Holding pictures of migrant children who have died in U.S. custody and forming a cross with their bodies on the floor of the Russell Senate Office Building, 70 Catholics were arrested in July for obstructing a public place, which is considered a misdemeanor.
The protesters hoped that images of 90-year-old nuns and priests in clerical collars being led away in handcuffs would draw attention to their moral horror at the United States’ treatment of undocumented immigrant families.
American Catholics, like any religious group, do not fit neatly into left-right political categories.
American Christianity is more often associated with right-wing politics.
Conservative Christian groups advocating for public policies that reflect their religious beliefs have conducted extremely visible campaigns to outlaw abortion, keep gay marriage illegal and encourage study of the Bible in schools. Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, an Apostolic Christian, was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses after the U.S. legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.
But there’s always been progressive Christian activism in the United States.
So it’s not quite right to herald the “rise” of a religious left, as several think pieces have done since Christians began openly resisting Trump’s immigration enforcement and other policies. That erases the historic resistance of religious communities of color.
In the Biblical text Matthew 25, the “Son of Man” – a figure understood to be Jesus – blesses people who gave food to the hungry, cared for the sick and welcomed strangers. And in Leviticus 19:34, God commands: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you.”
These texts help explain why support for immigrants crosses traditional left-right religious boundaries.
Connecting to politicians and interfaith cooperation
The 2020 election season has brought Christian faith-based activism into the political fore. Several Democratic presidential candidates have spoken openly about the faith-based roots of their progressivism.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren has referenced the biblical text of Matthew 25 as a touchstone for her critique of wealth inequality and insistence on universal health care.
In pushing for criminal justice reform, Sen. Cory Booker speaks about the Christian tradition of “grace.” He’s also been known to quote the Prophet Muhammad, Buddha and the Hindu god Shiva.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg is a devout churchgoer who is also gay. He says that his sexual orientation is God-given and that his marriage, in the Episcopal church, to another man, has brought him closer to God.
Talk of an emerging “religious left” is ahistoric. American Christianity has always had its liberal strains, with pastors and parishioners protesting state-sponsored injustices like slavery, segregation, the Vietnam War and mass deportation.
But the high profile, religiously based moral outrage at Trump’s immigration policies does seem to be spurring some long-overdue rethinking of what it means to be Christian in America.
The tragedy of a father and daughter from El Salvador drowning while he tried to save her from being swept away by the strong river current reminded the nation of the horror of the unfolding humanitarian crisis at the border.
We must see them.
Martínez was leading his family from El Salvador to legally seek asylum in the United States.
But he was not able to get through the long wait at the border crossing, so he sought to swim the Rio Grande, stand on American soil, turn himself and his family in to Border Patrol and ask for asylum there.
All of that is legal.
But the river took them before they had a chance.
The bodies of Salvadoran migrant Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, lie on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, on June 24, 2019, after they drowned trying to cross the river to Brownsville, Texas. Martínez’s wife, Tania, told Mexican authorities she watched her husband and child disappear in the strong current. (AP Photo/Julia Le Duc)
In addition to these deaths, the news from last weekend of migrant children held in detention in Border Patrol stations in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, without access to soap, toothbrushes, diapers or proper care, rightly caused an outcry from the public. Instead of the border security debate dominating the immigration headlines, Americans are now more fully seeing the human suffering of desperate migrants fleeing from home to a country that they hope will be a place of refuge.
The numbers of migrants coming are staggering.
People protest against U.S. immigration policies on the American side, right, of the Mexico-America border near Tijuana on Dec. 10, 2018. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres
The month of May saw almost 133,000 apprehensions at the U.S. southern border, with 96,000 consisting either of family units or unaccompanied children. The large numbers of migrants now turning themselves in to Border Patrol and asking for asylum has overwhelmed our system.
Our laws require that we hear and process asylum claims and that anyone who sets foot on U.S. soil can claim asylum, but with the government’s primary focus being on zero tolerance, deterrence, security, detention, deportation and keeping migrants away from the border, the number of families and children presenting themselves for asylum is too much to properly administer.
The Border Patrol is overwhelmed and chaos has ensued.
Hearing these stories this week reminded me of what I’ve seen in my own trips to the border in the past year, most recently to El Paso less than two months ago.
There, I connected with a network of churches receiving from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hundreds of asylum-seeking migrants a day. The churches gave the migrants food and drink and provided a temporary place to rest before they continued their journey to join family in other parts of America.
I’ll never forget seeing the hollow eyes on the faces of exhausted migrants huddled on cots in a church sanctuary that had been haphazardly turned into a migrant shelter in El Paso.
