RELIGION
02/07/2018 18:33 EST

Evangelical Leaders Join Forces To Urge Protection For Dreamers And Refugees

"Jesus calls us to love our neighbor," said Ruth Velasquez, a Christian Dreamer.

World Relief/Facebook
The evangelical Christian organization World Relief held a press conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

One hundred evangelical leaders have signed a letter urging President Donald Trump and members of Congress to protect Dreamers, immigrants and refugees.

The letter, spearheaded by the evangelical organization World Relief, was printed as a full-page advertisement in Wednesday’s Washington Post. It was supported by leaders from across the nation and from different streams of evangelicalism, including Dr. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; Jen Hatmaker, the progressive Christian author; and Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

An online version of the letter had received more than 1,400 signatures by Wednesday afternoon.

World Relief president Scott Arbeiter reflected on the “Christian calling” to care for the vulnerable and welcome the stranger during a press conference Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

“We believe that our national well-being and compassion for the immigrant and refugee are not mutually exclusive,” Arbeiter said. “We’re... dedicated to prayers for our leaders that they would find wisdom and compassion tethered together. And in that they would lead us into a just and compassionate and a wise legislative answer. The time is now.”

“As Christians, as evangelicals, we stand ready to continue and even increase our commitment to serving the vulnerable as these laws mature,” he added.

As Christians, as evangelicals, we stand ready to continue and even increase our commitment to serving the vulnerable as these laws mature. Scott Arbeiter, World Relief president

The letter avoided expressing support for specific proposals or legislation. Instead, it lists four groups that are of particular concern to these evangelicals: recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (also known as Dreamers), refugees, persecuted Christians, and Americans who are waiting to be reunified with close family members living overseas.

Many of the religious leaders at the conference spoke in particular about the plight of DACA recipients, sharing stories about Dreamers who are part of their congregations or church networks. Dr. Eric Costanzo, senior pastor of Oklahoma’s South Tulsa Baptist Church, said during the conference that his church has for years been very “homogenized in our whiteness.” But it has recently diversified and become a spiritual home for many immigrants, refugees and Dreamers.

“We’re at a time right now where it probably seems like many evangelicals and evangelical churches are trying to keep immigrants and refugees at an arm’s length,” Costanzo said during the conference. “And I’m here to say that that’s not true for all evangelicals. And it’s certainly not true for all evangelical churches.”

Costanzo then spoke about the important roles that Dreamers play in American evangelical congregations.

“The Dreamers are being used as leverage and the clock is ticking,” he said. “I believe history will judge us on this. If we fail to do right by these young people, our children and grandchildren will ask us why.”

In January, the White House proposed a pathway to citizenship for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, in exchange for $25 billion for border security, including funding for Trump’s border wall.

Trump also wants to phase out the diversity visa lottery and policies that allow Americans to sponsor certain family members for green cards.

Democrats and even some Republicans in Congress have expressed opposition to the measures Trump has proposed, particularly those that would drastically reduce options for legal immigration.

If a solution isn’t found, DACA recipients could start losing their protection against deportation in large numbers as early as March.

Last year, World Relief organized a similar letter decrying Trump’s initial executive order on immigration. The organization, which functions as the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, is one of the nine voluntary agencies that work with the federal government to help resettle refugees. 

The organization reports that fewer than 30,000 refugees were admitted into the U.S. in 2017, compared to more than 99,000 in 2016.

In October, Trump dropped the refugee admission quota to 45,000 for the 2018 fiscal year, an all-time low for the United States’ refugee resettlement program. These cuts come at a time when an unprecedented 65 million people are displaced worldwide, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.

Trump initially indicated that he would prioritize Christian refugees. In January, World Relief estimated that the number of Christian refugees admitted into the U.S. in 2017 was about 63 percent lower than the number admitted in 2016. In addition, about 80 percent fewer Muslim refugees were admitted during that time.

Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy for World Relief, pointed out that the Trump administration’s stated desire to help persecuted Christians around the world is “not bearing out in our current refugee resettlement policies.”

“We’re grateful that President Trump recognizes the importance of providing a path to citizenship for Dreamers, but also believe our country can be stronger if we enshrine our values of freedom and democracy in how we welcome the world’s persecuted, as well as treat vulnerable immigrants already here,” she said.

Rebecca Cook / Reuters
Rami Al-Qassab, at right, hugs his brother after being reunited with his Iraqi refugee mother Amira, left, and siblings after they arrived at Detroit Metro Airport in Romulus, Michigan, Feb. 10, 2017.

Evangelical leaders and institutions have expressed support for immigrants and refugees in the past, but national surveys indicate that rank-and-file white evangelical Protestants are split about these issues. A Pew Research Center survey found that about 76 percent of white evangelicals were in favor of the travel ban in February 2017. They were also the religious group most likely to oppose granting legal status to Dreamers (34 percent) and favor substantially expanding a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border (65 percent).

Yang suggested that part of the problem may be in the polling, since Pew does not separate out the views of evangelicals of color. She believes this group’s views on immigration differ starkly from those of their white peers. 

“I think the church is growing more diverse, but evangelicals of color are not getting attention in terms of their views on immigrants, because they’re perceived to not have political influence,” she said. “I think what the letter today represents is a convergence of opinion, from evangelical leaders across the spectrum, that care for refugees and immigrants is a core part of our Christian faith.”

MARK RALSTON via Getty Images
DACA recipients and supporters watch President Donald Trump during a State of the Union party at the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights and the California Dream Network offices in Los Angeles, Jan. 30, 2018.

Ruth Velasquez is the co-founder of Voices of Christian Dreamers, an informal network of Christian DACA recipients. Since Trump’s September announcement about the impending end of DACA, Velasquez said, she’s lived in constant fear about losing her job and access to health care and being separated from her family.

Velasquez co-created Voices of Christian Dreamers to help fellow evangelicals understand the effect that immigration laws have on evangelical church communities. 

“Immigration deals with human dignity and family unity. Therefore it’s a Biblical matter and should be of concern to the church,” she said during Wednesday’s press conference. “Jesus calls us to love our neighbor. He didn’t say to love our neighbor because they can contribute to the economy or because they have a college degree or because it was not their fault. He simply said to love your neighbor.”

“My prayer,” she said, “is that the church will welcome the stranger, the vulnerable, just as Jesus did.”

Child Refugee Illustrations