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?
After hearing arguments Wednesday about SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial immigration law, the United States Supreme Court justices seemed inclined to uphold some parts of the law and block others, the Chicago Tribune reported. The justices said they “saw no problem with requiring police officers to check the immigration status of people who are stopped,” the Tribunereported, but “were troubled by parts of the Arizona law that made it a state crime for illegal immigrants to not carry documents or seek work.”
S.B. 1070 is ‘Ethically Bankrupt’ and ‘Immoral’
“This legislation is not just ethically bankrupt but undermines basic Christian values and American ideals. The court will decide whether it is legal, but it is already clear it isn’t moral,” wrote Jim Wallis and the Rev. Max Rodus at The Huffington Post.
It’s Really About Fear, Power, and Freedom
At CNN.com, Ruben Navarrette Jr. said the law is primarily about fear, power, and freedom: Fear because “the realization that whites would soon become a statistical minority in Arizona just as they are in California, Texas and New Mexico” was the fuel that fed SB 1070, “or as local activists have dubbed it: ‘The Mexican Removal Act.'”; power because the law “essentially deputizes local and state police”and “gives them the power to act as surrogates for Immigration and Customs Enforcement”; and, freedom because “U.S.-born Latinos should be free from harassment. They shouldn’t have to prove they belong in their own country.”
Latinos Are Fleeing the State
“Whatever the outcome,” “much damage will already have been done,” writes J.D. Tuccille at Reason. His wife is a pediatrician in Northern Arizona and he says some of her Latino patients won’t make the trip to Phoenix or Tuscon to see specialists when she refers them because they “have chosen to forego that particular gauntlet of crewcut peril and either put off treatment or seek it out of state.” Tuccille says 100,000 Hispanics have left the state since the passage of S.B. 1070.
Damaged Reputation or Inspiration?
Likewise, the Los Angeles Times reported that the law has damaged Arizona’s reputation. It cites a study by the Center for American Progress that found conventions cancelations after passage of SB 1070 “cost the state more than $23 million in lost tax revenue and at least $350 million in direct spending by conventions’ would-be attendees.” But, the American Civil Liberties Union reportsthat “after the law passed in 2010, two dozen copycat bills were introduced in state legislatures across the country; five passed in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah.” Lawsuits have been filed in all six states by the ACLU and other civil rights organizations, it says.
Legal Issues ‘Deliberately Misread’
National Review went meta with an editorial in support of the law that said the legal issues surrounding S.B. 1070 are being deliberately misread. “The Justice Department’s case rests instead on a willful misreading of federal statute, and it reinterprets the requirement that states not preempt federal immigration laws as a requirement that states harmonize their own laws with federal immigration enforcement practices— or in this case, with the lack thereof,” the editorial said.
A Moot Point in Face of Immigration Decline?
Meanwhile, the number of Mexican immigrants has “dropped significantly for the first time in decades,” the Associated Press reported, because many haven’t been able to find work in the U.S. and have returned to Mexico. Sixty percent of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico, the article said. “Roughly 6.1 million unauthorized Mexican immigrants were living in the U.S. last year, down from a peak of nearly 7 million in 2007, according to the Pew Hispanic Center study released Monday,” AP reported.
What do you think?
Should the U.S. Supreme Court uphold or overturn S.B. 1070?
A delegation of prominent evangelical leaders traveled to Alabama this week to oppose the state’s new immigration law, HB 56. The group spent a day at a Birmingham church, where they talked to educators, students, health care providers, pastors, and families impacted by the law, they told reporters on a conference call yesterday.
Where Are White Evangelicals Now?
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, described HB 56 as an “anti-American,” “anti-Christian,” “anti-family” “violation of basic civil rights.” He said it is instilling fear, not only in undocumented immigrants, but in those who are in the United States legally.
I asked Rodriguez if there is more or less white evangelical support for comprehensive immigration reform now than there was when I interviewed him about the issue for Christianity Today in 2006.
“We have more white evangelicals supportive than in 2006 for sure, both in its leadership and from people in the pews, but I cannot come to the considered conclusion that we have overwhelming or even majority support in the evangelical community for a comprehensive solution,” said Rodriguez. “We do not have enough support to push back the Alabama law.”
