Family separation: Evangelicals add their voices to opposition

Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters
People protest outside City Hall in Los Angeles June 7 to protest the Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy, which has resulted in some 2,000 immigrant children being separated from their parents since the beginning of May.
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As the logistical realities of the 'zero tolerance' border policy separating immigrant children from their parents have become more visible to the American public, evangelical Christians across the country have begun to debate the Bible. Normally among President Trump’s most ardent supporters, white Evangelicals like the Rev. Franklin Graham called the policy “disgraceful,” and other conservative Protestants invoked the Bible to emphasize a core evangelical conviction: that God established the family as the fundamental building block of society. Attorney General Jeff Sessions responded to the administration’s “church friends” by invoking Romans 13, a passage that calls for people to submit to civil authorities, which “God has established.”  The debate spoke to the power and influence that Evangelicals wield in United States politics, and the centrality of Scripture for both personal piety and political action. And most are rejecting the policy, citing other biblical passages. Take Julie Frady, a resident of Wichita, Kan., and a Republican voter who protested the Trump administration’s actions last week with a verse from the prophet Obadiah: “You should NOT stand at the crossroads to cut down fleeing REFUGEES…in the day of their DISTRESS.”

Why We Wrote This

For many white Evangelicals, the administration’s zero-tolerance approach to asylum-seekers is putting their support for President Trump in conflict with their reverence for the sanctity of families.

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 Ms. Frady, an evangelical Christian who lives in Wichita, Kan., 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, Kan., 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.

Why We Wrote This

For many white Evangelicals, the administration’s zero-tolerance approach to asylum-seekers is putting their support for President Trump in conflict with their reverence for the sanctity of families.

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.”

Courtesy of Julie Frady
Julie Frady, center left, an evangelical Christian and lifelong Republican from Wichita, Kan., protests in front of the United States Center for Immigration Services in Delano, Kan., June 14. She says she's "appalled" by the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy, which has resulted in 2,000 children being separated from their parents since it was announced in early May.

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.

  • The Rev. Franklin Graham, one of the president’s most outspoken evangelical supporters, called the policy “disgraceful” last week. “It's terrible to see families ripped apart, and I don’t support that one bit,” he said.
  • The Evangelical Immigration Table, which includes pastors from the president’s group of faith advisers, wrote a letter to the president earlier this month, calling for the end to the policy. “As evangelical Christians guided by the Bible, one of our core convictions is that God has established the family as the fundamental building block of society,” members of the coalition wrote. “The traumatic effects of this separation on these young children, which could be devastating and long-lasting, are of utmost concern.”
  • The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the nation and one of the most politically and theologically conservative, overwhelmingly passed an immigration resolution at its annual meeting last week. The resolution called for immigration reforms that would include a path to legal status for those here illegally – which has long been anathema to most Evangelicals. Such reforms should maintain “the priority of family unity,” the convention proclaimed, and should “[honor] the value and dignity of those seeking a better life for themselves and their families.”

“It’s been a really interesting week or so,” says David Gushee, an professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta, and an Evangelical.

“I don't think we should be using Scripture to defend any of these laws. My question is: How does love demand us to act?” said Sister Phyllis Peters, a Roman Catholic nun, speaking at a roundtable in Brownsville, Texas, Monday afternoon after elected officials visited the Casa Padre and Casa Presidents children's shelters in the city. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, (D) of Texas, called on Evangelicals, Mr. Graham, and other religious leaders to act, saying, “It will take that kind of spirit that is nonpartisan, religious, social, and humanitarian, and I think that group is much stronger than the federal government at this time. We must stand up to the federal government when it is necessary, and it is necessary now.”

Still, 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, Ms. 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 US politics, notes Professor 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.”

The fraught history of Romans 13

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, Professor 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.

‘Prosecutorial discretion’ vs. ‘zero tolerance’

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 US 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.”

“Everybody else was considered a really low level for enforcement, which encouraged agents to say, ‘OK, if we spot a family with children, we’re probably not going to spend much time with them,’ ” Mr. Fandl continues. Sometimes, if they were picked up, the policy of “catch and release” allowed families with children to enter the country after being given a Notice to Appear order – which, he admits, no one expected them to do.

For critics, however, this created a perverse incentive. “No nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement,” said Stephen Miller, the president’s senior policy adviser, to The New York Times last week. “It was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period. The message is that no one is exempt from immigration law.”

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 Ms. 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.”

Gushee says he has been heartened by the biblical responses to Sessions’ use of Romans 13, from those on Twitter to the discussions in the media. biblical passages that have to do with compassion and care for those suffering, and especially for “the least of these” and the most vulnerable in society, he says, “they surfaced when they were needed.”

“But the story is not just the Bible verses,” Gushee continues. “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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