Migrant bashing and xenophobia are out of step with American and Christian values

The indelible image of a mother in a Disney shirt, clutching her young children and running from tear gas at the U.S.-Mexico border, encapsulates the heartbreaking nature of the current moment — more than a president’s angry tweet or fiery speech could ever convey.

Our government’s actions and words in response to the human beings in the “caravan” is wrong. President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Milley warns of 'Sputnik moment' for China WSJ publishes letter from Trump continuing to allege voter fraud in PA Oath Keeper who was at Capitol on Jan. 6 runs for New Jersey State Assembly MORE’s repeated condemnation and threats toward people fleeing hopelessness, poverty and violence violate not only American law and values but also human decency and Christian ethics.

The migrant group comes from Central America, home to some of the poorest and most violent countries in the world. The few thousand people who are arriving at the southern border in Tijuana overcame a grueling journey north to escape desperate circumstances.

They are not terrorists, criminals, drug lords, gangsters, or any of the other slanderous labels the president has implied or actually used. They are human beings, many of whom have lost family members to violence back home. Lying about who they are and why they walked more than a thousand miles north is odious and unjust.

According to U.S. and international law, people fleeing persecution in their home countries must be allowed to make claims to asylum and to have those claims fairly adjudicated. Asylum law is realistic and humane. It recognizes that sometimes people’s most basic rights are violated at home and they need a place to flee.

Every country assesses the legitimacy of the claims of persecution and should do its share to resettle those whose claims meet legal standards. The U.S. cannot exempt itself from these moral obligations, nor should we. Migrants who reach the U.S. border and petition for asylum are engaging in a process authorized by U.S. laws. But now, the San Ysidro entry point is processing only 40 to 100 asylum applications a day and the Trump administration has been trying to make a deal with the Mexican government that would keep asylum seekers in Mexico as they wait for their claims to be processed.

The answer to the arrival of a large number of asylum seekers should not be intimidation, threats, tear gas and doors slammed shut. The answer is to expand the number of trained interviewers at the border, as well as other needed officials to process and care for people decently and humanely.

There is nothing wrong with our laws regarding asylum. They need to be implemented, humanely and efficiently.

Perhaps even more important, human decency and Christian ethics call for a different response.

These are human beings stuck in limbo as Trump desperately tries to limit their right to claim asylum. It violates human dignity to denigrate any group of human beings as the president is now doing and human dignity is a baseline — perhaps the baseline — moral principle of civilized society.

Moreover, these are particularly desperate human beings — frightened, poor, dislocated, many widowed and orphaned. The normal human response and the mandated biblical response, to such people is empathy and compassion. Empathy allows us to identify with suffering and experience a heartfelt movement of concern, a “what if it were my family” sense of fellow-feeling and common humanity.

The Hebrew Bible teaches special concern for the widow, orphan, alien, and stranger (Exodus 22:21-24), and Jesus teaches us to see in the least of these his very own self (“As you did it to the least of these, you did it to me” — Matthew 25:31-46). These are, literally, neighbors. They are neighbors in a regional sense and they are neighbors in a human sense, the sense in which Jesus taught us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:34-40).

There are three plausible reasons the president, who speaks for and to the nation with a megaphone bigger than anyone else’s, might be caravan bashing. Before Nov. 6, he seemed eager to mobilize his anti-immigrant base voters ahead of the midterm election. Second, Trump’s words and actions seemed designed to instill in Americans an attitude of fear and contempt toward particular groups of people — including, perhaps, some who are already here. Third, he may be expressing his own heartfelt negative views.

All of these reasons are contemptible and unworthy of the president of the United States.

Knowing that migrant bashing and xenophobia are out of step with American and Christian values does not require a doctorate in American history or Christian ethics. Any American should be able to recognize our heritage as a nation of immigrants and a regular refuge for those who can find escape nowhere else. Any Christian ought to be able to see the manifest clash between caravan bashing and basic biblical teachings.

As Americans and for some of us, as Christians, we must not allow our moral compass to bend and then break under this presidential pressure. We have to know who we are and act in keeping with our truest values. We know — we must know — that the mother clutching her two young children deserves dignity and respect.  

Seduction via state propaganda is one of the oldest tricks in the playbook of tyrants and demagogues. This seduction via migrant-bashing is not even a little bit subtle or clever. Let us pray that the American people, including those who claim to follow Jesus Christ, repudiate it — today and every day forward.

David P. Gushee is a distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, is immediate past-president of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics.