A family of asylum seekers are taken into custody by Border Patrol near McAllen, TX on June 12th.

Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

An immigration story

Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson

September 7, 2018

It was dark. An eerie silence was over the land, the stillness broken only by the muffled sound of footsteps. An arid night, at least it offered calm. Calm was welcomed, given the rugged terrain. It made travel difficult. Of course, maybe the difficulty had more to do with a newborn baby and a gnawing fear. The homeland was no longer safe, and this man—who was both a husband and a father—was overwhelmingly anxious for his young family. Still his prayers for safe passage were answered, as they made their way across the desert. Both the husband and wife breathed an audible, collective sigh as they approached the border.

“I think we’re going to make it,” whispered the wife.

“Yes, it appears so,” replied the husband, a hesitant, hopefulness evident in his response.

But, just then, voices rang out from the darkness, and both the husband and wife realized that they had spoken too soon.

“Halt, you! Stop!” someone yelled.

As the voices came closer, several men approached the couple. The leader of the group was gruff and spoke in harsh tones.

“You need to come with us,” he declared. And the young family was led away to a nearby camp, where they were questioned.

“Why have you come?” the interrogator demanded. “To attempt to cross the border is illegal, and my men caught you doing just that.”

The father quickly replied, “We are seeking asylum. We are in fear for the life of our son.”

“You are claiming political asylum then?” the man probed.

“Yes, that is correct,” the father said.

“Tell me, then, the nature of this threat. Who has threatened your family, and when did it occur?”

“Well,” the father began hesitantly. “The Angel of the Lord appeared to me in a dream and told me that my son was in danger. I needed to quickly take him to Egypt and remain until I heard further…”

“Wait, wait a minute,” the interrogator interrupted. “You dreamt that there was a threat? An angel appeared to you,” he scoffed. “Not only are you breaking the law, but you are also deranged!”

“No, no it’s true,” the father said, pleading. “The Angel of the Lord told me that Herod would search for my child and destroy him. I had to get my family out of Bethlehem for their safety. You’ve got to believe me.”

“Take this man away!” the interrogator barked. “Imprison him and take the child from the mother. Anyone believing such a crazy story is clearly unfit for parenting.”

Of course, we know the story of Joseph fleeing to Egypt with Mary and Jesus did not happen this way. On the contrary, the Holy family arrived safely in Egypt and remained there in security until the Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph once again, instructing him to return to Israel. Presumably, they were welcomed in Egypt, just as seemingly immigrants were once welcomed to the United States. At least that is what you would believe if you read the inscription on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

 But these words ring hollow, even more so when we consider the deplorable practices of incarcerating families seeking asylum and separating young children from their parents. When did asylum-seeking become an offense worthy of imprisonment? How could we ever conclude that separating parents and children was humane?

Certainly, it’s challenging to create an immigration policy that secures the borders and provides compassionate treatment for those trying to come to our country. Yet, as people of faith, we have an obligation to demand that our responses to those seeking entry live up to the highest ideals of the country. Our laws require that we offer due process. But, more than that, recognizing the inherent worth and dignity of all people, we must insist on humane treatment.

Instead, we are replicating the inhumane practices of this nation’s past. Enslaved African-Americans suffered the anguish of having children ripped from their arms. Japanese-Americans suffered the indignity of internment camps. The trail of tears led Native Americans to isolated containment areas. Is this what we want to be? These were deplorable acts then, and they continue to be deplorable now. And we, as people of faith, must rise up and say, “No more!” These unacceptable practices cannot continue.

My Bible says that we must welcome the stranger. We must care for the least of these. In doing so, we’re not simply entertaining angels unaware—we’re caring for Jesus himself.

If Joseph, Mary and Jesus sought asylum in this country right now, would they be incarcerated? Would Jesus have been whisked away from Mary and at risk of never being reunited? Would the family be relegated to some military outpost in the middle of nowhere and detained indefinitely? We may not have the answers regarding what to do given the thousands who attempt to cross the border. But we know what not to do because we see examples daily. My Bible says that we must welcome the stranger. We must care for the least of these. In doing so, we’re not simply entertaining angels unaware—we’re caring for Jesus himself.

The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is director of Lifelong Learning at Yale Divinity School. Her book “Spiritual Practices for Effective Leadership: 7Rs of SANCTUARY for Pastors” is available through Judson Press.

She will present the workshop “Leadership Lessons for the Good: Realizing Transformation from Oppression” at ABHMS’ “Space for Grace: Thy Will Be Done,” November 14-16, 2018, in Philadelphia. REGISTER TODAY for this national conference that seeks to explore critical issues of mission engagement, discipleship and church transformation facing Christians today.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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