OPINION: On family separation, evangelicals add their voices to opposition
When Julie Frady planned to make a poster to protest the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” immigration policy last week, she wanted to find the perfect Bible verse to stand against it, she says, one nobody else would expect.
She’s voted Republican most all of her life, but Frady, an evangelical Christian who lives in Wichita, Kansas, says she’s been “appalled” by the Trump administration’s practice of separating immigrant children from their parents. And she’s been especially appalled, she says, at the administration’s stated purpose to use the practice as a deterrent to other immigrant families thinking of crossing the border illegally.
Since she joined about 60 protesters who marched in front of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Delano, Kansas, Thursday, more and more people across the United States, and from across its often-polarized political spectrum, have begun to express deep moral reservations at the logistical realities of the practice.
Former first lady Laura Bush called the zero-tolerance policy “cruel” and “immoral” on Sunday, and first lady Melania Trump spoke out in favor of a resolution that would reunite families as well. Conservatives in Congress, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Trump loyalists, have also voiced their opposition.
But in many ways, it was evangelical Christians, including some of President Trump’s most vocal supporters, who first began to change the course of the national conversation about immigration.
As federal agencies began to put into place the actual protocols of separating, detaining, and then finding suitable care for more than 11,400 immigrant children in custody — including about 2,000 taken from their parents since the Trump administration began its “zero tolerance” policy in April — many Evangelicals began to speak out against it.
Before opposition to the policy began to dominate the national conversation, Frady decided to use a verse from the small Book of Obadiah for her poster. The Hebrew prophet condemns the nation of Edom for closing its borders to Israelite refugees fleeing the Babylonians.
In multiple colors, she drew: “The LORD declares: You should NOT stand at the crossroads to cut down fleeing REFUGEES … in the day of their DISTRESS.”
It’s in many ways a defining feature of American Evangelical identity: the centrality of Scripture for both personal piety and political action.
“I place an extremely high value on the authority of Scripture, and the place it should hold in our lives,” says Frady, a lay leader who often leads Bible studies at Northwest Free Methodist Church, a small congregation in Wichita, where she also plays tenor sax for morning worship. “I would not knowingly go against something I thought the Bible commanded, no matter how I felt about it.”
Indeed, the Bible, and the voices of Evangelicals around the country, have become a focus of the debate.
White Evangelicals have been Trump’s most ardent supporters from the start, and as a group they remain the most supportive of his administration’s immigration policies, polls suggest.
And Evangelicals within the Trump administration, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, invoked the Bible to defend the policy of separating children.
Discussing the “concerns raised by our church friends about separating families,” Mr. Sessions told an audience in Fort Wayne, Ind., last week, “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order.”
Later, Sanders told reporters that “it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.”
On the one hand, it speaks to the power and influence that Evangelicals wield in U.S. politics, notes Gushee, given that a political debate over immigration policy became a debate over biblical interpretation. “Only in America, really, and only in America in the 21st century and with a conservative Republican government, would we be having these public biblical arguments about immigration policy.”
Yet after Sessions invoked Romans 13, “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established,” Christians, including many white Evangelicals, pointed out the long history of this passage, a passage that Gushee says “has been used and abused by tyrants and governments doing injustice for centuries.”
“There are two dominant places in American history when Romans 13 is invoked,” said John Fea, a professor of American history at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, to The Washington Post. “One is during the American Revolution [when] it was invoked by loyalists, those who opposed the American Revolution.”
The other was in the middle of the 19th century, to support defense of the Fugitive Slave Act, Fea continued. “I mean, this is the same argument that Southern slaveholders and the advocates of a Southern way of life made.”
Steven Colbert, a devout Roman Catholic and the host of “The Late Show,” suggested Thursday that the attorney general continue reading the passage on submitting to civil authorities through Romans 13:8-10. “Love thy neighbor as thyself. Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
Trump has been backtracking from his policy of zero tolerance, falsely asserting that his hands are tied and that Democrats are the ones responsible for legal requirements that his administration is only enforcing.
But as the Monitor reported in March 2017, the Trump White House has been mulling separating children from their families as a deterrent policy from the first months of the administration. After an outcry from religious leaders, however, the plan was postponed.
The Obama administration, too, separated immigrant children from their parents, advocates note. And it also greatly expanded a policy of detaining mothers with children in expanded facilities. If a father crossed the border illegally with a child, they would typically be separated.
“The separation of families at the border is not new,” says Christina Fialho, co-executive director of Freedom for Immigrants, who advocates for immigrants being held at places like the private, for-profit Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. “Under the Obama administration, we worked with hundreds of parents who were separated from their family in home raids, including mothers who were still nursing young children.”
The difference, however, was that the Obama administration maintained a policy of “prosecutorial discretion”: the focus of resources on known, dangerous individuals, rather than “zero tolerance,” an adherence to the letter of the law in all instances.
“We realized that we had limited resources in what we could do,” says Kevin Fandl, who worked as a senior counsel for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) from 2007 to 2013. “We believed we should target those resources toward the most serious threats to the country, those threats being convicted felons or those with a criminal history, terrorists, threats for national security, and recent border crossers, those people with no ties whatsoever to the United States.”
And as Sessions put it earlier this month: “If people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them. We’ve got to get this message out.”
As a result, however, the system has been severely strained. Sessions said last week that taking care of unaccompanied minors was costing taxpayers more than $1 billion a year, most now under the care of the US Department of Health and Human Services and its Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Logistically speaking, the system is not prepared to handle the care of thousands of children, says Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services for the National Immigrant Justice Center, who represents a number of immigrant woman whose children were taken from them by the US government.
“They did not know what was going on with their kids, and when we finally managed to figure that one of the kids was being detained in New York, the child’s mother [being held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center] said to me, Where is New York? Is New York far away from here?’” says Koop, who recounts stories of mothers having their children literally torn from their arms. “They just have no concept of where their children are, and what conditions they’re in.”
“But the story is not just the Bible verses,” Gushee said. “The tears and suffering of human beings whose rights are being violated speaks. That is a language that should be taken seriously. In fact, one might even say this language is revelatory.
“To see children weeping, to see bereft parents not knowing where their children are, to learn about a man who killed himself in a detention center because he was torn apart over the destruction of his family — these stories speak, too.”
And they have spurred devout evangelical Christians like Frady to action.
“I love America,” says Frady, who wore a purple T-shirt with “Jesus was a Refugee” to the protest near her home in Wichita. “It is my homeland, and I am certainly blessed to be an American.”
“But I am also not naive to its warts,” she continues. “And this is more than a wart.”
Staff writer Henry Gass contributed to this report from Brownsville, Texas.
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