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Faithfully engaging the immigration debate in the age of Trump

POSTED: March 15, 2017 9:41 a.m.
President Donald Trump turned campaign promises on immigration policy into executive orders during his first week in office.

As polls show four in 10 Americans support his promised wall along the Mexican-American border and even more approve of a travel ban on citizens from nine terror-linked countries, Trump's actions create another obstacle for faith-based immigration activists who work to make outreach to illegal immigrants a core part of religious life.

"The Christian scripture, the Hebrew scripture and the Quran are all about creating community, welcoming people, caring for people at the margins and responding to those in need," said Sister Simone Campbell, director of the NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice. "Policies based on fear and keeping people out are the opposite of a faithful life."

Trump announced that construction on a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico would begin within a year. He is seeking to enhance the government's ability to identify and deport illegal immigrants and threatened to take federal funds from cities protecting undocumented citizens. He also banned refugees and other travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, an announcement that sparked protests in airports across the country and four court orders staying the ban.

Sister Campbell and dozens of other faith leaders have decried Trump's actions, urging America's religious communities to actively resist his deportation plans.

Catholic, Jewish and Mormon leaders have long been outspoken on immigration policy reform, advocating for a path to legal status for undocumented Americans sometimes in spite of disagreements with the people in their pews. Members of the evangelical Christian community, although still divided on the policy debate, are increasingly linking biblical teachings on welcoming the stranger to more permissive views on immigration.

White evangelical Protestants are still more likely to favor heightened border security and enforcement of current laws than creating a path to citizenship. But nearly half of this group (48 percent) now urge policymakers to prioritize both of these goals, compared to 39 percent in 2010, according to data from Pew Research Center.

The Trump administration threatens to disrupt the growing consensus on immigration, according to religious immigration activists. To make a difference, they must plot new courses of action and prepare to make deals with a president who is as unpredictable as he is temperamental.

"My fear is that if you jump up and down and scream too loud, you'll make Trump dig in," said M. Daniel Carroll Rodas, a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College and author of "Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church and the Bible."

Spirit of welcome

There's no clear path from religious texts to contemporary immigration policy, and those who work at the intersection of faith and illegal immigration continue to debate the appropriate combination of security and compassion.

"People frame (this debate) as if you are either a Christian who wants secure borders or a Christian who wants a legal citizenship process," said Matthew Soerens, the U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief. "There may be ways to do both."

Most faith leaders do agree that a spirit of hospitality should guide religious outreach to illegal immigrants, which explains why even politically divided congregations sometimes come together to hold health clinics or tutoring classes for undocumented neighbors, Carroll said.

"What I find is that people will agree to spiritual and social outreach and just bracket the legal discussion," he said.

This emphasis on welcoming the stranger was evident in many religious responses to Trump's recent executive orders.

"Our historical experience as Jews who dwelled as guests in others' lands sensitizes us to the imperative to ensure a just and compassionate immigration policy," said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, in a statement.

Bishop Joe Vasquez, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration, said Catholics are called to recognize the dignity of all humans and to stand with immigrant families.

"Every day, my brother bishops and I witness the harmful effects of immigrant detention in our ministries. We experience the pain of severed families that struggle to maintain a semblance of normal family life. We see traumatized children in our schools and in our churches. (Trump's) policies … will only further upend immigrant families," he said in a statement.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints urged government leaders to search for policies that best serve people in need, releasing a statement on Jan. 28 calling for "solutions to meet human needs and relieve suffering." The LDS Church launched its "I Was a Stranger" outreach effort to refugee families in March 2016. It has also called for more permissive immigration policies in the past.

"The (LDS) Church supports an approach where undocumented immigrants are allowed to square themselves with the law and continue to work without this necessarily leading to citizenship," according to a 2011 statement.

Evangelical Christian organizations, such as the National Association of Evangelicals, generally focused their dissent on the proposed refugee ban, criticizing Trump's plan to temporarily stop accepting families from Syria and to heighten the vetting process of those coming from six other Muslim-majority countries.

