An unlikely coalition of faith groups are coming to the aid of unaccompanied children currently stranded along the U.S. border, with evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Christians, and even Glenn Beck setting aside some political and theological differences to call for increased assistance for minors ensnared in the growing immigration crisis.
In a move that surprised many on both sides of the political aisle, this week conservative pundit and radio host Glenn Beck waded into the heated debate over how to respond to the more than 50,000 immigrant children who have crossed the U.S. border in 2014, most of whom are fleeing from explosions of horrendous violence and poverty in their home countries. Beck, who is Mormon, announced on his television program this Tuesday that he intends to travel down to the border himself, where he says he will join up with local church groups currently providing aid to unaccompanied immigrant kids and bring along Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah), Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), and several pastors and rabbis.
“Through no fault of their own, [these unaccompanied children] are caught in political crossfire,” Beck said. “The churches have asked us if we could bring teddy bears and soccer balls, so we’ve loaded up a whole tractor-trailer of nothing but teddy bears and soccer balls. And then I’m going to go serve breakfast and lunch, and I’m going to help unload these trucks, hot meals for 3,000.”
Many were quick to label Beck’s move as counter-cultural given his popularity among anti-immigrant conservatives, and Beck himself noted that he has “never taken a position more deadly to my career than this.” Granted, Beck’s position is more than a little inconsistent: he may endorse kindness towards immigrant children, but he is also vehemently opposed to President Obama’s request for $3.7 billion in funds from Congress to address the situation, and has accused the President of “engineering” the crisis in the first place. Nevertheless, Beck’s faith-rooted compassion towards immigrant children showcases an unlikely point of commonality between himself and many progressives, and inadvertently highlights a larger effort by an unusually broad coalition of church groups to pressure the government to do more to assist the vulnerable children.
Various faith groups and churches from across the religious spectrum are already offering robust services for the unaccompanied children, with everything from baptist disaster relief services providing shelter for unaccompanied minors in Texas to individual Catholic churches in California harboring kids until they can find a suitable place to house them. However, many of these all-volunteer organizations report being overwhelmed by the recent flood of children crossing the border, spurring prominent faith leaders to call for more robust action by the government. On Thursday, a group of primarily progressive religious leaders delivered a petition to the Administration and Congress signed by more than 3,800 people of faith that called for providing immediate care for unaccompanied children. The letter, which was endorsed by influential clergy such as United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcano and Rev. David Vasquez, spokesman for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, also opposed efforts to “expeditiously deport these innocent children,” and insisted lawmakers increase funds for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, provide legal representation for children, and “provide access to visitation ministries, pastoral care, play and activities appropriate for children,” among other things.
“These are children by themselves out in the desert, desperate enough to run in fear for their lives,” Vasquez said on a teleconference announcing the petition. “I am heartened by the call for emergency funding made by President Obama, but also troubled by the call for 6,000 additional beds to detain families. I’m troubled by the continued conviction that we can deport our way out of this situation,”
“These children are unifying us,” Bishop Carcano added.
Indeed, religious progressives aren’t the only ones speaking up on behalf of the unaccompanied children. In another letter sent to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson in late June, representatives from theologically conservative groups such as the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, World Vision, and World Relief made the case for protecting children above all else.
“As Christian leaders we have a Biblical and moral imperative to provide a pastoral and compassionate response even while we seek long-term solutions to the root causes of this crisis,” the letter read. “Our churches, parishes, and relief agencies have a long history of compassionate service and ministry during the most challenging times.”
The letter was careful to avoid endorsing specific policy proposals like those found in the progressive faith petition, but Jenny Yang, Vice President of Advocacy and Policy at World Relief, an advocacy arm of the NAE, said her organization was dedicated to doing whatever it can to protect the children while also abiding by established law — especially victims of human trafficking.
“There is a general acknowledgement that there are walls in place,” Yang told ThinkProgress, referring to existing immigration laws. “I think our biggest concern is that the needs [of the children] are met, especially while these kids are in deportation proceedings. While they are here, they should get a fair hearing so we can hear their claims. And if they are victims of trafficking, they should be granted proper legal protections.”
Still, she added that if the lawmakers moved to change existing immigration law in a way that hurts the unaccompanied children, “we would oppose that.”
The prominence of faith communities in this crisis may come as a surprise to some, but their involvement is consistent with a lengthy history of faith-based advocacy on behalf immigrants — particularly those struggling to remove themselves from communities blighted by war and poverty. When thousands of Central Americans fled to the United States in the 1980s to escape the violence ravaging their home countries, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Unitarian Universalist churches along the U.S.-Mexico border opened their doors, offering the refugees legal aid and housing in direct defiance of federal law. The Underground Railroad-style effort came to be known as the “Sanctuary Movement,” and — since federal officials were wary of pitting themselves against the faith community — it eventually established religious groups as the first line of defense for immigrants, a tradition that continues to this day.
In fact, even as faith groups call for swift action from lawmakers, the government is moving to expand partnerships with faith groups to bolster resources for addressing the current crisis. In the past few weeks, representatives from the White House and FEMA have begun emailing churches and religious centers asking them to send details about things such as the square footage of their facilities to help “identify appropriate sheltering options for these children.”
Of course, not everyone in the faith community is willing to offer an unqualified hand to the beleaguered children. A particular brand of Tea Party evangelical, sometimes called “Teavangelicals,” have a reputation for passionately decrying pro-immigrant policies and even immigrants themselves. Some of these groups have staged protests to block buses of immigrant children attempting to cross the border. In addition, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, has endorsed aiding the children for a time, but told the Associated Press that they are “better off with their parents” and should be sent home. He also pledged to broadcast public service announcements in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala to discourage parents from sending their children to the U.S. border. Similarly, several baptist groups working with unaccompanied children have reported receiving angry phone calls from anonymous church members who argue that helping immigrants only encourages people to continue crossing the border.
But faith-based aid workers on the border have insisted that critics come see the situation before passing judgment, and Yang, who said she has encountered similar pushback in her work, expressed exasperation with negativity directed towards unaccompanied immigrant kids.
“It just doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense,” she said, pausing briefly before returning to a discussion about how to better the children’s situation.
It remains to be seen whether the faith-based push will be enough to effectively “fix” the crisis on the border, especially with so many political angles at play. But religious advocates such as Bishop Carcano and others have struggled to muster political support for border issues before, and they don’t show any signs of letting up on calls to aid immigrant children anytime soon.
“These are children and as people of justice and faith, we cannot turn a blind eye or turn them away,” Carcano said. “These migrants are God’s children and therefore our youngest and most vulnerable brothers and sisters for whom we must care.”