In recent days, President Trump has responded with increasing severity to the “caravan” of migrants making their way through southern Mexico. He has discussed the deployment of as many as 15,000 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border; has publicly considered re-starting a version of the unpopular family separation policy that he halted last summer; has threatened to end foreign aid to the migrants’ home countries; and, most alarmingly, he signed on Friday morning a proclamation significantly restricting the processing of asylum requests at the border.
But it is important to remember among the news frenzy the administration has created: This caravan is not an invading army. It is a ragged group including many women and children. The caravan – and broader questions of refugees, asylum and immigration – certainly require an American response. But that response should be grounded in facts and guided by faith, not by fear.
Many of these caravanners are seeking legal entrance into the U.S. as individuals who meet our legal definition for a refugee. Migrants intending to sneak across the border illegally don’t travel in groups trailed by news cameras. The reality is that our legal immigration system is tightly limited: foreigners without a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident relative, or an advanced degree and a company looking to sponsor them, usually have no choice but to physically come to the border to try for admission.
This is because U.S. law offers one distant last-ditch hope to the “teeming masses yearning to breathe free”: anyone who reaches the U.S. can request asylum “whether or not at a designated port of entry” if they have a credible fear of returning to their country of origin. Mindful of a mixed history that includes shameful moments when our nation returned Jews fleeing the Nazis back to be killed in the Holocaust, the U.S. has committed that our country should never send anyone back to a situation of persecution. Those commitments rightfully remain a part of our immigration laws.
Some in the caravan are fleeing Nicaragua, where the leftist, dictatorial government of Daniel Ortega has been part of a deadly crackdown on political dissidents in recent months. Many are fleeing hunger in Guatemala, exacerbated by weather-related agricultural failures. A larger number are coming from Honduras and El Salvador, which have the highest homicide rates in the world.
Our government can only determine which of these individuals have legitimate asylum cases by performing an interview. But the U.S. government has already been sending people with legitimate asylum claims away when they apply at a port of entry, instructing them to wait their turn and report back later.
The president has insinuated that there are individuals within the caravan seeking to harm the United States, saying there could be “unknown Middle Easterners” among the Hondurans and Guatemalans. Though the vast majority of individuals seem to be from Central America, we need to keep in mind that Middle Easterners also have the right to request asylum. Many Syrian and Iraqi Christians, for example, are fleeing a situation that our State Department has described as genocidal.
Every asylum seeker should have his or her application fairly adjudicated. If the legal process is not working adequately, then it is Congress’ job to amend the laws. Halting asylum applications, as the president has reportedly considered, is not the answer. This means returning individuals to situations of danger or even death, precisely the scenario our asylum laws were intended to avoid.
This goes against the very Christian convictions of many of our founding fathers. When Jesus “saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless” and proceeded to provide them with food (Matthew 9:36). His example of what it means to love’s one neighbor was the story of someone who helped a traveler in need, and he commands his followers to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Amid the concerns over whether a Middle Easterner is among the caravan, it is important to see the irony in the fact that Jesus himself was Middle Eastern. Bethlehem, where he was born, is now part of the West Bank.
Our government should certainly be protecting the security of U.S. citizens. But it should be doing so with respect to the laws that that were put in place to protect the persecuted. Everyone seeking asylum should have the chance to be heard before being turned away. This is what will preserve the moral foundations that have defined our country for over two hundred years.