"We have the opportunity to rescue, help and bless some of the world’s most oppressed and vulnerable families," said Leith Anderson, NAE president, to Christianity Today.

But Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelical Billy Graham, spoke for the other camp of evangelicals, which includes those who support deportation for all illegal immigrants and those who may not see a scriptural mandate in addressing the issue.

"It's not a biblical command for the country to let everyone in who wants to come, that's not a Bible issue," Graham said, according to The Huffington Post. "We want to love people, we want to be kind to people, we want to be considerate, but we have a country and a country should have order and there are laws that relate to immigration and I think we should follow those laws."

Growing evangelical engagement

Graham may be in the minority among pastors, priests and other religious leaders, but his view is common among rank and file believers.

Only 7 percent of Catholics, 3 percent of white mainline Protestants and 12 percent of white evangelical Christians say religion is the biggest influence on their immigration policy views, according to the Pew Research Center.

Immigration activists have been working to boost support among religious congregants by educating other people of faith about why the debate over illegal immigration should be viewed through a religious lens.

"The language of welcoming the newcomer, the immigrant, the stranger is in the Catholic, Christian, Muslim and Jewish traditions," said Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC.) "I think all of us in the faith world should be working with our own communities to try to make sure folks know the message that is so strong."

Soerens has embraced this mission in the evangelical community, working to clear up what he referred to as a biblical "blind spot." His employer, World Relief, issued a statement in support of comprehensive immigration reform 10 years ago, becoming the first large evangelical organization to speak out on this issue.

Since then, their lone voice has turned into a chorus.

"A huge number of Christian colleges and organizations have affirmed the Evangelical Immigration Table's statement of principles," Soerens said. These principles include keeping immediate families together, securing borders and establishing a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Protestant Christians were more likely to be the enemy of immigrants, including legal ones, than to come to their aid. They were trying to protect their majority status, which appeared threatened by an influx of Jews and Catholics, as Soerens wrote in a recent article for Christianity Today.

"While some evangelicals sought to convert Catholic newcomers to their Protestant theology, the primary concern of most evangelicals was maintaining Protestant cultural hegemony," he said.

However, the shifting demographic makeup of the American evangelical community has helped push its members to change their tune on immigration in recent years.

"Evangelical churches in the U.S. are growing in immigrant communities in a way that they're not growing in the category of white evangelicals," Soerens said. "When people talk about deporting immigrants, they could be talking about deporting whole churches in some cases. The church I go to (in Aurora, Illinois) is 50 percent Hispanic. That's not atypical for evangelical congregations."

Around 1 in 4 evangelicals (24 percent) were non-white in 2014, compared to 19 percent in 2007, a 5 percent increase over seven years, according to Pew.

A similar phenomenon is occurring in the Catholic community, which has long been home to many immigrants and their families.

"More than a quarter of U.S. Catholic adults (27 percent) were born outside the country, compared with 15 percent of U.S. adults overall," Pew reported in 2015. "An additional 15 percent of Catholic Americans have at least one foreign-born parent. That leaves 57 percent of Catholics who were born in the U.S. to two native-born parents."

Overall, these trends are a positive sign for faith leaders who want to see more religious voices in the immigration debate, said Soerens, who published "Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate" in 2009.

"We're on a trajectory toward deeper engagement with the issue of immigration," he noted.

Trump's attraction

In the portrait religious immigration activists paint of their faith communities, Trump's victory seems like an inexplicable dark mark. A majority of Protestants, white Catholics and white evangelicals voted for him, despite his immigration-related campaign promises that would appear to conflict with Christian teachings.

"The reality is that immigration was not the No. 1 issue for very many white evangelicals" this election season, Soerens said.

"The Catholic Church has a document (for voters) that's a compilation of things Catholics should consider. It includes immigration as one of five main issues," Atkinson said.

However, she speculated that immigration policy might have been overshadowed by other ongoing debates, such as those involving health care and abortion rights.