Rodriguez described Alabama as a strongly evangelical state in the heart of the Bible belt and said that if Christians had put their faith before their American citizenship, the law would never have passed.
“It was Christian apathy in Alabama—that’s the best case scenario—if not Christian endorsement of the Alabama law that has resulted in our current malaise,” said Rodriguez.
Does Rodriguez Regret African American Comparison?
In light of UrbanFaith reader criticism of Rodriguez’s statement to CNN comparing the plight of Hispanics and undocumented immigrants to that of African Americans, I asked if the comparison diminished the long history of African American oppression in this country.
“No, as a matter of fact, I stand by my comments one hundred percent,” said Rodriguez.
“I can tell you that the vast majority of African Americans understand that what’s taking place here is a lot more than just illegal immigration. …The things that we’re seeing in Alabama and Arizona, these manifestations, they’re not addressing the elephant in the room. They’re trying to go around it, and that is the Latinization of America. The 21st century is an immigrant civil rights issue, a Latino civil rights issue because the vast majority of immigrants are Latino. This has to do with pressing one for English and pressing two for Spanish. Let’s not be naive. This is not just about illegal immigration,” Rodriguez explained.
Earlier on the call, Rodriguez had said his organization is launching a campaign to encourage Hispanic leaders and pastors move to Alabama in order to test whether or not the intention of the law is to “purge” Alabama of “any ethnicity group that does not reflect the majority composition of the state.”
Perhaps this is what he had in mind when he told me “initiatives, campaigns, billboards, conference calls” won’t succeed. “We need a movement that will accomplish comprehensive immigration reform,” Rodriguez concluded.
Is the Moral Obligation Greater?
Dr. Carlos Campo, president of Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, also weighed in on the Civil Rights movement comparison.
“This movement is not about a people that are protected, at least in language, by the laws of the United States as fully, clearly as African Americans were, at least in the letter of the law,” said Campo. “That’s one of the reasons there’s an even greater obligation in terms of a moral response here, is these are the least and the last in our community. These are the very ones to whom we believe our God would call us to because they don’t have equal protection under the law.”
Campo doesn’t believe Alabamans fully understood the implications of the law, he said.
“I think there were certain leaders who did understand, but I believe there are a number of people in the Alabama faith community, as they see the implementation of this law, are appalled by what has been passed. And I think it is time for folks in the church not to remain silent any longer and to speak up on behalf of those who cannot or are too fearful to do so,” said Campo.
Is HB 56 Racial Profiling at Its Worst?
Also on the call was Rev. Daniel DeLeon, Senior Pastor of Templo Calvario in Santa Ana, California, and chairman of the National Hispanic Pentacostal Congress.
DeLeon was motivated to go to Alabama after he heard politicians say the law is accomplishing what they wanted it to accomplish. This represents “racial profiling at its worst,” he said. It bothered him too, as an American citizen, to see that “human rights have gone out the window,” he said.
Rev. Jim Tolle, senior pastor of Church on the Way in Los Angeles, California, described himself as a Republican evangelical, and said he believes “subconscious racism” was at play in the passage of HB56. He called attention to the fact that all Americans other than “first nations people” have immigrant histories. “Everybody arrived without permission,” said Tolle.
Both Tolle and DeLeon talked about the immigration struggles of longtime members of their Calfiornia churches. Tolle said a 27 year member had been deported “overnight” and DeLeon said a leader in his church had been trying unsuccessfully for years to legalize his immigration status. Both of these men have children who were born in the United States, the pastors said.
Do the Players Matter?
Robert Gittelson, co-founder of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, said nothing that undocumented immigrants face in California compares to what they are facing in Alabama and Arizona. He noted that Arizona senators John McCain and Jon Kyl were key proponents of the failed Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 and a key “obstructionist” was Alabama senator Jeff Sessions. Sessions is still a leading opponent of comprehensive immigration reform, he said.
What do you think?
Is Rev. Rodriguez’s response to reader criticism of his African American / undocumented immigrant comparison adequate?
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