This coming week in the lead up to Christmas, the Latin American celebration of ‘Las Posadas’ will be taking place, and my husband has just headed down to Tijuana to participate alongside our Latinx and Latin American brothers and sisters as a symbol of solidarity.
Posada means “inn” or “shelter” in Spanish, and ‘Las Posadas’ the re-enactment of the census pilgrimage taken by Mary and Joseph in search of a room in Bethlehem where Mary could give birth to Jesus.
As we lead into our own Christmas celebrations, do we see Jesus being born as a displaced migrant? Perhaps his family wasn’t fleeing (although they soon would), they were still a family who were refused entry or hospitality.
Can we use the story of the birth of our Savior to frame how we respond to what is happening at the US-Mexico border and the thousands of migrants stranded and living in insufferable conditions with no place to call home?
IS IT A CRISIS OR AN UNPRECEDENTED INVASION?
If our only source is the media and other rhetoric being thrown around, we can be forgiven for believing that the US is under attack, that the borders are being overrun.
However, to provide some perspective, for the past 20 years the total number of people apprehended for illegally crossing the southern U.S. border has been steadily falling. In 2000, 1.6million were apprehended for crossing illegally, in 2017 that number was just over 310,000, the lowest it has been in 20 years. So whilst there are people attempting to cross illegally, that number is down considerably from previous years. We are not facing any kind of unprecedented assault.
Since 2013 there has, however, been an increase in those seeking asylum legally at the points of entry along the border, with many coming from Central American countries who have faced extreme levels of violence over recent years. (El Salvador and Honduras rank among the top five most violent countries in the world).
It is well documented that the path many Central and South Americans take to get to the U.S. border to seek to enter the United States is full of immense dangers including human trafficking, sexual assault, exploitation, violence, and abuse. The hope or freedom from ones current situation, however, continues to prove worth taking the risk.
With those dangers in mind, traveling in a ‘caravan’ provides for the safety of everyone moving together as a group. The migrant caravan is not a group of people set on bombarding the United States. It is the movement of people, including many desperate families, traveling together for safety with the intention of legally approaching U.S. border patrol to request asylum. For many, they have no other option.
As Pastor Sandra Van Opstal said, “those who are part of the current caravan of migrants are making their way legally, to do what they understand they are legally allowed to do”. (Watch Facebook Live video from the US-Mexico border)
It’s not lost on me that had there been some kind of natural disaster in one of these Central American countries displacing hundreds of thousands of people, that many of us would be responding in a very different manner. It’s easier for us to see earthquakes and hurricanes as something that could happen to any of us, yet we tend to see (perhaps subconsciously), violence and poverty as things people somehow bring upon themselves and just need to learn how to live with.
Are we willing to honestly question our unconscious biases?
SHOULD THE U.S. SOLVE THE WORLD’S PROBLEMS?
Let’s also consider the role of government in protecting its sovereign borders.
It is precisely for the reasons of war, violence, terror, persecution etc. that the U.S. has laws in place to allow for any person seeking asylum to be able to access a U.S. port of entry and make their claim. Their story is assessed, and if they are found to have a sufficient enough case to be able to qualify for asylum, they are referred to an immigration court where they will be required to provide substantial evidence through an application for asylum process.
If the border official determines that the person does not have a credible fear and would not qualify for asylum, they are not permitted entry to the United States.
The United Nations defines a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion,” as a refugee. This definition is included also under U.S. immigration law.
The United States is legally obliged to provide protection to those who qualify as refugees, which means that such a person either obtain refugee status from abroad, request asylum within, or at a port of entry of the United States. Presenting oneself at the border and requesting asylum is not a crime, but a legally mandated right. (In fact, even crossing the border illegally is only considered a misdemeanor, the same offense as receiving a parking fine).
So when we say “come legally,” as the numbers show, this is what most people approaching the southern border are seeking to do.
Not everyone will qualify for asylum, and many will be turned away. The United States is not responsible for every person in the world suffering persecution or fleeing some kind of violence. This is not about having open borders or encouraging laws to be broken or bypassed. But it’s important for us to be clear on what we are calling illegal.
The United States has traditionally led the way in its welcome embrace of immigrants and refugees, “those seeking shelter, the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse, the homeless, the tempest-tossed”.
Following World War II, over 250,000 Europeans displaced from the war who could not return home were resettled in the U.S., and the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 provided for the admission of an additional 400,000. During the Cold War, the U.S. resettled refugees from Southeast Asia, people fleeing from the former Soviet Union, and Cubans, as people from those countries fled Communist regimes.
