During the largest refugee crisis in history with over 70 million displaced people around the world, the Trump administration is considering reducing refugee resettlement even further than it already has to only around 15,000 per year (some reports say the number could be zero). This reduction would essentially dismantle the remaining system and make it almost impossible to resettle any future refugees at all. A 70-plus-year-old post-World War II legacy—involving thousands of churches and faith-based and community organizations and non-profits who have held out hope, love, and welcome to the persecuted and rejected victims of abuse and violence from around the world—could essentially be coming to an end.
Refugee resettlement is a legal and highly vetted process. It is the hardest way to come into the United States. Reducing the resettlement numbers even further than we have (the FY2019 number was 30,000, down from 85,000 in 2016) both shuts the door on welcoming persecuted and vulnerable Christians and other religious minorities, and further degrades our ability to do so in the future. In response to this possibility, the US Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF), led by evangelical supporters of the Trump administration such as Tony Perkins, Gary Bauer, and Johnnie Moore, tweeted:
USCIRF is alarmed by reports that the #Trump administration is preparing to significantly reduce, or even zero out, the number of #refugees to be resettled to the US in FY 2020. Urges ceiling to be set at previous 95,000 to provide safe haven for most vulnerable.
Matthew Soerens, US church mobilization director for World Relief, one of the nine government-sanctioned resettlement agencies and the only one that is explicitly evangelical, says:
The US refugee resettlement program has been a lifeline for the persecuted church, with Christians accounting for the majority of refugees admitted to the US over the past five years. As overall numbers decline, the number of Christians persecuted for their faith to whom our country has offered safety and religious freedom has plummeted, and now could go to zero. Furthermore, we abandon our national moral credibility both to insist that our allies in other parts of the world do more to protect refugees (when we are doing far less) and to advance religious freedom internationally.
If the United States and American evangelicals care about persecuted Christians and other persecuted religious minorities around the world, then we should care about refugee resettlement for victims of violence, war, and persecution. It is hard to ask other nations to care for the weakest and most vulnerable among us and to promote religious freedom when we shut our own doors to those trying to come through legal means.
In addition to refugee resettlement being a lifeline for refugees as well as providing a boost to American moral credibility on the global stage, it has served as an opportunity for churches in America to welcome the stranger as Christ commanded (Matthew 25:34-40). Over the past few years, I traveled across the US Southeast working with churches and ministries to encourage ministry to newly arriving immigrants and refugees. In that work, I connected with nine different refugee resettlement offices and organizations throughout southeastern states, and in every case the staff and the churches who worked with them did amazing work. I heard about churches being planted among newly arriving refugees from the same people groups that American churches send missionaries to. I saw churches and Christians embrace their newly arrived neighbors with love and welcome, and over and over again, the result was greater health for those churches and communities.
Everywhere I encountered a World Relief office in the South resettling refugees, I found networks of churches extending themselves to reach vulnerable people from the nations with the Gospel. Those churches are more evangelistic and healthier than much of what I saw in other areas, largely because they submitted to the biblical command to love their neighbors and welcome the stranger. That process opened them up to both the refugees around them and their other neighbors already there. Life and health flowed from God to them and out into their community.
If refugee numbers drop further, even more resettlement offices will close, as they already have across the country over the past two years. The resettlement system that was built over decades is being systematically dismantled. Once these offices are gone, the trained workers, partnerships, resources, and expertise that made them effective vanishes as well. It is a system that cannot be revived in a year or two if needed. Unfortunately, the result of this dismantling will go beyond the effect it will have on individual refugees. If America builds more walls of fear and if the church withdraws from concern for the immigrant and the newcomer, the result will be less church health, less evangelistic zeal, less concern for the nations, less love for neighbor, less care and concern for the vulnerable, and more fear that will harden us. This issue isn’t just about politics or even refugee policy. It is about how we see people and how we welcome and minister to them in the name of Jesus.
Christian groups have been speaking out on the importance of America being a nation that provides refuge to the vulnerable for some time now. Southern Baptists spoke clearly on the biblical basis for refugee resettlement in 2016, calling for the welcoming of refugees into our homes, churches, and communities. The ministries and denominations that partner in the Evangelical Immigration Table sent a letter to President Trump in July imploring him to restore refugee resettlement numbers to the previous norm of 85,000. In August, over five hundred faith leaders and organizations signed a letter asking the president not to reduce refugee numbers further, but to restore them to previous numbers. The biblical passages of Zechariah 7:8-14 and Matthew 25:34-40, among many others, speak to the moral, ethical, and spiritual value inherent in welcoming and ministering to sojourners for both churches and nations. Yet the “golden door” of welcome and refuge in America that Emma Lazarus wrote about and that adorns the Statue of Liberty, and has been a significant aspect of what has made our nation great, seems to be shutting to the vulnerable and persecuted—the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
This golden door is not just shutting to refugees coming through the decades-old refugee resettlement program. The door for refuge and protection for asylum seekers is also shutting. While it is true that the asylum system has been overloaded with those coming from Central America and Africa seeking asylum at our southern border, and not all who come have legitimate claims, the right to claim asylum and have their case heard is a legal right protected by US and international law.
