Welcoming the Stranger

Group Convenors

Rev. Michael Wallens    michaelwallens@gmail.com

What We Do

I was born and raised Jewish. My Rabbi said many time that there is no Old Testament commandment to love your parents, husband, wife, or children. There are only three commands: to love the Lord your God, love your neighbor, and love the alien in the land. Deuteronomy 10:19 gives this third commandment to love and explains why: you were once aliens yourselves. The full passage can be found in Deuteronomy 10:17-19. 

After the U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War in 1848, Mexico was forced to sign over 525,000 square miles of territory, including what is now California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming. Five years later, the U.S. purchased another 29,000-square-mile strip of land containing southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, more or less creating the present-day border. The sparsely populated region was barely policed, and Mexicans and Americans freely crossed back and forth. In border towns like Nogales, Ariz., saloons straddling the border sold Mexican cigars on the Mexican side and American liquor on the U.S. side to avoid customs duties. Illegal immigration wasn't considered a problem, because for most of the 19th century, the U.S. had virtually open borders. Would-be immigrants "didn't need a passport," said Mae Ngai, a historian at Columbia University. "You didn't need a visa." 

President Jimmy Carter's administration proposed the construction of a fence along the most heavily trafficked parts of the border in 1979, but scrapped the idea following a backlash at home and in Mexico. "You don't build a 9-foot fence along the border between two friendly nations," Carter's Republican rival, Ronald Reagan, said during the 1980 election. Still, Reagan would tighten border security as president. But rather than build physical barriers, he supported the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which boosted the Border Patrol's staff by 50 percent — to 5,000 ¬personnel — and equipped agents with night-vision goggles, new helicopters, and high-tech surveillance systems. The law also provided amnesty and legal status to some 2.7 million undocumented immigrants. 

The first major physical barriers were constructed in the 1990s under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. They included a 14-mile-long fence separating San Diego and Tijuana, built using steel helicopter landing pads left over from the Vietnam War. The building spree intensified after the 9/11 attacks sparked fears of terrorists crossing the border: The Secure Fence Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2006, added 548 miles of fencing at a cost of $2.3 billion. Another 137 additional miles of fencing were erected under President Barack Obama. Today, just over 700 miles of the border is fenced off. 

The Trump administration has used the COVID-19 pandemic to gut the right to asylum and implement far-reaching changes to our immigration system. The latest tools in its arsenal are expulsions of anyone seeking to cross the border under Title 42 of the US code and a raft of new asylum regulations that will make protection effectively impossible to win. 

While our current administration has added more to the walls along the border, the real damage is done through current policies. The latest proposed changes to the asylum system, end protection as we know it and make asylum almost impossible to win. This is the latest move in a concerted attempt to end asylum and close the door to all forms of immigration. 

Among the regulations:
• Limits the definition of persecution to “an extreme concept of a severe level of harm,” making it more difficult to prove persecution in court 
• Expands the asylum ban so that anyone who transits through a third country (not just those who transit through Mexico) on their way to the US would need to first apply in that country, even if they know they cannot be safe there • Allows judges to make decisions on asylum cases without giving asylum seekers a court hearing or an opportunity to testify • Expands asylum officers’ ability to dismiss cases as “frivolous” 
• Rejects asylum applications based on being a victim of gender-based violence, terrorism, gangs or rogue government agents 
 • Counts living unlawfully in the country for at least a year before applying for asylum, having a criminal conviction (even if it was reversed or expunged) or failure to pay taxes (despite a lengthy waiting period to receive a work authorization) as “adverse” factors that could harm applications 

Collectively, these changes mean that the asylum system as we know it does not currently exist. A new administration would have the power to reverse many of these policies and reinstate a robust system of asylum that would ensure that human rights and due process are upheld and people are treated with dignity while seeking protection. For now, thousands of people face an uncertain future as their hopes of finding safety in the US are placed on hold. 

Unaccompanied Children 
Unaccompanied child migrants have long been granted special protection because of their unique vulnerability, particularly to human trafficking. Children who arrive at the border alone are normally permitted entry and housed in nonprofit shelters overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) until they can be reunited with family members and sponsors in the US. In May of this year, only 39 children were admitted to the US and referred to shelters by ORR, leaving thousands more who were turned away and denied any form of protection. On June 24, a judge blocked the deportation of a Honduran teenager under Title 42 and agreed with attorneys in the case that the CDC exceeded its authority in using public health laws to expel asylum seekers and children from the country. The CDC order that permits children to be expelled without any form of due process or protection is a violation of the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Act. It puts children directly in harm’s way as they are forced to navigate trauma, danger, the threat of disease and being alone in a foreign country. In addition to expelling children who arrive at the border, the US has also swiftly deported hundreds of children who were already present in the US, sometimes without notifying their families.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order on March 20 that uses Title 42 of the US code, also known as the Public Health Service Act, to immediately turn people away when they attempt to cross the border, including those who express fear of return and vulnerable populations such as unaccompanied children. The order uses the pretense of public health to argue that expulsions will help stop the spread of COVID-19 despite the fact that the virus is already circulating widely throughout the US. As of this writing, there have been approximately 43,000 expulsions at the southern border, including 2,175 children.

Part of the administration's argument is that allowing immigrants into the country would necessitate placing them in a “congregant setting” (Border Patrol custody) that would heighten their risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19. This argument has been used repeatedly over the years to justify restrictive immigration policy despite the fact that it is a problem of the government’s own making. Border Patrol holding stations are small, crowded and ill-equipped for human habitation because they were never designed to hold people for any length of time, especially families and children. The government has declined to upgrade its facilities and processes to account for the new realities of migration and ensure that people can be treated with dignity during immigration processing and swiftly released to family members.

