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Welcoming strangers to Atlanta

A Salvadorian girl holds her doll after crossing the U.S. border. She came with her family.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Unaccompanied Central American children continue to arrive in Georgia. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported that the federal government transferred 258 of these children to the care of sponsors (usually relatives) in the state during July, bringing the year’s total to 1,412. This is a little less than 4 percent of the more than 37,000 children who have been settled in the United States during 2014.

How should Christians think biblically about these children in particular and the larger issue of immigration in general? One organization that strives to help them do so is World Relief, a humanitarian organization founded in 1944 by the National Association of Evangelicals. World Relief’s mission is “Empowering the local Church to serve the most vulnerable,” which very often includes those who come to the United States from other countries—with or without proper legal documentation. Within that context, the Atlanta Office is particularly experienced in helping to resettle refugees, a large community of which lives in the Atlanta suburb of Clarkston.

A first step in thinking biblically is a proper definition of terms. Josh Sieweke, Atlanta Office Director for World Relief, offers a few helpful clarifications:

  • “An ‘immigrant’ is someone who lives in the United States who was born outside the country to parents who were not American citizens,” says Sieweke. Within that, there are several classifications.
  • “At World Relief, we often work with refugees,” continues Sieweke. “In legal terms, ‘refugee’ denotes an official status given to a particular group of people who have, through the system put in place by the United Nations, proven themselves to have a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted’.” Resettlement in another country, such as the United States, is a solution of last resort for some refugees. Thus, those refugees who become immigrants do so after first attaining refugee status. According to the State Department, over 3 million refugees have been resettled in the United States since 1975.
  • Similar in some respects to refugees are “asylum seekers.” Like refugees, asylum seekers are fleeing their home country in fear. The critical difference is where the claim is made. “Unlike refugees, asylum seekers arrive on their own, without a pre-determined status.” Sieweke points out. “That makes all the difference in the world in how they are treated.”

Should, then, the tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children who have entered the United States be considered asylum seekers and granted the protections that status would afford? In Sieweke’s view, the answer is complicated. “It would seem that many of them are fleeing circumstances that would qualify them for this status,” he says, “but the solution to the crisis should not be to treat them all the same. We need to take the time to sort out why they are here, and that will inform what should happen next.”

For World Relief’s part, it is using its connections with local churches to advocate for these children. Sieweke explains that much of what is needed falls within the realm of foster care, a service World Relief does not provide directly. “We are better positioned from both a mission and a resource standpoint to connect them with churches who are able to help.” As its purpose is to empower churches, World Relief is only too happy to do this.