Political tensions in Washington over immigration policy fuel Episcopal advocacy, outreach

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 27, 2019

Migrants walk toward a U.S. Border Patrol officer after crossing illegally into El Paso, Texas, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on May 31. Photo: Reuters

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Church is stepping up its advocacy and outreach on immigration issues as political tensions grow in Washington over looming deportation raids, pending plans for humanitarian aid on the border and the treatment of migrant children held in U.S. detention centers.

The federal raids reportedly were scheduled to take place in 10 cities on June 23 but were postponed at the last minute. One of the cities said to be targeted is Chicago, where Diocese of Chicago Bishop Jeffrey Lee issued a statement June 21 expressing solidarity with immigrants living in fear.

“This news of new raids and mass deportations threatens to make these fears real, as families are torn apart and members of our communities and congregations are wrenched away from lives they have labored for years to build,” Lee said. “The threat of these raids makes it difficult not to conclude that our immigration system is failing to operate with common humanity or to embody the highest values of our country or its people.”

Bishop David Reed in West Texas issued a statement on June 20, World Refugee Day, calling on his diocese to support immigration ministries. He asked that Episcopalians set aside political differences to care for all in need, as Jesus taught.

“We can and should, and desperately need to, have informed, respectful debate on our country’s immigration laws and policies. But the time for that is not when a weary, confused, and hungry person stands before you,” Reed said, whether that person is an asylum-seeker or a Border Patrol agent.

Reed’s diocese, which includes the borderlands from Del Rio, Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico, hosted a “Walk in Love” border tour in May that featured outreach to both migrants living in tents on the Mexico side of the border and law enforcement officials in the United States.

Arizona Bishop Jennifer Reddall sent a letter June 25 to Arizona’s two U.S. senators and representatives from two of its congregational districts, expressing her opposition to “the holding of migrant children in filthy conditions” and requesting “immediate action.”

Reddall was responding specifically to a New York Times report of squalid conditions at a border station in Clint, Texas, where migrant children as young as 7 years old are being held. Conditions reportedly are similar at other border facilities overwhelmed by the influx of migrant families.

“The lack of sanitation, supervision, and humane treatment is appalling, and far from what any citizen should expect of its government,” Reddall said. “All children, regardless of their country of origin, warrant the most basic elements of care: a toothbrush, a bed, a blanket, and an adult to see to their medical, psychological, and social needs.”

And on June 29, the seven bishops in the six Episcopal dioceses in California issued a joint statement calling for justice for migrant children being held by the U.S. government, including those at the Texas facility.

“We who follow Jesus Christ know that he showed a special love for children,” the bishops said. “Jesus reminds us that children are to be welcomed, nourished, and cherished. As Christians, we honor the image of God in all human beings. The inhumane treatment of these children violates our most basic Christian values.”

Those comments followed a joint statement issued June 6 by ecumenical leaders, including Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, addressing the issue of children in detention more broadly.

“As U.S. religious leaders representing diverse faith perspectives, we are united in our concern for the well-being of vulnerable migrants who cross our borders fleeing from danger and threats to their lives,” the religious leaders said, singling out the cases of six young migrants who have died in U.S. custody since September.

“Our houses of worship and agencies have welcomed, engaged and served many migrant families that have recently arrived in the U.S.,” the statement reads. “These migrants have left their communities to provide safety for their children and protect them from harm. … We urge the Administration to maintain its commitment to international law and defend human rights by implementing safeguards to ensure the safety and health of all of those seeking protection in our land, especially those children who fall under our care.”

The potentially dangerous path followed by many migrant families seeking safety, opportunity and stability in the United States was brought into graphic detail this week by a photo of a Salvadoran father and his toddler lying dead in the Rio Grande. The image, captured by a Mexican journalist, has prompted international outcry and evoked comparisons to the 2015 image of a dead Syrian refugee boy washed up on a beach in Turkey.

Even before the recent escalation of the political and humanitarian crisis on the border, The Episcopal Church has been outspoken on immigration issues. In July 2018, during General Convention in Austin, Texas, more than a thousand Episcopalians gathered at a prayer service outside an immigrant detention center in a nearby city. The spirit of that event, in support of immigrant parents and children who had been separated, carried through to the church’s legislative activity, with General Convention passing three resolutions related to immigration. One of the resolutions took a forceful stand against family separation and unjust treatment of immigrant parents and children.