When I arrived, I was told that these migrants had been released by ICE that day to the church. It was midafternoon, but what struck me was that they were so very tired. They sat in the quiet church worship hall in silence. Some slept. Some just sat and stared. Babies didn’t even cry. Mothers held their children close and just looked ahead. No one said a word. No laughter, no conversation. No crying of the children. Just silence. They were all so tired.
I was told by the pastors of the church that many of the migrants who came to them day after day suffered from violence, rape, extortion and threats of being forced into drug gangs. Many of them saw loved ones murdered and they lived under threats of death at the hands of cartels and drug gangs.
Corrupt police and government officials could not protect the poor who were being used and extorted in these countries that are descending into lawlessness.
Yet, prayers from the pastors, shelter, food, love, hospitality, concern, and being received and embraced as fully human encouraged them greatly.
The work of Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical churches along the border over the past several months has been immense. I’ve seen with my own eyes, and through my research with the Evangelical Immigration Table, churches engaging in this hard but needed work of receiving migrants in San Diego-Tijuana; Nogales, Ariz.; El Paso, Texas; and elsewhere. These churches truly are being the hands and feet of Jesus.
But the other side of the work of the church is that it is often fellow Christians who come to the border from the south and make their way across.
I’ve heard from multiple sources that the majority of the migrants coming from Central America are evangelical Christians. I was told by a church shelter manager in Las Cruces, New Mexico, that as many as 75 percent of the migrants they served were evangelicals. Others in El Paso said the proportion of evangelical migrants was well over 50 percent. In significant ways, the ministry of receiving migrants by churches at the border is the ministry of the church embracing Christ himself.
Not long ago, a Nazarene pastor friend of mine was invited to meet with a group of asylum-seekers at the border. Among them was a man named Oscar and his little girl. He had fled to the U.S. to keep her safe. They shared a meal and then Oscar, who said he was part of an evangelical church, told my friend something profound.
“Somos familia,” he said. “Somos hermanos.”
We are family. We are brothers.
Was this the same Oscar? What matters is what the asylum-seeker my friend met said.
“Somos familia. Somos hermanos.”
John Garland, pastor of San Antonio Mennonite Fellowship, has also recently written that approximately 80 percent of the migrants that his church receives are evangelical Christians.
I write this not because I think that evangelical Christians have more value than people of other religions or no religion at all, but because I think it is important for American Christians to know that the migrants coming to us are also our brothers and sisters in Christ.
They are family.
How we treat them and see them is how we treat Jesus (Matthew 25:40).
I believe that Jesus sees these desperate people. I believe they matter to him.
Jesus saw Óscar and Valeria. Jesus saw the woman and the three little children who died in the desert. He sees all of the crowds of migrants, harassed and helpless and fleeing from a home where they are no longer safe to journey to a place they have never been.
He wants us to see them too.
Can we, like Jesus, be moved with compassion for the crowds of migrants coming to us? Can we pray for them and weep for migrants like Óscar and Valeria?
Merlin, 38, left Cameroon last year due to violence. But as a black immigrant, his experience in America has been a unique challenge. Rachel Zein for The Texas Tribune
Editor’s note: Some language in this story may not be appropriate for the faint of heart. Consider yourself warned.
After a months-long journey across the Atlantic Ocean, into Central America and through Mexico, Merlin arrived at the U.S. port of entry in Laredo full of hope. The 38-year-old who worked in hotel management said he fled violent political unrest in Cameroon to seek a new life in America, a country he viewed as a bastion of safety and freedom.
But after legally crossing the border and asking for asylum, Merlin was detained by federal officials for 11 months. He lived at the South Texas Detention Complex along with people who didn’t look like him or speak his native language, French.
Merlin, who asked to be identified only by his first name because he’s fleeing political persecution, was frequently frustrated with how the reality of life as a refugee in America conflicts with the country’s image as a haven for immigrants while he struggled through an asylum process experiencing fundamental shifts under the Trump administration.
This wasn’t the United States he thought would be welcoming him with open arms and opportunity. Some days, he questioned why he came.
“I was a bit disappointed for what we were thinking,” Merlin said last week. “In Africa, you thought [America] was paradise.”
As the Trump administration implemented its now-reversed “zero tolerance” immigration policy and narrowed previous paths to asylum , thousands of Mexican and Central American immigrants became the faces of chaotic changes that federal agencies made in how they treat people legally and illegally crossing the border.
