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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Sanctuary and Deportation
distributed 2/24/17 - ©2017

Two churches in my home city of Denver have recently provided sanctuary to women facing deportation. Across the US, communities wrestle with high-stakes decisions about declaring themselves "sanctuary cities."

The meaning of "sanctuary" has shifted for me. No longer do I picture a room in a church that provides separation and respite from the world. Now it is an action that resists and challenges the powers of the world.

Sanctuary, deportation, and immigration are complex and controversial topics. They are not issues that are at the top of my normal priority list, and I'm not all that well versed on the details.

Today, I will share some information and perspectives that are shaping my wrestling with these questions. I will explain why, to me, the emerging deportation policies of the Republican administration seem simplistic and drastically unjust. I invite your comments. (Posting your comments on Facebook may open a wider conversation.)

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As a stalwart progressive Christian, my long-held views on immigration policy have trended toward the left. I have been strongly influenced by the courageous border witness of numerous mainline denominations, calling for compassion and justice for those entering the US from Mexico without documentation. I can even say that "some of my best friends" are immigration activists in Denver.

That said, my views on immigration have been unchallenged most of the time. I haven't had to make a convincing case, to myself or to others, why I hold my views. The sudden shift in US policies has pushed me to be more coherent about my stances.

So I am grateful for an article posted a month ago by an immigration lawyer, who tackled the thorniest question. Those who have crossed the border without clearance, or who have overstayed their visas, are here illegally. Why should we honor or condone their law-breaking?

The lawyer's article opens with an anonymous comment: "I totally stand with immigrants. Just not the illegal ones. If they want to be here they have every opportunity to do it the right way."

The article is a response to that comment, giving a very basic explanation of how the system works. (If you have any interest in the immigration debate, I urge you to take 10 minutes to read the whole thing.) Very briefly, and naming the pieces that have stuck with me for a month as most compelling, here is how the system works.

There are two ways to get an immigrant visa to live in the United States as a legal permanent resident: the employment way and the family way. The employment track works for some of those with education, skills and money, but not for unskilled workers. Family immigration requires that a certain blood relative already be a citizen or a legal permanent resident. If you don't have a relative in the US -- and that is the majority of the people in the world -- there is no line to get into and there is no choice to do it legally.

If you do have a relative, and the categories are quite technical, the wait time to be considered depends on where you are coming from. Using the January, 2017, immigration guidelines, an applicant from Mexico who is the brother or sister of an adult US citizen has a 20 year wait to have their visa application considered. (They're now processing applications from May 15, 1997.)

The lawyer writes of an example from her practice.

Recently I spoke with a family from Venezuela who are now US Citizens. They still have a sibling there and he hasn't had much interest in moving to the US but now there is no food in Venezuela, to put it simply. A quick analysis ... told us that there is a 13 year wait right now for a sibling from there. A starving person legally entitled to a visa because of his relationship to a US Citizen is told with a straight face to wait 13 years.

A report this week from the Associated Press backs up the horrible situation in Venezuela.

Venezuela is so short on food that tens of thousands are going hungry or even starving. Its murder rate is among the highest in the world. Its economy is so crippled that the average shopper spends 35 hours a month waiting in line -- three times more than in 2014. ... One recent survey found 88 percent of young Venezuelans want to emigrate. Venezuelans accounted for more U.S. asylum requests than any other country last year -- more than 18,000, compared to a few hundred in 2013.

The immigration lawyer writes:

Breaking the law is always a choice and it is a [morally significant] choice. But before deciding that someone is morally weak it stands to understand the choices that they had before them when they made the decision. ... Understanding the complexity of the choice an immigrant made is really important because the punishment that Trump is choosing is very harsh: jail, terror, separation of children and parents, in some cases deportation to violent countries where you might be killed. These are terrible things and in some cases unthinkable things and it is worth being sure that the person you do that to did something terrible before you say they deserve those punishments.

President Trump refers often to "bad hombres" who deserve deportation. Perhaps we can agree about deportation when the bad guys are convicted felons, active gang members, or drug dealers.

But as I understand the most recent guidelines, somebody with a speeding ticket is considered just as "bad" as a murderer. No conviction is necessary. An undocumented immigrant accused of "a chargeable criminal offense" is subject to rapid deportation.

For decades, US policies have acknowledged the reality of illegal immigration. Millions of people in this country illegally have held jobs, paid taxes, gone to school and church, and been involved in their communities. The tacit, and sometimes explicit, understanding has been that those who do their best to obey other laws will be allowed to stay.

Many of the illegal immigrants have played by the rules. Many of them have done hard work at low wages, filling important roles in our national economy -- especially in agriculture, food service and construction. A relative few of the immigrants have not played by the rules.

The recent federal policies on deportation are a dramatic and sudden shift. There is little sensitivity to the diversity of people involved, the reasons why they came to the US, or how they have acted in this country.

My sense of ethics is more situational. My conscience demands consideration of what the world is like beyond the US borders -- with violence and poverty, hunger and warfare that provide strong reasons to flee, and real danger for those who are sent back. A simplistic lumping together of all of "them" is not legitimate.

Immigration and deportation are complex and controversial topics. Thoughtful people have disagreed for decades about how to balance US policies in a way that balances law and compassion. That debate needs to continue, perhaps even with more of a bias toward the "law" side.

But what is taking shape this week lacks nuance and compassion. In the face of such abrupt and heavy-handed policies, protest and resistance is understandable and reasonable.

When illegal immigrants face real and immediate threats, an assurance of sanctuary -- by congregations or communities -- is an ethically responsible balancing of the moral landscape. Active support to those at risk and to their families, and active opposition to the new US policies, looks to me like the path of faithful witness in these times.

How does it look to you?

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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