Over the last several months, discussions around immigration policies have devolved to extremist sound bytes, with political candidates creating a new wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric to further their own agendas. Sadly, these hateful words have manifested themselves in how the United States treats immigrants. The actions of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are endangering the lives of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing violence, persecution, and devastating poverty in Central America.
As the general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, a denomination with 5,000 churches and nearly one million members, I am deeply troubled by these callous policies that are literally costing people their lives. President Obama has already deported two and a half million people. Why, in his final year in office, would he want to send families and children back into harm’s way, to some of the most dangerous countries in the world?
On Christmas Eve, it was reported that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would begin the New Year with raids targeting Central American families seeking asylum. This turned a time of hope and renewal into a season of uncertainty for thousands of families seeking refuge in the United States.
As we recalled how Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus fled from Bethlehem to Egypt over 2,000 years ago, ICE was knocking on doors in the wee hours of the morning to deport mothers and young children back to the horrors of Central America. Sadly, 121 people were caught up in these unjust and immoral raids, and many have been deported back to the very violence they were fleeing. Despite DHS’s claim that those apprehended had their day in court, pro-bono attorneys were able to win stays of removal for 33 mothers and children, proving that many of these individuals do, in fact, have legal claims to be able to stay in the United States.
Since Christmas Eve, I have heard from clergy and lay people in congregations across the United States asking how they can respond to these inhumane raids and stand in solidarity with our immigrant brothers and sisters. Faith communities have renewed their commitments to offer support and sanctuary to individuals who are in fear of deportation. Hundreds of congregations are supporting the Sanctuary Movement and several UCC congregations are opening their doors to individuals facing deportation orders.
Why are these raids happening? The reason is political. In a toxic and anti-immigrant environment, the administration is trying to deter migrants by spreading terror and fear. However, when someone’s life is threatened, their urgent need to flee cannot be stopped, even by draconian fear tactics. Attempts to make vulnerable migrants fear raids, detention, and deportation more than the gangs and traffickers in their home countries have proven to be ineffective, as well as outrageous and immoral.
Just last year, when I was a conference minister in Phoenix, I helped Shadow Rock United Church of Christ stop the deportation of two people. One of them, Eleazer Misael Perez-Cabrera, was able to win a stay of deportation and apply for asylum. He was terrified to be deported back to Guatemala where his cousin was recently killed by gang violence, since he was sure he would also be a target. His story is similar to the stories of thousands of men, women and children from Central America who are now being targeted for home invasion raids and deportation.
We cannot ignore the claims of individuals fleeing oppression. Instead, our faith calls us to welcome families seeking safety. Many congregations across faiths are offering sanctuary just as Shadow Rock UCC did. We pray that President Obama will find inspiration in this powerful work, and instead of deporting vulnerable people, provide Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans already here in the United States access to Temporary Protective Status, so that they can safely stay here. When the U.S. government has removed its Peace Corps volunteers from El Salvador due to imminent danger, it is clear that we should not be deporting people back to that same danger.
In this nation founded on the hard work, determination and dreams of generations of immigrants and refugees, we must call upon our leaders to immediately stop these unjust raids and protect families seeking asylum. I call upon all people of faith, including President Obama, to work together to grant relief and protection to the most vulnerable among us so that we may fully realize our values as Americans and as people of faith.
Dorhauer is general minister and president of the United Church of Christ.