On September 12-13 the evangelical non-profit World Relief sponsored a conference that trained attendees in pro-immigrant advocacy. This event, named the “Justice Conference,” gathered a range of speakers to Washington, D.C., including aid workers, lobbyists, activists, and poets. The speakers emphasized Christians’ duty to aid the most vulnerable members of society, including immigrants.
Jenny Yang, Vice President of Advocacy and Policy at World Relief, opened the conference by arguing that Christians have a Biblical duty to defend immigrants. She quoted Zechariah 7:5, in which God commands his people to “not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor.” These four groups, Yang said, comprise the “quartet of the vulnerable,” and God throughout Scripture defends them, rescues them, speaks on their behalf, and commands his people to do the same.
Yang used the term “social justice” freely, explaining that she believed it meant the same thing as the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
In addition to physically providing for immigrants, Yang argued that Christians ought to advocate politically on their behalf. She said Jesus advocates for humanity before the Father (see 1 John 2:1), and so Christians have a responsibility to advocate before human governments. She emphasized that this is a powerful way in which Christians can bring and demonstrate the Kingdom of God.
Yang added that Christians can combat today’s predominant, fear-based immigration narrative with love and Biblical truth. She reminded her listeners of Martin Luther King Jr.’s remark that the church “is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”
The conference featured diverse perspectives on immigration. One speaker was Baldemar Velasquez, co-founder and president of the AFL-CIO, who said immigration is driven by Americans’ “lust for wealth.” He blamed immigration on poverty overseas, which in turn he blamed on global corporations who get rich through exploitation. These rich corporations dictate the “greed and militarism,” he said, which characterize American foreign policy. Velasquez referred to America as “the land that has no shame,” which takes the laborer’s “sweat and blood” and lets his children starve. The audience gave Velasquez a standing ovation for his life’s work.
Velasquez called his audience to civil disobedience. He said he was “tired of waiting for politicians to give us permission” to do what’s right. He promised that he practiced what he preached, and had lost count of how many times he had been arrested for civil disobedience, “somewhere over thirty.” “If it’s an evil law, disobey it,” he said.
In contrast, attendees also received an FAQ flyer from the Evangelical Immigration Table which said “there is no conflict between the submission to authority mandated in Romans 13 and serving undocumented immigrants.” For example, Christians could teach English, share the Gospel, and advocate for policy changes, “all without violating the law.”
However, most conference speakers avoided the question of civil disobedience and zeroed in on three policy issues: refugees, family separation, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
Regarding refugees, Matthew Soerens, the U.S. Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief and a conference organizer, explained that Congress in 1980 gave the president the authority to set an annual ceiling on the number of refugees allowed in to the country. Since then, he noted, the cap on refugees has declined dramatically.
Jacinta Ma, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the National Immigration Forum, directly criticized the Trump administration for lowering the cap again, as well as instituting stricter vetting procedures that effectually lowered the number of refugees admitted even further.
Extending Ma’s point, Emily Gray, World Relief’s Senior Vice President for U.S. Ministries, criticized the extra scrutiny the Trump administration has applied to potential refugees from the eleven countries labelled terror risks. She asked how a person running for her life can reasonably be asked to document every place she and her family members have resided for the last ten years.
Amidst their criticism of the current administration, the speakers pointedly encouraged their listeners that they could influence policy by pressuring their congressmen. There are people “setting their watches and calling every day,” said Gray. “They need to hear from the other side.”
Soerens urged the audience to think biblically about refugees. He reminded them that Jesus had once been a refugee (see Matthew 2:13-15). More than that, he said, all humans are made in the image of God, and as such possess inherent dignity and potential that cannot be denied because of their national origin. Similarly, he added, the command to love our neighbor has no caveats. Furthermore, he said Christians who advocate for refugees are standing with the persecuted church because crackdown on refugees has reduced Christian refugee immigration as well as other faiths.
During the discussion on family separation, Latina poet and mother Quina Aragon dramatically presented an original poem. Her composition, “The Slaughter,” compared the separation of children from their parents at the border to the Egyptian murder of Hebrew boys in Exodus 1:22, Herod’s slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2:16-18, and the destruction of slave families in the antebellum South.
In the same vein, Nate Bult and Hannah Mills from Bethany Christian Services pointed out that the children arriving at the border come from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, countries with some of the highest child murder rates in the world. They shared the haunting story of their coworker, Wanda, who at the tender age of 17 fled from Guatemala after gangs had killed her brother, stole her child, and threatened her life. Mills added that conditions in these places are so dangerous for children that nothing Americans do can deter them from fleeing to our border. She concluded therefore that America should not even attempt to deter children from seeking asylum. Instead, their organization focuses on trying to keep children together with their parents by providing family-friendly detention alternatives. For the Christian, they said, bringing and keeping families together should be more important than reducing immigration.
Travis Wussow, who serves at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission as Vice President for Public Policy and as General Counsel, found a bright spot amid the family separation controversy. He said the family separation crisis “ignited” many Christians to action—especially Southern Baptists—and their heightened activity and awareness have helped Christians to humanize other groups of immigrants as well.
Regarding DACA, Wussow blamed Congress. According to polls, he said, Americans across political divides overwhelmingly oppose deporting DACA recipients, but he lamented that both parties in Congress would rather use DACA to score political points than actually fix the problem. He insisted that bible-believing Christians cannot hold children responsible for the actions of their parents (see Ezekiel 18).
Rather, Christians can provide a unique, loving witness to those who fall under DACA (or “Dreamers”), argued Liz Dong, a co-founder of Voices of Christian Dreamers (VCD), said that. Herself a Dreamer, Dong shared the story of how she was raised by a single mother who emigrated from China. She shared the hardships of living without status, including years in which she was unable to go to school, obtain scholarships, or find work. However, she said, a local church in Iowa “didn’t shy away from loving us,” and through the love of Christians she found Christ. Dong said many people speak of immigrants as statistics instead of human beings because “it’s more convenient that way.” She co-founded VCD in hopes that telling the stories of Christian Dreamers will inspire other Christians to show love to vulnerable immigrants.
After a day of speakers and panels, the conference organized attendees into groups to visit Capitol Hill and to encourage their representatives and senators to take action on refugees, family separation, and DACA. What impact their advocacy will have on U.S. immigration policy remains to be seen.
Editor’s note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Jacinta Ma was Director of Policy and Advocacy at World Relief; however, Ms. Ma does not work for World Relief. It also incorrectly stated that the audience’s standing ovation for Baldemar Velasquez was encouraged by Matthew Soerens; however, Mr. Soerens was not present for Mr. Velasquez’s presentation.