Commentary
By Jim Wallis 7-05-2018

This past weekend, we saw an incredible outpouring of support for immigrants and asylum seekers to the U.S., with rallies and marches occurring across the country in response to the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy at the border and the consequent separation of thousands of children from their families. More than 700 rallies took place nationwide, as hundreds of thousands of protesters came together to urge the administration to reunite children with their parents and to go much further to protect vulnerable families. Sojourners convened a candlelight prayer vigil on Friday night at the Capitol, before the Saturday march, and called for such vigils across the country. These protests and vigils demonstrate the unity in moral outrage and faith responses since the administration enacted its zero-tolerance policies, and offered a reminder of the need for continued advocacy in the days to come — with a special focus on the separated children and the urgent need to reunite them with their mothers and fathers.

When the administration first announced the details of its enforcement of zero tolerance, voices from both sides of the political aisle decried the inhumane policy that needlessly separated more than 2,300 children from their parents, in especially brutal conditions and often without warning. In a statement issued by the Reclaiming Jesus church elders, we called this “an unbiblical sacrilege that is cruelly contrary to the love of Jesus Christ” and “a terror to families and an infliction of evil on children.” As Christianity Today wrote, “believers of all stripes were united on this one point of public policy. When Jim Wallis and Franklin Graham, and nearly everyone in between, condemn the administration’s policy, it’s practically a miracle. And for this, we should be grateful.”

We have seen parents and children put into separate lines and parents watching their kids being taken away with no explanation as to why or where. We’ve been horrified to see children held in cages. Children have been taken from their mothers while breastfeeding. Babies have been put on planes to travel to detention centers thousands of miles away from their parents. Toddlers have had to go into court for legal proceedings against them without their parents or lawyers to defend them (some volunteer lawyers have tried to step in pro-bono).

A unified and clear outcry resulted in an executive order that the administration hoped would satisfy the opposition, yet it addressed the issues in name only; it set dangerous precedent for indefinite detainment of families and did little to reunite those already torn apart.

And now, we find ourselves on the other side of these marches, the news cycle moving to other important issues that nonetheless distract from the plight of these families. Even though we have spoken out, we now must also do something, not allowing ourselves to be complacent in the fact that we raised our voice. Despite the success of the last weekend, most of the separated families have not been reunited, and the administration’s official solution postpones reunification until after a parent’s deportation proceedings have ended. Currently, only children who were not transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services have been returned to their families, but for the almost 2,000 others there is still no clear hope.

It is time for people of faith and conscience to demand nothing less than an immediate and complete reunification of separated families — and demonstrate our willingness to play a role in this process. We have spoken out to stop the separation, but we still have the moral imperative to fix it for those who have been torn from their parents. I have recently been in meetings with bipartisan groups of senators who want to see this issue fixed, who care very deeply about finding lasting solutions, and who are asking for the help of the faith community. While members of Congress are in their home districts for this week’s recess presents an ideal time to request a meeting and call for immediate and bold leadership to pass a permanent legislative bill fix to family separation.

First, we should look to integrate faith-based organizations, churches, and coalitions — both nationally and locally — in the reunification of these families. HHS is spread thin and still reeling from many of these developments, and could use the help of faith partners in providing assistance to families. There are myriad examples of faith-based organizations already doing important work on the border, like Sister Norma Pimentel who houses and feeds immigrant families as part of her work with Catholic Charities. World Relief resettles refugee families and helps them navigate life in the United States. World Vision has spoken out against family separation, and provides care for vulnerable children all across the globe. Perhaps if organizations like these were engaged to work alongside HHS and DHS, they could provide some much-needed support.

Second, we need to call for access to and accountability for the facilities where families are being detained. Many of the processing centers where families are held are nothing more than warehouses filled with cages, with shockingly little internal cohesion and no methods of congressional oversight. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), after a visit to one of these processing centers, detailed her frustrations with the lack of accountability and joined other senators in asking for details about family detainment. It is vital that Congress is able to oversee and obtain answers about what goes on in these facilities so that they can ensure humane and equitable treatment for those held there.

Even Guantanamo Bay, a detention facility for alleged terrorists, has greater oversight than many of these camps. James Stavridis, a retired United States Navy Admiral and former director of Guantanamo Bay, pointed out in an interview on Morning Joe that our oversight of processing centers is horrifically limited.

“I can assure you at Guantanamo Bay there are regular inspections. The International Committee of the Red Cross comes frequently; senators, congressmen are constantly in and out of that facility. We know how to do this … in a humane, sensible way. We shouldn’t be doing it because it’s a humanitarian disaster.”

There is more transparency at Guantanamo Bay than at sites where babies are being detained. It cannot be understated how greatly we have failed these families in refusing to provide accountability for the facilities where they’re being held.

We already have seen inspiring examples of people resisting family separation in the ways that they are able. Airline attendants are refusing to work flights that transport immigrant children separated from their parents, and several airlines are not booking flights for use with immigration authorities. A man working for the Montana Department of Labor quit his job after he was asked to process subpoena requests for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. An employee at one processing center quit after receiving instructions to not allow siblings to hug one another. People who work in detainment centers are taking pictures and videos of the children and sending them to advocates and press on the outside. People are refusing to be complicit in this atrocity, and we should all examine the ways that we are being called to resist.

A California judge recently ordered that the administration must reunite separated families within the next 30 days, citing that the government has no effective way to keep track of children or ensure their well-being. This ruling was the result of a lawsuit from the ACLU, and it could provide the path to more humane, just, and cost-effective solutions to family detainment.

It has been almost two weeks since the administration ended the policy that separated detained children from their parents. We can only thank God that we avoided any more family separations that would have occurred during that time; that we avoided two more weeks of additional children being pulled from their broken-hearted parents. But despite the end of this particular policy, immigrant families are still as vulnerable as ever and need the support and the voices of people of faith. We cannot forget about them now, especially since we have the opportunity to make real change for them. Jesus does indeed call us to speak up for and defend the vulnerable — but it is not enough merely to have spoken out; now we must act to make things right.

A recent New York Times article reporting from Mount Pleasant, Iowa puts this in perspective regarding how different churches are facing the debate. The piece reports on a local pastor getting into an impassioned argument on his Facebook page with a Trump supporter who declared our immigration laws “good and Godly” and used the often-invoked Mark passage about “rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”

The pastor, Troy Hegar, is a Texan who spent four years in the Marines before attending a Presbyterian seminary. He responded:

“Which Scripture do we obey?” He answered himself: “The one from Jesus to ‘Do unto others’ is what we choose.” The marine turned pastor expressed his frustration. “The nationalistic politics and theology goes hand in hand now,” Mr. Hegar said. “It drives me crazy when we don’t practice what Jesus preaches because of the mix of religion and national politics.”

I believe history will look back on this moment of how we treat immigrants in our country as a test of faith for which we will all be accountable and which will shape the meaning of faith and the response of a new generation in our future. It is time to act — and to start by reuniting separated migrant children from their families.

The Times story reports on a church meeting when Hegar spoke and “paused after each line to let Dina Saunders, who teaches English as a second language at the middle school, translate into Spanish."

“I am tired,” the pastor said.

“Estoy cansado.”

“I am tired of people talking about my neighbors breaking the law, when our country is breaking our own laws. By dividing up families. Separating women from children. Treating people seeking a better life like criminals.

“My church — ”

“Mi iglesia.”

“— is your church.”

“Es su iglesia.”

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His new Audible spoken-word series, Jim Wallis In Conversation, is available now, as is his book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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