In the decade following 1975 around 100,000 Southeast Asian refugees were resettled in the U.S. per year. This mass provision for those fleeing war became the foundation for what is the current U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. By the 1990s, the program was leading the rest of the world in refugee resettlement and the American government has taken in more refugees than any other country over the past three decades.
The United States has been doing this kind of assessing, processing, and welcoming for many years. It is not new. It is our response to it that is new.
And my concern lies in what is driving that response. The United States is being fed a narrative of fear, and the result is the dehumanization of others. When we dehumanize, we can allow any kind of treatment of another.
Are we willing to seek out facts and refuse to allow rhetoric and fear mongering determine our understanding?
PEOPLE ARE ON THE MOVE
There is a mass movement of people happening across the globe, with millions being displaced from their homes through no fault of their own. Most people fleeing their homes have no desire to do so, in just the same way that you or I would not want to be forced to. We see throughout history, both in the Bible and in more recent times, that God is, and has always been, present in the movement of people. If we believe this, it should frame how we view such movement, and the people within that movement.
“It’s easy for us to cast judgement from a distance, but we don’t know what anyone has been through to/get to the point of approaching our borders. We can easily question the judgement of parents making/such a journey, taking risks with their children, but most of these parents are making decisions with only/the best interests of their children at heart.”
Somali born poet Warsan Shire wrote the poem ‘No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.’
Their lives, their countries, their experiences – are not the same as ours. Their normal is not the same as our normal. Their options are not the same as ours. Their governments may provoke fear rather than protection, and the laws that govern their lives may oppress rather than provide for their wellbeing. May we hold these tensions as we seek to be empathetic and gain understanding of another’s story in all of its fullness.
I have met young men fleeing dictatorial regimes because they are unable to just keep their heads down and put up with it. They cannot just fit in with all that is wrong and unjust, and they are victimized for it, with a target placed on their back. We are able to now celebrate those who have done this in the past: Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr. Rosa Parks, and many others who were persecuted for it at the time throughout history. Yet, in the same way, we are unable to see those standing up against oppression in the same way now. We don’t yet have the benefit of hindsight.
As I hear the unimaginable stories of the conditions people are surviving in at the border right now – some in makeshift camps or wherever they can find somewhere to wait for their chance to present themselves at the border (systems have been setup by the migrants themselves to provide numbers for those waiting which are coordinated with time-slots given by border officials)- and as I think of my visits to detention centers and migrant refugee agencies, I am reminded of the one thing that struck me the most – we are normalizing a narrative and language around immigrants that is dehumanizing, degrading, and categorizing. These three things have all been the first steps to all of the genocides and holocausts we have seen in modern world history.
You might see that linkage as extreme, but much of the Christian church, along with the greater population, sat by and not only allowed but actively supported the Jewish Holocaust, the Rwanda Genocide, and many other atrocities. We look back now and wonder how those living at the time allowed to happen.
Are we willing to challenge any language that describes another as anything but a carrier of the image of God? Will we advocate for just and compassionate legislation around those seeking our help, using our voices to ask those in power to work for a system that provides welcome and refuge?
HOW MIGHT WE RESPOND AS FOLLOWERS OF JESUS?
The Bible teaches us throughout both the Old and New Testaments to extend hospitality. We are taught to welcome the foreigner, to care for the poor and the outcast.
This may not mean physically welcoming strangers into our own homes (although at times it probably does), and it also may not mean that the US should welcome in every person wanting to enter its borders. But as followers of Christ, we are commanded to love our neighbor. We don’t get to choose our neighbor, and this love should cost us something. Our neighbors are at our doorstep asking to be allowed in.
Luke 9:23-24 says: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (ESV).
When we hold onto our rights, we let go of our cross. Instead of seeking to defend our rights, can we see the fullness and truth of someone else’s story and love them as our neighbor – actively seeking their flourishing and well-being, regardless of their status or citizenship? Ann Voskamp spoke at The Justice Conference in the Netherlands in October and said “Dignity and humanity are not a function of geography or nationality, and your worth is not based on where you breathe in this world.” Watch the full talk – (Ann Voskamp: Love is not self-seeking).
Are we willing to do the continued work to seek the flourishing of our neighbor?
As we lead into the final week before Christmas, as we prepare to celebrate the arrival of Jesus as a baby born in a manger, might we consider those also in need of shelter and somewhere to lay their head? May we consider the response that same Jesus might be calling us to?
This Tuesday, December 18, is World Migrants Day. If you are willing and able, consider joining other Christians standing alongside and being part of a Posada vigil in Washington D.C. to call elected leaders to stand on the side of justice and examine our posture of welcome for Central American Migrant Refugees seeking asylum.
To learn more, follow these organizations: