The Christian Response to the Border Crisis

Volunteers wash their hands before serving food to deported migrants at an aid center in Nogales, in the Mexican state of Sonora. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
Volunteers wash their hands before serving food to deported migrants at an aid center in Nogales, in the Mexican state of Sonora. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)
Anyone audacious enough to claim a Christian response to the arrival of tens of thousands of immigrant children at the United States’ southern border should, at the very least, do several things.

First, they should acknowledge they do not and cannot possibly speak for all Christians. They should also admit to what is most likely a grossly incomplete grasp of the myriad political, social and cultural contexts of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and other Central American countries from which many immigrants are coming. Finally, they should concede what is probably a very limited understanding of U.S. immigration policy.

With all that in mind, I will say that as someone who aspires to Christianity, I have been both completely disgusted and deeply moved by the reaction to these children.

It was beyond disgraceful to see opponents of their arrival, most notably in Murrieta, California, jingoistically chanting, “USA! USA!” and “Not our kids, not our problem!”

In a montage of clips from Fox News shown on “The Colbert Report,” a slew of pundits and members of Congress expressed bizarre and groundless concerns about the migrant children who, for all intents and purposes, are refugees. These included, amongst other anxieties and accusations, connections to Islamic terrorism and fears about their carrying the Ebola virus. Keep in mind that they were talking about children and, as Colbert noted, that Ebola has never appeared outside Africa.

On the other hand, many Americans, including several prominent religious leaders, have expressed outrage at the kind of activity seen in Murrieta.

“It was un-American; it was un-biblical; it was inhumane,” wrote Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Catholic archbishop of New York.

In a Boston Globe article, Yusuf Vali, executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, said Massachusetts faces “a basic choice to be compassionate and hospitable to these immigrant children or to be callous and simply turn them away.”

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, described “the anger directed toward vulnerable children” as being “deplorable and disgusting” in a New York Times article.

“The first thing is to make sure we understand these are not issues,” he said, “these are persons. These children are made in the image of God, and we ought to respond to them with compassion, not with fear.”

“The question for us,” said Rabbi Asher Knight of Dallas’s Temple Emanu-El in the same article, “is: How do we want to be remembered, as yelling and screaming to go back, or as using the teachings of our traditions to have compassion and love and grace for the lives of God’s children?”

Though such unity from different religious communities may seem surprising in our increasingly polarized society, it is not difficult to see why support for migrants is imperative to people of faith. Time and again, tomes like the Torah and Bible stress the value of hospitality to “strangers.”

Leviticus 19:33-34 says, “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” announces Jesus in Matthew 25:35.

Many religious communities have matched their words of support with action. For several years, Sister Simone Campbell and her fellow Nuns on the Bus have presciently and tirelessly stressed the need for immigration reform. In April, Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley and 12 bishops from three countries held a Mass and prayed for immigration reform on the United States’ side of the U.S.-Mexico border, with hundreds of people also partaking on the Mexican side. The aforementioned New York Times article reported a number of evangelical organizations penning a letter to members of Congress, voicing their objection to accelerated deportation of the refugees.

Critics will argue opening church doors, military bases, hotels, and homeless shelters to immigrants is not a permanent remedy. They are right. Ultimately, our country must truly confront the need for immigration reform and develop a sustainable and humane plan to deal with the arrival of migrants.

In the meantime, doing nothing is clearly inadequate and impossible. Given the sometimes violent circumstances from which these refugees fled, sending some children back to their homes is a near death sentence. So long as they are in the United States with an uncertain and convoluted future awaiting them, religious groups have come to see kindly caring for these refugees as their only option.

This is as it should be. For while people who subscribe to Christianity or any of the other major religions advocating sympathy towards migrants may lack complete comprehension of the dynamics of U.S. immigration or Central American politics, they do speak with the authority of their traditions. And these traditions are clear: compassion and a welcoming spirit are the only appropriate response to refugees.

Empathy alone will not solve the problem, but Jesus never told his followers to end poverty or injustice. He simply asked them to love the poor and suffering.

Is it a cure-all solution? Hardly. But love is never a bad way to begin.