Should churches offer sanctuary to undocumented immigrants?

November 28th, 2016

It’s hard to believe it’s been over 16 years since six-year-old Elian Gonzalez was seized from his Miami relatives by federal agents and returned to his father in Cuba. At the time, the big dilemma was whether to send a child back to a Communist dictatorship where he could be used as a trophy by the Castro regime or allow him to live in freedom in Miami but separated from his father, who remained in Cuba. (Elian’s mother died crossing the Florida Straits after escaping from the island with him.) In the end, keeping a child and his father together took precedence over everything else. Elian returned home and was reunited with his dad.

Apparently keeping families together is not as much of a priority when the child is a U.S. citizen whose father is in the country illegally.

That’s what’s happening with Javier Flores, who recently moved into Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia to avoid being kicked out of the United States. Flores has been deported numerous times since first entering the country in 1997. ICE agents raided his home in 2015 and he spent 15 months in a correctional facility before being returned to his family to prepare for deportation. He was allowed 90 days to make arrangements, but was required to wear an electronic ankle monitor. On the last day before being deported, he sought sanctuary at the church.

I’m concerned that this case is going to turn into yet another liberal vs. conservative, Democratic vs. Republican, right vs. left and evangelical vs. mainline battle of wills. The reality is so much more complicated than that.

The truth is, we have a terribly broken system. It’s virtually impossible to legally immigrate to the United States, yet it’s not that hard to get into the country and work, whether it’s with fake documentation or in the underground economy. And the 14th Amendment guarantees birthright citizenship to any child born on American soil. So if the government deports those who came here illegally, it either splits up families or deports children who are U.S. citizens. That’s not a great choice to have to make!

But blanket amnesty without addressing other issues is a sure guarantee that the crisis will continue to snowball. And open borders aren’t tenable for a number of reasons, including the possibility of terrorism, an increase in the amount of illegal substances entering the country and our economy’s inability to adjust to the impact.

Conservative purists contend that undocumented immigrants broke the law entering the country, so if they’re deported and separated from their families, it’s their own fault.

Fair enough. But would you want to be the one to raid a house, arrest a father or mother in front of their kids and take them away, knowing they might never see each other again? I’d never do that. You couldn’t pay me enough to do it.

For American Christians, our heavenly citizenship takes priority over our earthly one. If a person who's in the country illegally isn’t a violent criminal and the letter of the law requires separating that person from their children, then there’s a problem with the law.

That's why churches are stepping in as a stopgap solution. But providing sanctuary won’t ultimately solve our country's immigration problems. 

If the church is going to help fix immigration, we’re going to have to come together, blur the dividing lines between political parties and ideologies and lobby for some practical solutions. We’ll probably need to help the politicians in Washington see the light. No one will get everything they want.

But until it’s fixed, we’re likely going to see more churches doing what Arch Street UMC is doing. And if enough congregations follow their lead while adding a healthy dose of prayer and putting pressure on Congress, the immigration crisis in the U.S. will be resolved in short order.

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