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Religion and Immigrant Children

Anti-immigrant protestors preparing to stop buses carrying children from Central America.
Anti-immigrant protestors preparing to stop buses carrying children from Central America.Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

We’ve all seen the pictures: Angry protestors on the border calling for the deportation of children.

It’s not a very edifying sight: Adults blocking buses full of children fleeing the poverty and violence of Central America. It does not bring out the best in us, and it contradicts those storied words engraved on a tablet in the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands:

"Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The anti-immigrant protestors not only violate American principles, they also offend the sensibilities of many prominent religious leaders. When an infuriated Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, viewed images of protestors yelling “Go home” at buses carrying mothers and children, he immediately drafted a blog post. “It was un-American; it was unbliblical; it was inhumane,” he wrote. “The angry mob,” the prelate added, “reminded me of Nativist mobs in the 1840’s, Know-Nothing gangs in the 1850’s, and KKK thugs in the 1920’s, who hounded and harassed scared immigrants, Catholics, Jews, and Blacks.”

Protesting the protestors cuts across denominational and sectarian lines. Some Jews see a comparison in the influx of immigrant children from Central America and the Kindertransport, a mission to rescue Jewish children from the clutches of Nazi Germany and send them to Britain. “The question for us is: How do we want to be remembered, as yelling and screaming to go back, or as using the teachings of our traditions to have compassion and love and grace for the lives of God’s children?” asked Rabbi Asher Knight of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, the largest Jewish congregation in the South.

A coalition of Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Union for Reform Judaism, and others, has urged Congress and the Obama administration “to ensure the protection of children, and fulfill the Torah’s mandate to ‘welcome the stranger.’” The message adds, “It is crucial that we deal with this urgent humanitarian situation while maintaining our country’s commitment to asylum seekers and refugees.”

The religious objections to the anti-immigrant protests blur political divisions. Catholic leaders, long allied with conservative politicians on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, disagree with anti-immigrant Republicans. The same is true of leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, most of whose congregants are on the right wing of the political spectrum.

“The first thing is to make sure that we understand these are not issues, these are persons,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “These children are made in the image of God, and we ought to respond to them with compassion, not with fear.” After leading a delegation of Southern Baptist officials on a visit to detention centers in Texas, Moore said, “This is a crisis, and not simply a political crisis, but a moral one.”

A coalition of evangelical organizations, usually found on the right on social and political issues, has drafted a letter to Congress opposing proposals for deporting migrant children, a move gaining steam among Republicans. Evangelical groups are not only petitioning Congress; some are assisting migrant children by offering food, shelter, and legal services. As Jesse Eaves of World Vision, an evangelical charity, puts it, “As a Christian organization, we feel we have no choice — we are clearly called by Scripture to respond to all children in need.”

The widespread sympathy among religious leaders for the plight of immigrant children does not appear to be matched by all their congregants. One wonders whether the anti-immigrant protestors are listening to the sermons and Bible readings when attending religious services.

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference sums up the discrepancy best: “There’s still angst in the pews, but if they listen more to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John than to Rush Limbaugh, they’ll act with compassion toward these children.”