But asylum seekers like Merlin who fled African countries have also been ensnared in the bureaucratic tumult. And those black African immigrants arriving in Texas are finding a litany of racial, cultural and practical challenges that can be different from — and overshadowed by — the experiences of Latino immigrants who flood into Texas each year, advocates and experts say.
“We become frustrated with the single story pushed out,”said Deborah Alemu of the UndocuBlack Network, an organization that advocates for black, undocumented immigrants.
The number of African immigrants in the U.S. has roughly doubled every decade since 1970, according to the Pew Research Center. The original plaintiffs at the heart of what is now a class-action lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union filed against Immigration and Customs Enforcement over federal officials separating families seeking asylum are from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Texas, the second-most populous state in the country, has more than 235,000 foreign-born African residents. That is more than any other state, according to 2016 U.S. Census data. But those immigrants represent only 5 percent of the state’s total foreign-born residents, thanks mainly to the large number of immigrant Texas residents born in Latin America.
Alemu said that historical racism and discrimination directed at black people in America can exacerbate the difficulties African immigrants already face for being an asylum seeker.
“You won’t be recognized as Ghanaian, Congolese or Jamaican,” Alemu said. “You’ll be recognized as black.”
A “resting place of hope”
Four houses sit in a cul-de-sac in East Austin, forming what is almost a small town. Children outside run from house to house. Doors slam as squeals of laughter and chatter fill the air. These homes belong to Posada Esperanza, which roughly translates to “resting place of hope,” a transitional housing program for immigrant mothers and their children who are escaping cultural or domestic violence. The organization provides immigrant women and their children with temporary housing and resources to find jobs and permanent homes.
Patti McCabe, the shelter’s director, said Posada’s population was once majority Latino residents. But now, nearly half of the women housed at Posada are from African countries. Most of them fled the Democratic Republic of Congo — a country dealing with violent fallout from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which triggered a wave of weak governance, exposing Congolese civilians to sexual violence and rape, extreme poverty and human rights violations by rebel groups.
McCabe said Africans often travel as family units. But once they reach American soil seeking asylum, the husbands are detained and the women and children are often released while they wait for court dates. Posada receives many immigrant women who are pregnant or have given birth without their spouses by their side. One Congolese woman currently at Posada was within days of her due date this month while her husband remained detained at a facility in New Jersey.
“When you think of family separation, you think of children being separated from their parents — that’s what everyone has been talking about,” Posada case manager Laura Messenger said. “But what we’ve seen a lot this year and what we have been seeing for the past two is our women and children here being separated from their husbands and fathers who are still in detention.”
Posada’s staff teach women how to ride the city buses, find health clinics and research work and housing options during their stay. But the goal is to teach the women to financially sustain themselves and their children on their own — which can be incongruous to the traditional gender roles some of the women were taught. Yet for the women of Posada, being financially independent single mothers while their husbands are detained has been empowering, McCabe said.
“It would be they might have input, but the husband always makes the ultimate decision,” McCabe said. “But now, like it or not, they’re the ones who need to make the decisions.”
Still, basic activities like riding public transportation or going to the grocery store can be a difficult task for those who don’t speak Spanish and English — the two most predominant languages in Texas.
“I just can’t imagine how that must feel from their perspective — to not be able to communicate even simple things about what they need in the facilities, let alone their asylum claim and conveying that in an application that’s in English,” said Priscilla Olivarez, an attorney with American Gateways, an organization that has asylum-seeking clients from Africa.
Then U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month issued a ruling that made it tougher for victims solely escaping domestic or gang violence to seek asylum in the U.S. — leading to more deportations before seekers have the opportunity to argue their cases in front of an immigration judge. Sessions had previously criticized what he called widespread abuse of the asylum system and said in October that the asylum process “has become an easy ticket to illegal entry into the United States.”
Olivarez, who sees many asylum claims from African immigrants based on religious reasons or gender-based violence, said she’s seen an increase in asylum denials after Sessions’ June ruling. Olivarez has also seen an uptick in cases where people are being required to pay a parole bond so they can be released while awaiting a final determination of their asylum request. And she’s noticed more parole bond requests denied, meaning asylum seekers are being detained as the process winds through federal courts.
“Before the administration change, we wouldn’t see that,” Olivarez said. “Generally we wouldn’t see parole bonds and they wouldn’t be as high as we’re seeing.”
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement reported that 35,070 bonds have been posted so far this year, compared to 48,199 for all of 2017 and 42,384 for all of 2016.
An ICE spokesman said there have been no changes to the bond policy and that “custody decisions are made on a case-by-case basis taking into account multiple factors, including immigration history, criminal history, medical history and ties to the community.”
