How What We Tolerate Regarding The Treatment of Migrant Men, Women and Children Can Determine The Fate of Other Vulnerable Populations
Children pulled mercilessly from the warm embrace of their mothers. Children locked behind chain link fences. Children staring at the cameras, their piercing eyes revealing a haunting sense of hopelessness.
Such were the heart-wrenching images that sparked national outrage over a zero-tolerance immigration policy ripping families apart. For many Americans – regardless of political, racial or religious affiliation – it crossed an invisible boundary.
But as we protest, as we march, as we peacefully petition our government denouncing oppression in our name, it is not just the lives of the innocent victims at stake – but also the very soul of our nation.
Swapna Reddy is co-director of the New York-based Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP), which provides pro-bono legal services to unaccompanied minors in deportation proceedings. She said the number of children trapped in the U.S. legal system has increased significantly since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the zero-tolerance policy, audaciously quoting scripture as justification. The children, mostly from Central American countries, range in age from toddlers to teenagers.
“Basically, what we’re doing is we’re pretty much attacking a very vulnerable population,” said Reddy in an interview with Message. “We’ve started down a treacherous road with our immigration policies and are starting to do things that were unthinkable just a few years ago.”
Reddy said the Trump administration’s family-separation policy sets a precedent that could negatively impact other groups in the future.
“And so, while it’s immigrants now as a sort of targeted and vulnerable population,” she said, “ I think this certainly could be looked at in the future as the beginning of, perhaps, targeting other groups who are particularly vulnerable and don’t necessarily have the same protections as others do.”
Biblical Morality and Immigration
The Rev. David Vásquez-Levy serves as president of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California – a multi-denominational seminary and center for social justice. He describes the zero-tolerance policy as “a pivotal moral issue for us as a nation.”
“Though a country of immigrants, the United States has a history of cruelty toward various groups of people, millions of them brought to America by way of slave ships,” Vásquez-Levy said. He likened the plight of immigrant children being separated from their parents to the pain that African American and Native American families endured in previous generations.
“For us as a society with so much power, affluence and resources, to use such force against families and children, it has drawn attention to what’s happening more broadly with our immigration practices,” he said. “What it does is it dehumanizes a particular group, and that’s resonating for us in various communities.”
People on The Move
Vásquez-Levy believes Christians, in particular, should be outraged by the government’s anti-immigrant posture. He considers it an affront to Scripture, which calls on people of faith to embrace foreigners in their midst.
“When you think about Biblical stories, most of them are about people on the move,” he said. “People moving because of hope and promise, like Abraham and Sarah, pursuing a dream with nothing but trust. Because of that, one of the most common commandments in the Bible is about protecting the stranger and remembering that we were strangers ourselves in Egypt.”
The story of the Israelites in bondage – another migration story – contains many similarities to what immigrant families in the U.S. and across the globe are experiencing today, he said.
“Joseph is in Egypt as a famine developed in the land of Canaan,” he said. “Then his family comes into Egypt. They settle, and the Book of Genesis talks about how good it was that they settled and then they grew and they were strong.”
K. Drew Devenport is an immigrant attorney and adjunct professor at the University of Arkansas School of Law. He said recent immigration policies could have a chilling effect on the idea of America as a melting pot and a country that embraces all cultures and ideas.
“This country is founded on the principle and belief that you could come here, realize your dreams and live in a free society,” he said. “And now we’re seeing it become more conservative and restrictive.”
Reddy, of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project, said children who flee bad circumstances come to the U.S. with an intense amount of trauma.
“First, they’re traumatized by whatever caused them to leave the country, traveling hundreds and thousands of miles,” she said. “Then, there’s the journey itself, which is dangerous and scary. And, now, they’re separated from their parents in the United States, which just compounds the trauma.”
Stay Focused on Needs
Reddy said she has been heartened by the incredible and sustained response of Americans of all backgrounds who stood up on behalf of children caught in the system.
“A lot of times people’s attention turn quickly to other issues,” she said. “But what’s amazing is that this has been going on now for a few months at this point, and people are still pushing back. I think it’s a very good sign that these are ideals that many Americans hold dear no matter who they are or where they were born. They are fighting to keep them intact.”
Yet, it’s important to stay vigilant, holding government accountable at all levels, she said. She recommends contacting members of Congress to make sure they’re on the right side of the issue and continuing to protest against anti-immigrant policies that victimize the most vulnerable in society.
“We’re not saying that all of these children are eligible to stay in the United States,” she said. “But we are saying that they all should have a fair chance to make their case for U.S. protection so we as country are not sending children back into grave harm or even, potentially, death. And that’s what our asylum laws uphold.”