As a faith leader in Kentucky, I have been truly inspired by the grassroots efforts of people who have learned what it means to “love your neighbor” and how to exercise the mercy and compassion that Jesus demonstrates throughout his earthly ministry. For example, in some of our rural communities, people of faith have been horrified to discover that neighbors could disappear overnight—into detention or deportation. They stepped up to sign power-of-attorney papers for their neighbors’ and friends’ children in case someday those parents are taken away by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. I have also been inspired by a pastor who makes it part of his daily routine to bring food and other necessities to an immigrant family whose main breadwinner has been taken into custody.
As much as I am convinced of the power of the Gospel when I see this kind of practical charity in action, I am profoundly disturbed that it is needed in our nation at this time. It is critical to humanize the issue of immigration, to introduce real people’s experiences into the public consciousness, if we want to bring about real and lasting change in the treatment of immigrants and strangers in our country.
Let us take stock of where we are. In recent months we have seen an unimaginable kind of human cruelty, a kind that has lasting repercussions for the vulnerable individuals involved, being carried out as a matter of national policy. Who would believe that in the land of the free and the home of the brave we would be so threatened by penniless, shoeless migrants who have traveled hundreds of miles to escape gangs, violence and brutal poverty?
What kind of national security requires the separation of children from their parents?
But even as we acknowledge this horror, I do not want to lose sight of what else we have seen: the great outcry that Americans do not want to be identified with cruelty, do not want to be identified as a nation that allows children to be warehoused and penned like livestock behind chain-link fences. Even a president who has trained his ears to hear only a certain portion of the population could not be shielded from the outcry.
Who would believe that in the land of the free and the home of the brave we would be so threatened by penniless, shoeless migrants?
Encountering the human faces of unjust immigration enforcement has brought about some relief—and the emphasis must be on “some.” Now we must insist that family incarceration is still the incarceration of children. We cannot allow the public to become accustomed to tent cities on military bases, asylum seekers turned away at the border, and families with or without children held in detention. Nor do we want to see the families who are escaping violence being sent back to the very places they risked everything to escape.
The “zero tolerance” approach to immigration enforcement is only the latest step in a system that has been broken for decades. Despite our nation’s need for immigrant labor—it could fairly be called an addiction—we do not have the political will to protect immigrants’ human rights, to provide protection in the workplace, to provide a pathway to legal residency. These are people who are picking our produce, building our businesses and homes, caring for our children, tending our yards, processing our poultry, and doing the difficult work that many Americans will not do and do not envision their children doing, yet we do not allow these decent and hardworking people to participate in society. They live in fear of deportation, in fear of raids, in the fear that in going to work on any given day they might be rounded up and their kids may come home to any empty house with no knowledge of where their parents were taken—as happened in two large-scale raids in northern Ohio when our attention was focused on the southern border.
The “zero tolerance” approach to immigration enforcement is only the latest step in a system that has been broken for decades.
Even the young who had no say about being brought to this country, who have only known this country as their homeland, who speak only English, who attend our schools, who work and who strive for a share in the American dream—who have taken the risk of registering with the government, trusting in the promise that they would be protected—now live in fear because we do not have the political will to do what a solid majority of the country supports, and protect the Dreamers.
Now we must say that there is a way to protect our borders from criminals, but it will not be found if we spend all of our time and resources prosecuting thousands of families escaping violence in their homelands. We must say that we, too, were once aliens in a foreign land and so we will heed the biblical admonition to “love the alien as yourself.” I hope that his fellow Methodists have shown Attorney General Jeff Sessions those verses, found throughout the Old Testament.
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For the first 15 years of my priesthood, I worked on the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. I was the pastor of a church that was established in 1680 and, because of changes in the course of the Rio Grande, has been on both sides and even in the middle of that river. I learned to be a pastor from the people on the border, where the consequences of global injustice were right in front of our eyes. People standing on one side of the river could look across to the United States and see where their daily wage was being paid as an hourly wage. When the city of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, became one of the most dangerous places on earth, especially for women, the attraction of safety on the other side became even stronger.
Even in those days, the United States had a broken immigration system. El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, an area whose history was binational and multicultural, and where crossing the international boundary was a daily reality for many, became a divided community that reinforced inequality. People from the north could freely go south, but people from the south were detained when attempting to come north. The Nafta treaty allowed goods to pass freely across the border, but not the people who make and consume those goods.
The cry of the bishops on both sides of the border, then and now, is for comprehensive immigration reform that follows these principles. First, providing economic opportunities and safety in the homelands of migrants is the only lasting solution to the “problem” of immigration. In addition, the right of survival and the right to support one’s family are of a higher moral order than the nation’s rights to protect its borders (although border protection is indeed a right of nations); people who cross borders do not give up their human rights and must be treated humanely; and immigration policies and quotas need frequent revision to make it possible for those who have a genuine need to migrate to do so legally and safely.
At a recent ecumenical prayer service at a church in the city of Frankfort, Ky., we reflected on the Final Judgment scene from Matthew’s Gospel. I am afraid that in our individualized existence we in the United States fail to hear that in the opening lines of this judgment scene Christ arrives, throned in glory, to judge the nations. It is the nations that are divided like sheep from goats, depending on their treatment of Christ present in the most needy.
At the Final Judgment, it is the nations that are divided like sheep from goats, depending on their treatment of Christ present in the most needy.
When we proclaim this Gospel passage, we are committing ourselves to see Jesus in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the prisoner, the brown and the black. And we are here to affirm the presence of Jesus in the outcast and exploited whose humanity has been disrespected and whose rights have been trampled. But we also need to listen very carefully to the voice of Jesus who now says:
When I picked and prepared your food, you watched me be handcuffed and loaded into a van.
When I grew the plants you will use in your yard, you allowed me to be detained far from where I lived and worked.
When I served you at table, you didn’t know that I went home in fear that I might be stopped along the way or that my spouse wouldn’t come home at all.
When I ran away from an abusive spouse, or protected my kids from gangs on our street, you turned me away from your border.
When I was 5 years old and separated from my parents, you accused me of being MS-13 or an actor.
When I sat next to you in class, you said, “Go back where you came from” and insulted my accent, my skin color, my way of being.
When I was a child and woke up crying for my mom, you did not comfort me, much less help me find her.
When I came to do the work you advertised for, you categorized me with rapists and drug dealers.
When I tried to call my precious child, you connected me to a bureaucracy with no answers.
The Son of Man, coming in glory and surrounded by angels, is seated upon his glorious throne—but that throne is a thin mattress in a tent surrounded by chain link fence.
This essay is adapted from Bishop Stowe’s address to the Center for Migration Studies (CMS) Conference on Promoting Just and Inclusive Communities in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana, held in Cincinnati on July 17 and 18.