Recent stories of immigrant children in cage-like structures at the border and photos of a father and his young daughter drowned in the Rio Grande River have pulled at our heartstrings and led to questions about U.S. policies toward those seeking asylum, or safety, at our borders.
While the rhetoric has become increasingly polarized, it is important to remember that this issue ultimately is not about Republicans or Democrats. It is not about President Trump or Speaker Pelosi. It is fundamentally about whether the U.S. should be a place of safe harbor for those seeking refuge—and how that can be accomplished in a fair and effective manner.
The U.S. has long had a mixed record of offering refuge. The early history of this country meant upheaval for many from safe communities—displacement for indigenous people and slavery for those forcibly uprooted from homes on the African continent.
At the same time, George Washington shared a vision of his nascent country as “a safe and propitious asylum for the unfortunate of other countries… to impart all the blessings we possess, or ask for ourselves, to the whole family of mankind.” Many of our ancestors came to the U.S. to find this “safe and propitious asylum,” fleeing violence, persecution or poverty. In those early years there were no asylum laws, work permits or border walls.
The vision of a country as a place of refuge is, arguably, consistent with Christian teachings on how immigrants should be treated. The Old Testament encourages us to love foreigners as we love ourselves, remembering that we, too, were foreigners (Lev. 19:33-24, Deut. 10:19). In the New Testament, Jesus challenges us to expand the idea of who is our neighbor and to treat the sick, the hungry, the prisoner and the immigrant as we would treat Jesus himself (Luke 10:25-37, Matt. 25:31-46).
Debates over U.S. immigration policy have not always been so rancorous or so partisan. During a 1980 Republican primary debate, George H. W. Bush spoke about the importance of letting the children of undocumented immigrants attend public schools, giving them “what the society is giving to their neighbors.” At the same debate, Ronald Reagan remarked that, “Rather than… talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems, make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit.” Both sought to find pragmatic and humane solutions to a complicated problem.
The reasons for the rising number of asylum seekers coming to the border today are numerous and complex. To effectively address this challenge, policymakers of both parties should look for solutions that:
- Address the drivers of migration through foreign assistance programs that help people stay in their home communities
- Work together with governments and civil society in Mexico and Central America to develop regional solutions
- Manage the flow of asylum seekers in humane ways and without turning away those desperately seeking safety
- Recognize that asylum seekers can help fill worker shortages in the U.S.
- Effectively coordinate with churches and other nonprofit organizations in the U.S. to assist asylum seekers
Churches at the border and beyond have stepped up in extraordinary ways to help arriving asylum seekers, embodying Christ’s love for their neighbors in need.
If you believe the U.S. should continue to be a place of refuge, urge your members of Congress to enact policies that reflect this neighborly love by protecting asylum seekers and addressing the root causes of migration.
TAKE ACTION: 4 ways to show compassion to asylum seekers
Photo caption: People gather for a prayer vigil outside the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., on July 18, 2019, to bring attention to the conditions migrants are being held in at the border. MCC photo/Tammy Alexander