Unaccompanied, Illegal Child Immigrants: What Would Jesus Do?
I was recently asked by a small group I was teaching, if the Bible had anything to say that would be helpful to understand how Christians should respond to the mass immigration of illegal children along our southern border.
Just in case you’ve been out of the loop, or are not a U.S. citizen here’s the issue; Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children (under 18 and as young as 6) are making their way to the U.S. from a number of Central American countries, specifically Honduras and Guatemala. These are violent countries where parents fear for their children’s lives. San Pedro Sula, Honduras has the highest murder rate of any city in the world. So, parents are sending their children north, all alone, with the hope of living safely in the U.S. with relatives already here. The trip is so dangerous, it’s estimated that only 60% ever arrive at the U.S. border, the rest give up, die, are kidnapped, sold into slavery into or the sex trade.
Technically, the majority of children entering the U.S. are not orphans – they have parents. But, from the time they leave their parents, they are some of the most vulnerable children on the planet. It also needs to be said that both the parents and their children know what they are doing is illegal. But parents are so desperate for the safety of their children; they’re willing to risk everything! Still, without their parent’s protection, I believe the Bible requires us to treat these children as both orphans and aliens.
So, how should Christians respond and are there practical, biblical ways to address this issue? 1. God has a special heart for the helpless and hopeless. The Bible has plenty to say about aliens and justice. God commanded Israel to provide for and protect the four most helpless and vulnerable groups of people in Israel – widows, orphans, aliens and the poor. And God made no distinction for how they became poor, or orphaned or an alien. There are over 240 verses in the Old Testament alone about protecting their rights and providing for their needs.
“If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me, I will surely listen to their cry.” Exodus 22:22
“Do not oppress an alien” Exodus 23:9a
“Open your mouth, judge justly, defend the needy and the poor!” Proverbs 31:9
2. To be fair, there were no real borders in Israel so there was no such thing as an “illegal alien.” Aliens were non-Israelites who migrated to Israel or came as slaves. Israel’s borders were porous. Nevertheless, however they got there, God expected the Israelites to treat them with kindness and justice unless they worshipped other gods. Almost all the children arriving in the U.S. identify themselves as catholic. They worship the same God as us. Unless we know differently, we have to consider them our spiritual brothers and sisters.
3. We have no legal or moral obligation to favor or treat differently immigrants from Central America. We have a unique problem in the U.S. We have laws about immigration that are set up so that anyone, from any country who wishes to come to the U.S. can apply, with special consideration for those who are subjects of political, religious or ethnic persecution or refugees from war. Hence the large number of child-soldier refugees from African nations and from Iraq, in recent years. All other immigrants who come to the U.S., however difficult the conditions are in their own country, are here illegally.
Just because the people in Central American countries have easier access to the U.S. should not affect our immigration criteria. There are other poorer and more violent countries whose people have just as much right to come to the U.S. Therefore, the U.S. has both the right and the obligation to restrict immigration, even of children, to make sure the process is fair to everyone.
A well intentional, but flawed law Currently, once a child makes it to the U.S., even illegally, the courts are required by law passed under President Bush’s administration to investigate each child’s situation to assure they’ll not be returned to a life in the sex-trade for instance. It was a good law, but with unintended consequences. No one envisioned 50-80,000 child immigrants a year! Trying to investigate each child’s circumstance 1,500 miles from their home country is nearly impossible. These courts now have a three-year backlog. Because of this backlog, children with relatives in the U.S. are allowed to live with them until their hearing. That has encouraged even more parents to send their children north, flooding the system.
So what are we as a nation to do? It has been proposed that U.S. embassies in these Central American countries set-up special courts. Parents who fear for their children’s lives could apply for immigration, prior to crossing our borders!
Under the “in-country court” proposal, parents could appear with their children and present supporting information and facts and a determination could be made prior to entry into the U.S. All children turned down by these courts, or who choose not to use these courts, but later caught entering the U.S. could and probably should be deported immediately back to their country and parents.
However, until, and if the in-country court system is adapted, what are we to do?
1. All children who arrive in the U.S. illegally, must be protected and cared for in the most humane way possible. Until our laws are changed or these special in-country courts are set-up, justice demands that the U.S. will have to spend significant amounts of money to speed up the housing and investigation process.
In the meantime, regardless of the cost, Christians have a moral obligation to advocate for safe and clean housing for these children until their cases can be heard. I believe it’s unwise to send them to live with relatives because they have away of “disappearing” once they are released and very few actually show up for their deportation hearing. That obviously does not work.
We cannot, in good conscience, keep children in locked down detention for the three years it’s now taking to get to their case. New orphanage type facilities will need to be built, where children are separated by age, with adult supervisors living with them. These facilities should be built near large Hispanic communities to provide a larger pool of Spanish speaking guards, teachers and social workers.
Also, Christians should step forward and volunteer to take in these children and care for them until their cases can be heard. Check out what one compassionate Texas church is doing (http://on.msnbc.com/VGxiGo). Our own daughter and son-in-law have been foster parents for some of these children and it has been a blessing for our whole family.
2. Pressure should be put on Mexico to enforce their southern borders and stop the flow of illegal immigrants, to discourage children from making this journey.
3. Churches and ministries should be encouraged to set up safe group homes with schools in those Central American countries to give parents a safe alternative to the violence on the streets of their cities. The church in the U.S. has the resources to provide safe harbors for many of these children in their own countries. But even more importantly, we have the opportunity to present Jesus, by being Jesus to potentially hundreds of thousands of young people, who someday will graduate from these schools and live right in their own country as followers of Jesus, working for peace and economic freedom.
4. Christians should lobby their representatives for humane, comprehensive immigration reform, now! Christians need to speak out for justice and solutions for this problem and not let politicians use this crisis to beat up on the opposition. Write or call your congressional representatives and let them know how you feel about these children’s rights. Also, tell them you want comprehensive immigration laws passed to deal with this problem for the long term and not patchwork legislation.
Someone once said “The greatest evils in history were not committed by tyrants, dictators, or despots but by good people who saw wrong and did nothing.”
When Jesus told us to visit prisoners, he made no distinction between those who were guilty or innocent. However, these children came to our country, the Christian position ought to be treating them with the kindness we parents would want for our own children if it was us, fearful for their lives.
“And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’” Matthew 25:40
How following Jesus works in real life.
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