Civil Rights

Faith communities are mobilizing against Trump’s family separation policy

On April 6, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions first announced the so-called "zero-tolerance policy" at the border between the US and Mexico, he shepherded in a practice of government-sanctioned abduction of more than 2,500 children from their parents that rightfully drew widespread public outrage. Sessions was quick to reference scripture in its defense: "Obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes" (Romans 13:1).

The Bible passage Sessions twisted to serve his political purposes is the same one later echoed by White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders to justify the Trump administration's cruel immigration policies. It is the same passage that, once upon a time, was used to justify the enslavement of people from Africa. And it is the same passage used by the Nazis to justify the Holocaust.

As faith leaders from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, we won't sit idly by while holy texts are used to perpetuate injustice, the closing off of borders to those in need, and the inhumane treatment of children and families. For the past week, we have led the multi-faith community in a "Week of Witness" that included lullaby sing-alongs and prayer vigils in congregations across the country to raise awareness of the hundreds of children still separated from their parents a month after the court-ordered reunification deadline, and to share a message of love to those in detention that may feel unwelcome or alone.

Why lullabies? Often rooted in faith and popular culture, many of us remember being sung to sleep by our loved ones. Continuing that oral tradition, we sing to our kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews - something robbed of parents when their children are separated from them. For months, organizations supporting immigrants have been asking volunteers working with undocumented families to do more than simply write down the name of the person who will care for the children if a parent faces deportation (as power of attorney), but to also record their favorite toys, medications, and even what lullabies they sing when trying to put the kids to sleep at night.

In moments like this, we are reminded of the story of Exodus, a central narrative in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. In it, God sends Moses (perhaps the world's most famous unaccompanied child migrant) to Pharaoh as a truth-teller, to demand the release of the Israelites. But because the arrogant Pharaoh refuses to set the Israelites free, God decides to punish him by sending ten plagues upon Egypt.

We know that Pharaoh's Egypt isn't the only place and time where children and families have suffered at the hands of despotic leaders. And the moment we are in right now is not the first time in America's history that we have seen families separated by the U.S. government. Following what some refer to as "the Indian Wars" of the late 17th - early 19th century, tribal lands were seized, women and children were separated from men, and first nations were forcibly resettled on reservations. During the enslavement of people from Africa, families were separated from one another (the last time our government separated mothers from children en masse). During WWII, families of Japanese descent were forcibly interned in camps together.

While media attention has begun to wane, the crisis facing immigrant families continues. Hundreds of children are still separated, and thousands more families are in an ongoing fight to stay together while surviving possibly indefinite detention. Recently, 21-month-old Mariee Juárez died from negligent treatment of an illness she contracted while incarcerated in immigration detention - a place no child should ever be. Seeking justice for these children and families requires all of us to bear witness to that truth.

The prayers and lullabies from the Week of Action have streamed on social media to let undocumented families know that they are not alone and that the illegal, immoral, and unjust actions of our government do not reflect the spirit of all Americans. These prayers and songs are reflective of the Prophet Muhammad who said that, "He who separates a mother from her child will be separated from his loved ones on the day of resurrection."' They're reflective of Jesus, himself a child refugee, who said he was anointed to "...bring good news to the poor...release to the captives...sight to the blind...let the oppressed go free."

There are some words we all hold sacred as Americans, though they come not from our spiritual traditions but from the words of poet Emma Lazarus emblazoned on the Statue of Liberty, the "mighty woman with a torch" erected to bear witness at a historic entry point to the US: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free..."

As hundreds of kids remain separated from their parents, we have joined together, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and people of moral conscience to bear witness for the children and families who are imprisoned but yearn to be free. We hope you'll join us.

Ryan Eller is the executive director of Define American. Ginna Green is the chief strategy officer at Bend the Arc: Jewish Action.Imam Omar Suleiman is the founder and president of Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research.

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