Another resolution emphasized respecting the dignity of immigrants, while the third encouraged Episcopalians to seek ways to offer sanctuary or support to immigrants. Some Episcopal churches have committed to providing physical sanctuary, if needed, for immigrants inside church walls, such as St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, which in March began housing a Mexico-born man who faces deportation.

More recently, the Rev. Michael Kinman, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, wrote a letter June 22 for Pasadena News Now in which he offered his church as sanctuary to any immigrants who might be targeted by looming federal deportation actions.

President Donald Trump had recently announced on Twitter that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, planned to “begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States.”

ICE reportedly would be going after about 2,000 immigrants who had received deportation orders in select cities, including Los Angeles. Kinman condemned those plans and said he had the support of his parish’s wardens and parishioners in offering the church as a place of sanctuary.

“We have always stood for love over fear, reconciliation over division and restoration over retribution,” Kinman wrote. “As such, we call on President Trump, as president of a nation largely populated by immigrants and descendants of immigrants like himself, to stand down these raids.”

Trump said June 22 on Twitter he had put the raids on hold for two weeks, to allow Congress time to reach a “solution to the Asylum and Loophole problems at the Southern Border. If not, Deportations start!”

With roots in the 1980s sanctuary movement that offered refuge to Central Americans fleeing war, the new sanctuary movement has been growing in recent years in response to rising animosity toward immigrants and the anti-immigration policies of the Trump administration.

Most asylum-seekers come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, typically fleeing violence or persecution. Episcopal churches in the border region are responding to the crisis in a variety of ways.

Churches are considered “sensitive locations” that traditionally are not targeted for immigration enforcement. In one case, at St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, the congregation has for more than two years provided refuge for a Guatemalan woman ordered to return home.

The Diocese of the Rio Grande, which includes parts of New Mexico and Texas, has identified asylum-seekers as a key focus for its outreach efforts on the border, particularly in the El Paso, Texas, area. In December, the diocese hosted a pilgrimage to the city, welcoming about 30 people representing large urban and suburban congregations, so they could learn firsthand about the circumstances facing asylum-seekers.

“We would like … to join together in fellowship by soliciting, gathering, and delivering critically needed items to the El Paso area where shelters are currently overwhelmed, with refugees being released at times by the hundreds on a daily basis,” the diocese says on a webpage listing resources for assisting asylum-seekers.

The diocese also recently began providing bus transportation for some of the asylum-seekers.

“All through this involvement in immigration ministry, we’ve always had the sense that, when the knock came on the door, it was Jesus who was knocking, and it certainly has been our experience that opening the door to the migrants has been letting him into our lives, and it’s been very powerful,” the Rev. Joe Britton, rector of St. Michael and All Angels Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said in an online video about his congregation’s and the diocese’s work.

Rio Grande Bishop Michael Hunn is scheduled to speak about immigration issues during a July 2 webinar organized by Episcopal Migration Ministries. Registration for the webinar is still open.

The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations, based in Washington, D.C., also offers a range of resources for Episcopalians interested in advocating for the church’s positions on these issues.

“The Episcopal Church, through General Convention policy, calls for an immediate end to the inhumane practice of family detention, calls for the immediate release of detained asylum seekers … and upholds the sanctity of the asylum process and urges strong support for the protection of vulnerable individuals,” the agency says in an online summary.

In April, The Episcopal Church signed a letter to Congress drafted by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition asking lawmakers to prioritize human needs rather than immigration enforcement.

“We believe that our nation’s budget and the decisions made by Congress in the coming weeks should be treated as a moral roadmap toward a world where every child of God is clothed, fed, safe, loved, and free,” the letter said. It was signed by more than 30 interreligious groups and denominations. “As people of faith, our various traditions command us to love our neighbors and welcome guests as we would welcome God.”

On June 25, the House voted to approve $4.5 billion in humanitarian aid to ease the crisis on the border, though the bill’s restrictions on how that money can be spent – not to bolster ICE raids on immigrants – are at odds with a parallel bill that the Senate approved on June 26, The New York Times reported. The White House has threatened to veto the House’s bill.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.