The CDC order was extended indefinitely in mid-May and will likely remain in place until a new administration takes power next year. 

While some alterations to the immigration system are necessary to adapt to COVID-19 and keep people safe, the public health situation is worsened by turning vulnerable people back into crowded and unsafe conditions in Mexico and deporting people to countries that do not have the capacity to deal with outbreaks. A comprehensive approach rooted in public health guidance would make it possible for asylum seekers and migrants to enter the country and be processed and reunited with family in a safe and dignified manner that respects their human rights. 

Our broken immigration system is a wound on our country and scandal at the border. Our border community bears disproportionately the burdens of a broken system. No one can deny the terrible human impacts of a system that forces over 11 million persons without documents to live in the shadows, divides families, permits some to detain human beings for profit, and compromises our nation’s historic commitment to the refugee and asylum seeker. 

Comprehensive immigration reform should include the following: 
JUST PATHS Nations that enjoy the peace, prosperity and security that we do must ensure that there are sufficient legal avenues for migrants workers and their families, who fill important roles in our economy, to migrate in a safe and orderly way. Asylum seekers fleeing violence, persecution and extreme poverty deserve special protections. The 11 million undocumented persons in our country should be provided with a just path towards legalization and eventual citizenship. 

FUTURE FLOWS A reformed system should be flexible in order to respond to future migration flows, including the need for foreign-born workers, and should ensure workplace protections, living wage levels, safeguard against the displacement of US workers and the priority of family unity. 

FAMILIES FIRST Reforming our immigration system means putting families first. We should end deportation and enforcement practices that separate families and adopt a system that prioritizes family unity. It can currently take decades for families to be reunited through today’s burdensome and expensive system.

ROOT CAUSES As a country, we are involved in the drivers of migration, through things like unfair trade policies, our addiction to drugs and even climate change. Lawmakers should address the root causes of migration and promote sustainable economic development abroad, which will allow our brothers and sisters to remain in their home countries and support themselves and their families in safety. 

END MILITARIZATION Enforcement-first and blockade strategies which militarize border communities should be ended. The massive growth in immigration enforcement agencies must be matched by a corresponding commitment to accountability, transparency and human rights. Comprehensive immigration reform should provide security while still allowing for the orderly entry of people into our country, especially those fleeing for their live. Immigration enforcement measures must be targeted, proportional and humane. The detention migrants (adults, families and children) whose pose no threat to the community should be ended. 

What can you do? Fortunately, there are many ways to respond. We can begin by bringing immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees and the immigration situation before God in prayer. From there, we move to action: we can serve our immigrant neighbors through volunteering, allowing us to know them personally and learn from them, as well as financially supporting ministries that facilitate such service. As we better understand the immigration issues through interaction with immigration neighbors, we can help to educate others in our churches and communities. From there, we can advocate together on behalf of immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Finally, if we wish to address the root issues behind immigration, we will need to begin to address poverty, unemployment, conflict, and environmental degradation in other parts of the world. 

To be more specific:
1. Help keep families together, and keep them healthy, safe, and out of detention Families seeking asylum are supposed to be released from detention within 20 days, per the Flores Agreement, after which they are provided with a notice to appear in immigration court to have their case heard. Upon release from detention, families are often dropped off at bus stations or city centers with no support and few personal belongings, left to fend for themselves in a country that is foreign to them. This is after a journey of thousands of miles followed by weeks of waiting in lines to be admitted to the United States and experiencing traumatizing detention. Families frequently struggle to locate health services, food, and other basic needs, and may find it difficult to connect with their family members who may already be living in the U.S. 

 2. Help asylum-seeking children and families access legal services When families and children seeking asylum have legal representation, their chance of success at making their case increases significantly. Access to counsel also ensures they keep their court dates and follow through on the process.

3. Demand Congress end the inhumane policies fueling the crisis at the border Ask your elected officials to end practices like metering and “remain-in-Mexico” that prevent people from applying for asylum, to end the indefinite detention of children and families, and to address the root causes of this issue by investing in efforts with proven records of success, like alternatives to detention, economic investment in regions like the Northern Triangle, and the Central American Minors (CAM) refugee program.

4. Show your support for immigrant families, and encourage your friends and family to join you The mass incarceration of families is a national issue that strikes at the core of what it means to be an American. We have seen how the challenges in the asylum system are being used to justify harmful immigration policies within the country, including mass “raids” on immigrant families. It’s crucial, now more than ever, that we have these conversations with our family, friends and neighbors, and invite them to join us in standing with immigrants. 

There are a number of agencies and organizations working to bring change to our immigration policies and our current policies at our border.
For more information, contact: The Rev. Michael Wallens (Co-Chair of Rio Grande Borderland Ministries): michaelwallens@gmail.com or by phone: 214-862-7292. 

What the Episcopal Church Says:

The Rt. Rev. David M. Reed (Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas) says this: "Wherever we might fall politically, as Christians there are always Christ-like responses available to us. Whether it’s advocacy, prayer, giving a blanket to an asylum-seeker getting on a bus, handing a taco to a border patrol agent, or heading south on a mission trip - there are things you and your church can offer as followers of Jesus to share his love with others. Just remember to 'walk in love,' don’t yell, listen, and be humble and kind as you go."  


Resources include:

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