence in Central America. We turn people away, although we know that some of those who are deported will be killed, others will face violence and extortion.
Our immigration policy is broken because politicians are worried about the bias of their constituents. A few years ago, while I was a priest serving in Washington, I helped translate for group of Spanish-speaking immigrant advocates the Episcopal Church had brought to Washington to lobby for change. I watched an aide to Senator Marco Rubio who was visibly shaking, worried that conservative forces would hear that the Senator was proposing Immigration Reform, and find room to “run to his right.” If they could paint Rubio as soft on “illegal immigrants” they might be able to take away the Republican’s senate seat and hand it to someone even more conservative, who was willing to play a race card around immigration.
(Not just Republicans play this fear based political game. During his presidency, Barack Obama became known as the “deporter-in-chief” for drastically increasing ICE raids. His aides calculated that if the President was seen as tough on undocumented immigrants, he might be able to pass a comprehensive reform. The calculation failed, thousands of families were separated by the raids, and the laws stayed broken).
The tension of the last week was something new. Americans got angry, about how migrants were being treated by our government. We should not be turned back from our anger. Anger has the power to fuel change. Immigrants and asylum seekers deserve better than the broken, inhumane, and racist system they encounter at our border. Our country deserves better. Will you stay mad? Will you work for change? Will you help shift the politics?
The Bible states concern for immigrants again and again as a marker of the people of God.
“Don’t oppress an immigrant. You know what it’s like to be an immigrant, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 23:9 (Common English Bible)
This command from God is repeated again and again in Scripture, by the prophets. Jesus commands his followers to “love your neighbor” and when an attorney asked him “who is my neighbor” Jesus told the story of the “Good Samaritan.” Jesus pointed to the outsider, the non-citizen, the excluded. Jesus made the name “Samaritan” into shorthand for those who do good, when in his time it would have pointed to the non-Jewish, non-citizen, other. Jesus made the outsider the hero of the story, the one who cared for the beaten and oppressed. He told his followers “Go and do likewise.” Jesus would have us love our neighbor, care for our neighbor, listen to our neighbor. Will we stay angry? Will we use our anger to change the immigration system, so that we might follow Jesus, so that we might welcome the stranger?