Olivarez said her African clients have been “shocked” when they are detained after seeking asylum at the border — especially those who were imprisoned in their home countries for being political activists and must now deal with what she called the “retraumatization” of being detained.
“Many clients tell me they did not think they would be treated this way,” Olivarez said. “For many of them, America was a country that valued freedom, which is why they made the dangerous journey to come to the U.S. They believed the U.S. was the only country that would provide them with sufficient protection. However, when they arrive in the U.S., they feel as if they are treated as a criminal.”
From African jail to American detention
Merlin left Cameroon after violence erupted between the country’s French-speaking population, which dominates the government, and English-speaking separatists, who have reportedly been marginalized by the French-speaking majority.
Since 2016, scores of civilians on both sides have been killed, with the government accused of torturing suspected separatists and separatists accused of kidnapping and extorting civilians and state workers, according to Human Rights Watch.
Merlin, who grew up farming with his parentsand is now a single dad, saw the country he loved rapidly change before his eyes. After being arrested with hundreds of others during a protest, Merlin’s mother begged him to go to America for his safety.
He was surprised that he was detained for so long, but he said he’s grateful that it was only 11 months. He met other detainees who had been there for years.
“Why allow people in and detain them?” Merlin said.
Racism, discrimination linger beyond asylum process
Merlin was released in February and then stayed at Casa Marianella, another Austin-based immigrant adult shelter, where he connected with other French-speaking African immigrants. As he awaits a judge’s ruling on his asylum case, he is slowly adjusting to life in America.
“When you get out of [detention], you put your hand on your chest and say, ‘thank God,’” Merlin said. “I’m more safe today.”
But even those black African immigrants who are allowed to stay while their asylum requests are processed — and those who successfully immigrate to the United States — face racial bias and discrimination both inside and outside the immigration enforcement system, according to a 2016 report by the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
When and where we live, when the super-wealthy have robbed the merely wealthy, when the middling classes have lost their savings and the poor their homes, when the issue of immigration is hot and the lives of immigrants are threatened — the issues of poverty and wealth, of immigration and the home-born, mean a great deal. And that is what Ruth is about.
In the biblical story, Ruth was a foreigner from the nation of Moab, which was despised by all patriotic and God-fearing Israelites. Yet when she came to Israel as a widow, companion to her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, she was welcomed onto the fields of Boaz, where she gleaned what the regular harvesters had left behind. Boaz made sure that even this despised foreigner had a decent job at decent pay. When she went one night to the barn where the barley crop was being threshed, he spent the night with her –and decided to marry her.
But if Ruth came to America today, what would happen?
Would she be admitted at the border?
Or would she be detained for months without a lawyer, ripped from Naomi’s arms while Naomi’s protest brought her too under suspicion — detained because she was, after all, a Canaanite who spoke some variety of Arabic, possibly a terrorist, for sure an idolator?
Would she be deported as merely an “economic refugee,” not a worthy candidate for asylum?
Would she have to show a “green card” before she could get a job gleaning at any farm, restaurant, or hospital?
Would she be sent to “workfare” with no protections for her dignity, her freedom, or her health?
When she boldly “uncovers the feet” of Boaz during the night they spend together on the threshing floor, has she violated the “family values” that some religious folk now proclaim? Or has she affirmed that love engages the body as well as the heart, the mind, and the spirit, and that sometimes a loving body comes before a wedding?
Today in America, some of us are outcasts like Ruth; some are prosperous, like Boaz. He affirmed that in a decent society, everyone was entitled to decent work for a decent income. Everyone — yes, everyone! Even, or especially, a despised immigrant from a despised nation. Everyone — not just a certain percentage of the people.
In ancient Israel, everyone had the right simply to walk onto a field and begin to work, begin to use the means of production of that era. And then to eat what they had gathered.
And Boaz could not order his regular workers to be economically “efficient.” They could not harvest everything — not what grew in the corners of the field, not what they missed on the first go-round. Social compassion was more important than efficiency. No downsizing allowed.
Although Boaz was generous-hearted, Ruth’s right to glean did not depend upon his generosity. It was the law.
Ruth was entitled not only to a job, but to respect. No name-calling, no sexual harassment. And she, as well as Boaz, was entitled to Shabbat: time off for rest, reflection, celebration, love. She was entitled to “be” — as well as to “do.”
Because Ruth the outcast and Boaz the solid citizen got together, they could become the ancestors of King David. According to both Jewish and Christian legend, they could thus help bring Messiah into the world — help bring the days of peace and justice.
