Yesterday I went to my local maximum security prison for outreach but, instead of going into the maximum security wing as I have in the past, I went to the medium security wing where four of the six dorms housed illegal immigrants who had been apprehended by ICE for doing nothing but violating our immigration laws.
While one of the other members of our team was talking to the inmates in the first dorm, I looked around and could not shake the feeling that the setting was surreal. The room was about fifty by fifty feet and it contained 80 bunks, a few tables, a community shower on one end, and urinals and toilets that were separated from everything else only by a three foot high cinder block wall. I remember basic military training along with its rooms full of bunks and distinct lack of privacy so this should not have struck me as out of the ordinary or unexpected but, yet, it did. In fact, I found it to be quite unsettling. This was, after all, stuff I had only previously seen on the news when it is often shown only to make a political point that Americans under the leadership of a Republican president seem to have a fondness for treating people who are different than they are like animals.
Anyway, what has been disconcerting to me is that all too often Christian responses in the United States to immigration are not different in any substantial way from the responses of amateur internet pundits and self-described activists (RE: opinionated loudmouths) who do not profess faith. Discussions I have heard and been a part of normally tend to be limited to protecting national borders and “the American way of life.” There are complaints about the supposed economic costs brought on by added pressures to schools, hospitals, and law enforcement. These are legitimate issues, but there is no explicitly Christian orientation to the debate. If there is, it usually is limited to quoting the call in Romans 13 to submit to the governing authorities.
What might a more fully biblically informed response to the immigration challenge look like? Where would it begin? The starting place of a discussion determines in large measure its tone and content. If we begin with Genesis 1 and the fact that all humans are created in the image of God with infinite worth and great potential, the debate will be quite different than what is witnessed now in media sound-bites and wayer cooler talk. It will focus on persons with needs and gifts that can contribute to the common good, instead of taking a default negative defensive posture against newcomers in our midst.
So, has my opinion about immigration changed any since yesterday? No, not really. America is a nation of laws that must be enforced. What has happened though is that seeing the victims (make no mistake they are victims) of horrible immigration policy on both sides of the border in person, talking to them, hearing their stories, and getting to know them if even only a little has forced me to focus on the fact that all humans are created in the image of God with infinite worth and great potential. I knew this all along, of course, but this experience has increased my level of empathy for people I used to see, as many of my conservative brethren do, as merely a problem instead of as people who are trying to do the best they can within a broken system that has failed them.
Yes, they are law breakers and they do deserve punishment of some kind. But I can no longer take the holier than thou stance that they fully deserve their comeuppance and that they need to be rounded up, jailed, then thrown out because “law breakers be damned.” I simply can’t, in good faith anyway, act as if I would not be among them if I had grown up walking in their shoes. And that realization, to me anyway, is important in shaping my opinion.
The majority of the people I spoke to talked of one particular judge they describe as heartless, unfair treatment by ICE, a general feeling that no one (even the bloviating fools who supposedly champion their cause) outside the prison walls cares about them, and crushing hopelesness. I’m not going to weigh in on the merits of these complaints because I can’t know if they are justified or not but they are important to them so I think they should be important to me as well, maybe that is why God put me there. Regardless, I have a personal friend who is an elected official so I am going to follow up.
Finally, one striking and unexpected thing I noticed is that the inmates didn’t seem to want special treatment or favor from the civil authorities but, instead, asked us to pray for them as Christians should for those who persecute them. Imagine that. On TV and online we hear endlessly about abolishing ICE while those who are actually impacted by them only want prayer for changed hearts.
*Cameras are not allowed inside the facility I went in yesterday but this one from the New York Times is similar.