As the Los Angeles Times reported in August, the Trump administration’s new approach to dealing with the migrant crisis at the southern border called the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, might not be working in concert with current US law. As of late August, over 38,000 asylum-seeking migrants have been returned to Mexico to await their court hearings. But those are hearings that often don’t come, as notices to appear never make it to the migrants who have no address. While they wait, migrants are tragically often subject to abuse and violence from drug cartels and gangs. Ali Noorani of the National Immigration Forum sounded the alarm in Fox News last week when he said that US courts, not the cartels, should decide who gets asylum and that MPP was a “morally bankrupt” approach to this crisis because it puts migrant families seeking protection at extreme risk from the dangers waiting for them in the Mexican border towns where they are forced to stay.
I’ve been to the border multiple times over the past year in El Paso, Nogales, and Tijuana. I’ve visited with ministry leaders on both sides of the border and have met with migrants who have journeyed through deserts, jungles, and great dangers seeking asylum. I have heard from many sources that a large majority of asylum-seeking migrants are evangelical Christians coming to America for protection from violence, persecution, corruption, war, extreme poverty, and oppression. I have heard their stories with my own ears, have prayed with them, and have prayed with those ministering to them and receiving them in the name of Jesus all along the border. (See Sophia Lee’s “We Offered the Love of Jesus” for some of the same stories from people I’ve met.) These first-hand experiences have helped me understand that, while there has been an ongoing crisis at the border, it is largely a humanitarian crisis involving families and children. Solutions to this crisis cannot only involve improved border security, but must also include compassion and mercy as part of the response.
There is an important discussion to be had about refugee resettlement and America’s asylum process. Moreover, not all who want to come can come, and this system needs order and regulation. But as we figure out how to solve this crisis, we must also include the values of compassion, welcome, and refuge to those in desperate need as part of the approach to address issues related to global migration. If the golden door closes to the poor and vulnerable and only remains ajar for those with wealth, power, and influence who choose to come here, the question won’t just involve what happens to the refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers. The question will be, What will happen to us?
Zechariah 7:8-14 speaks of God’s call upon Israel to “render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another, to not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart.” God gave them these commands as a description of true worship and what it meant to know him. But they “refused to pay attention,” “turned a stubborn shoulder,” and “stopped their ears that they might not hear” what God was calling them to. Then it says “they made their hearts diamond-hard” that they would not hear the law and the prophets that described God’s character. God offered them an opportunity to worship him by softening their hearts and caring for those coming to them who were in great need. But they declined. The result of them hardening their own hearts was that they were scattered and their land was made desolate.
Here is the moral of the story: while America is not Israel and America is not the church and the church has a different mandate than the state, the church should still witness the love and compassion of God for the poor, widow, orphan, and sojourner to the state. If the state loses this witness, a hardness comes over it that then affects the state itself and its inhabitants. We cannot accept all who want to come to America, and there should be regulations and restrictions so that people come in an orderly fashion. But closing the door to those in greatest need who come to us for refuge and asylum doesn’t just affect them. It affects us, too. Our churches lose the vitality inherent in welcoming strangers and making room for those different from themselves. Our communities lose the new ideas and aspirations of those who risk everything and dream and work to make their lives, and the lives of those around them, better.
And our nation gets used to shutting the door and turning a shoulder to those from other lands we believe don’t benefit us or might require something of us. Once that hardness of heart takes hold, it doesn’t stop just with a rejection of foreigners. It spreads throughout the increasingly restrictive nativist society itself until more and more people who are already present are also eventually seen as threats and are pushed aside, their humanity disregarded. Hardness never stops with just the intended target. It grows and takes over everything.
What we do with the refugees and asylum seekers coming to us asking for refuge and protection is something that needs to be worked out through the development of consistent and effective policy. I don’t have all of the answers for how that should happen. But I do believe these people matter to God and are human beings with inherent worth and dignity. In whatever solutions that are developed, we must also remember to value them as people with dignity and treat them with compassion. How we treat them also reveals who we are and who we will become. The future of America is up for grabs right now, and the main concern is not demographic, economic, or political, but moral.
Who gets to come through the golden door?