What do we learn from their story today?
In America today, many of us live in the place of Boaz. Many others live in the place of Ruth. Our society has dismantled many of the legal commitments to the poor that ancient Israelite society affirmed. What are our own religious obligations?
What are our obligations — those of us who still have jobs, who have not lost our retirement funds to the machinations of the banks, or even those who have! What are our obligations to those who are living in cardboard boxes on the streets or parks of our cities? What are our obligations to those who have been evicted from their homes, to those who have no jobs?
Are we obligated only to toss a dollar bill or two into the empty hats of the homeless?
Or are we obligated to write new laws for our own country like the ancient laws that protected Ruth? Are we obligated to create new communities — local credit unions instead of global banks, food coops and neighborhood clinics, groups of caring people who turn an involuntary “furlough” from their jobs into time to learn together, sing together, plan together to make new places of shared work?
Are we obligated to create a society that rubs away the barriers between the rich and poor, between those who speak one language from those who speak another?
What can we do — what must we do — to help bring on the days of peace and justice?
Opening night of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum will be a multi-cultural affair. Not only is ex-Democratic Congressman and former Obama supporter Artur Davis speaking, but so are South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and first lady of Puerto Rico, Luce’ Vela Fortuno. Mike Huckabee and Ann Romney are also on the agenda and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez will offer the benediction.
If you can’t be there, don’t worry, because the Republicans have organized their grand party as a “convention without walls.” Monday night’s theme will be “We Can Do Better,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus announced August 20. “Americans know we can do better than joblessness, poverty and debt,” said Priebus. “This convention will present our vision for a brighter, better future and it will lay out an optimistic, achievable plan to make it happen.” Given what seems like an obvious attempt to put a multi-racial face on the mostly White party, we’re wondering what Republicans will offer voters of color on the issues that matter to them most. Here are a few possibilities:
In the seven swing states of Nevada, Florida, Colorado, Wisconsin, Ohio, Virginia and Iowa, “jobless rates all rose or were flat in July,” Reuters reported. “A majority of Americans view the economy as the most important issue facing the country, according to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll.” Check out our interview with Romney’s senior communications adviser Tara Wall for what she says her boss will do to address these economic concerns.
With Romney’s choice of Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate, Ryan’s “signature legislative proposal, the Path to Prosperity, has been widely criticized for its reduction of taxes for corporations and wealthy Americans — while deeply cutting social welfare programs,” The Root reported. “The Paul Ryan budgeteffectively destroys Medicare by turning it into a voucher program; slashes funding to Medicaid, which serves single mothers, children and the poor; and privatizes Social Security, leaving the elderly without a safety net.” And yet, conservative columnist David Brooks says it’s better than the Democratic alternative.
Education and Voting Rights
The NAACP and the National Education Association “are teaming up to register, educate and activate hundreds of thousands of voters ahead of the 2012 elections,” the NAACP announced August 20. “In the last two years, more states have passed more laws pushing more voters out of the ballot box than at any time since the rise of Jim Crow,” said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. “The extremists behind these laws know that the right to vote is the gateway to protecting so many of the other rights we care about, including the right to quality public schools for the next generation.” Will Republicans address these charges?
“The Obama administration’s [brand new] Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals could expand the rights of more than 1 million young illegal immigrants by giving them work permits, though they would not obtain legal residency here or a path to citizenship,” Politico reported. “Republican critics accuse President Barack Obama of drafting the plan to boost his political standing with Latinos ahead of November’s vote and say the program favors illegal immigrants over unemployed American citizens during dismal economic times,” the article said. But do voters care?
Abortion and Same Sex Marriage
“Relatively few black Americans and Hispanic Americans believe that cultural issues such as abortion (17% and 30%) and same-sex marriage (18% and 26%) are critical issues facing the country,” the Public Religion Research Institute reported in July. Does the media make more of culture-war issues than voters do?
“Black Protestants favor stricter gun control even more strongly than Catholics, according to a 2011 ABC News/Washington Post poll, with 71 percent saying they want tougher gun laws,” Religion News Service reported after recent shootings at a Colorado movie theater and a Sikh house of worship in Wisconsin. Will politicians pay attention to everyday urban violence concerns when the news media doesn’t?
What Does It Mean?
The Republicans have their work cut out for them. A Pew Research Center Poll conducted in late July found that only 4 percent of Blacks and 26 percent of Hispanics would have voted for Governor Romney if the election was held on the day the poll was conducted.
What do you think?
What issues to you want to hear the Republicans talk about next week?