The simplest explanation for the disconnect between what some immigration activists have observed in their faith communities and how fellow members voted is that support for Trump had little to do with his statements on illegal immigrants, they said.

Pre-election research, including an October survey from LifeWay Research, supports this theory, showing that evangelical voters were more concerned with candidates' perceived ability to improve the economy and keep them safe.

Only 7 percent of evangelicals said that a candidate's immigration policies were the most important factor affecting their vote, compared with 26 percent who said economic promise and 10 percent who said proposed Supreme Court nominees, LifeWay Research reported.

Another concern for advocates for more permissive immigration policies is that Americans, including people of faith, may be losing interest in helping undocumented immigrants as they themselves struggle to find their place in an evolving economy where automation, digital technology and other factors have marginalized them in the workforce.

"Middle-income Americans have fallen further behind financially in the new century. In 2014, the median income of these households was 4 percent less than in 2000," Pew reported in December 2015.

"Some Americans think, 'No one is looking out for me. I've been here all along!' That's the pain of this situation," NETWORK Lobby's Sister Campbell said.

Activism under Trump

Since Trump's election in November, a variety of faith groups have increased their outreach to illegal immigrants.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops formed a working group to provide spiritual and political support for immigrants and refugees, Catholic News Service reported. Additionally, around 400 congregations declared themselves "sanctuaries" for undocumented immigrants, joining a movement that includes schools and entire cities, according to Religion News Service.

Activism like the sanctuary church movement stems from a deep sense of religious commitment, Carroll said. But he thinks Trump's style of leadership may require more nuance than boldness.

"I'm not against the concept, I appreciate it. I just worry that it might poke the bee’s nest," he noted.

Looking at the current landscape from an organizational perspective, Soerens and Atkinson noted that they're trying to respond to fear with practical goals.

"Immigrant communities are expressing concern about potential changes to policies," he said. "Pastors in immigrant congregations, as well as in the broader church, are asking, 'How do we serve people well? How do we support people who feel vulnerable?'"

The answer to those questions are the same as they were before the election, he noted. Faith communities can host English as a second language classes and other community outreach events, Soerens added. They can also provide legal services.

In spite of opposition to Trump's plans, CLINIC needs to find a way to work with the new administration in order to make its voice heard in Washington, D.C., Atkinson said.

"For decades, we've been working with administrations to ensure fair and just treatment of immigrants," she said.

Atkinson added, "While we strongly oppose everything immigration-related that has come out of the Trump administration to date, much of it was obviously based on inaccurate information and facts, so we believe our input would be more valuable than ever."

Atkinson and others will be competing with religious leaders, such as Graham, who support Trump's immigration actions and will continue to speak, tweet and pray on his behalf. Another evangelical pastor, the Rev. Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist, provided a template for teaching in favor of stricter immigration policies in his sermon to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on Inauguration Day.

"The first step of rebuilding (Israel) was the building of a great wall. God instructed Nehemiah to build a wall around Jerusalem to protect its citizens from enemy attack. You see, God is not against building walls," the Rev. Jeffress said, according to Time.

Although disheartening to many other faith leaders, the recent executive orders on immigration and refugees will have to clear legal hurdles before they take effect.

In the meantime, religious immigration activists can continue to advocate for more balanced policies, such as the BRIDGE Act, a bipartisan immigration bill introduced in early December by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said Sister Campbell, who worked with the senators in drafting the proposal.

If passed, the BRIDGE Act would turn the provisions of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program into law. Illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before age 16 could continue to apply for work permits and protection from deportation. DACA was an executive action from the Obama administration, meaning that Trump could end it without congressional approval.

Sister Campbell also urged faith communities to continue sharing love and hope with illegal immigrants and their families, a group of people that's used to being met with anger and fear.

"We're here to help each other. That's the piece of this debate that I really think people of faith need to speak to clearly. Let's not leave anyone out of our care," she said.
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