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Commentary: What would Jesus say on immigration?

by on July 27, 2014 1:39 AM

Conservatives are quick to embrace religious figures who agree with them on issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and the right of business owners to deny contraception coverage to their employees.

“God is a Republican” might as well be their slogan, and church attendance is one of the best indicators of partisan loyalty. In 2012, 58 percent of voters who attended worship services weekly voted for Mitt Romney.

But there’s a catch. Faith leaders are certainly not immune to political calculation, but they tend to be more interested in principle than partisanship.

And during the current crisis on our southern border, with more than 50,000 minors seeking refuge here this year, most religious voices have supported the liberal view: Be humane. Be charitable. Take care of the children first.

Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, eager to prove his conservative credentials to Republican primary voters, ostentatiously ordered 1,000 National Guard troops to patrol the border. The Catholic bishop of El Paso, Mark Seitz, had a very different answer: Send aid, not arms; social workers, not soldiers.

“Some have questioned why I would take a position more consistent with the Democratic view on the crisis than the Republican view, which looks to enforcement as a solution,” the bishop wrote. “What some have difficulty grasping today is that the Church’s teaching is not beholden to any political ideology. The Catholic Church is neither Republican nor Democrat, conservative nor liberal. The Church is called to defend the rights and dignity of all God’s children, born and unborn, regardless of the political wisdom of the day.”

We stand with the bishop. He cites the teaching of Jesus in the Book of Matthew: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” And Seitz casts the issue in deeply moral terms: “A willingness to give of ourselves for the sake of the most vulnerable is the measure by which we will be measured.”

It’s not just the lesson of Jesus that matters here, but the lesson of history. Yes, xenophobia and nativism have periodically blemished our past. And it’s particularly painful to hear the racist rants we’ve heard so many times before: Send the children home because they carry foreign ideas and infectious diseases.

Those voices of ignorance have always been wrong, and they are wrong today. And our saner leaders know that. One of them is Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, who notes that 62 percent of his constituents are either immigrants or children of immigrants.

“These are children,” he recently told a forum on the young migrants. “Let’s get them someplace safe and secure, let’s get them legal representation, which is what this country has always stood for ... We have to ask ourselves who we are as Americans at moments like this.”

Yes we do. One answer: Congress should approve President Obama’s request for $3.7 billion in emergency funds, much of it aimed at aiding the young people detained at the border. But since that request, like everything else in Washington, is blocked by partisan wrangling, private relief organizations have to play a major role.

One of them is Save the Children (Cokie is a longtime member of their board), which has opened a “child-friendly space” in the Texas border town of McAllen. Many complex factors are driving the tide of migrants to places like McAllen, but a deep-seated fear of the conditions back home is clearly one of them.

Eduardo, a 10-year-old from El Salvador, told Save the Children: “We left our home because it was dangerous. I was in 4th grade at school, but on Fridays, I had stopped going because they were called ‘Black Fridays.’ That’s because almost every Friday, gangs would break into homes. They also came into my school one day.”

Under a law passed in 2008 and signed by President Bush, children like Eduardo, from countries like El Salvador, have special rights when they reach the border. Instead of being deported immediately, they are placed with relatives and given the opportunity to argue that they deserve to stay in America as refugees.

As their price for supporting Obama’s aid request, Republicans want to amend that law and end that option. But the price is too high.

The law had a good purpose when it was passed, and it still does. Some of the young immigrants will qualify for permanent residency and some will not, but they all should have a chance to make their case.

That’s what Jesus would say. And that’s what this country is all about.



Cokie and Steven V. Roberts write a column distributed by the Newspaper Enterprise Association.
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