The protesters were fuming mad. They had come out in droves to block the buses carrying children fleeing poverty and violence in Central America from reaching a Border Patrol processing center in the sleepy Southern California town of Murrieta.
Carrying gigantic American flags and oversized placards decrying “illegals,” they jeered at the children behind the windows. Fearing further escalation, federal officials rerouted the buses to San Diego.
It was just the beginning.
Demonstrators shove each other, Friday, July 4, 2014, outside a U.S. Border Patrol station in Murrieta, Calif.
IMAGE: MARK J. TERRILL/ASSOCIATED PRESS
In the days since the July 1 demonstration, the arrival of tens of thousands immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — mostly children and women — has dominated headlines, with several tumultuous protests taking place in Murrieta. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama travels to Texas to meet with faith leaders to talk about the border crisis.
For one faction of evangelic Christians, fighting immigration has been a long-time crusade, their sometimes vitriolic views communicated via placards in Murrieta, radio shows on American Family Radio, well-trafficked Facebook pages such as Christians Against Illegal Immigration and fundamentalist Christian news sites such as One America News Network.
Christians Against illegal Immigration Facebook page
This faction, known as “Teavangelicals” for their connection to the Tea Party movement, cites the Ten Commandments and the Book of Genesis as proof that anything less than deportation of illegal immigrants violates God’s will.
Crossing the border illegally, “coveting” the American lifestyle, “stealing” U.S. jobs and healthcare, immigrants break all kinds of divinely inspired codes, they say. Though God commands them to “care for the strangers and aliens among us,” they say this edict doesn’t apply when the strangers and aliens are “lawless invaders.”
“Illegal immigration is the antithesis of Christianity,”
“Illegal immigration is the antithesis of Christianity,” says William Gheen, Raleigh, N.C.-based president of Americans For Legal Immigration. “It’s a gross mischaracterization of Christianity to apply it to tolerating the mass lawlessness, death and damages involved in illegal immigration.”
Christ-like compassion for those in need? “Where is the compassion for the victims of illegal immigration? Those who have had loved ones murdered by illegal aliens?” American Family Assn. spokesman Bryan Fischer wrote in an April column on his group’s news site. “Those whose hospitals have been closed because they have been overwhelmed providing medical care to those who have no right to be in this country and cannot pay?”
When asked about those children crossing the border in search of refuge from gang-related violence and death, Americans for Legal Immigration president Gheen said immigrant children are coached by money-hungry smugglers who give them “cheat sheets” with fabricated stories of woe, crafted to ensure their amnesty. “There’s no mass slaughter of children in any of the host countries,” Gheen said. “There’s no documentation of any mass slaughter…The children are reciting lines. This is being orchestrated.”
While the role of so-called coyote smugglers in this latest wave of immigration is unclear, in March, the U.N. Refugee Agency announced that interviews with more than 400 children from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras found more than half were “forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.”
A poll released in March by the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute found that white evangelical Protestants were the least likely of the religious groups surveyed to support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Border Patrol officers guard the US Border Patrol facility in Murrieta, California on July 3, 2014, where tension is rising over the arrival of undocumented immigrants.
IMAGE: FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
But since many immigrant children and their parents fill the pews of evangelical churches, it’s a thorny issue for church leaders.
In 2012, a number of high-ranking, more mainstream evangelical leaders formed the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT) to lobby Congress to reform immigration law. More than 100 evangelical leaders signed a letter to Congress urging members to address the crisis.
Since Congress still hasn’t taken up the issue, EIT began a massive media campaign last year grounded in the Bible, specifically the passage from Matthew 25:35 in which Jesus says: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me in.”
From left, Murray Hawkins, of Cedar Plains Park, Calif.; the Rev. David Farley, of Los Angeles; and the Rev. Joel Menchaca, of Las Vegas, gather at the gates of a naval base in Port Hueneme, Calif., Tuesday, July 8, 2014.
IMAGE: VENTURA COUNTY STAR, KAREN QUINCY LOBERG/ASSOCIATED PRESS
“That’s a sobering passage for a lot Christians,” says EIT field director Matthew Soerens. “There is certainly an element of the American population – evangelical Christians included there – whose response [to immigration] is driven by fear. As a Christian, my response would be that perfect love casts out fear.”
EIT also released The Stranger, a 40-minute documentary featuring the stories of three immigrants and interviews with Biblical scholars and economists. More than 1,200 screenings have been scheduled at churches nationally and more than 400 prayer groups have formed on the issue. In April, EIT landed a favorable profile in the New York Times with a headline that read: “For Evangelicals, A Shift in Views on Immigration.”
The Teavangelicals weren’t pleased.
The founder of Evangelicals for Biblical Immigration, Kelly Kullford, says the EIT campaign ignored the views held by most evangelicals. “It didn’t reflect reality at all,” Kullford said.
Kullberg says she organized her Ohio-based group in spring 2013 after discovering that progressive liberal philanthropist George Soros was linked to EIT, which she and many others believe proved the group was a front for liberal ideals. (Soerens says no Soros’ money has been used directly or indirectly to fund EIT and EIT’s board is non-partisan.)
Kullberg rallied more than 1,500 pastors, priests and evangelical leaders who signed a letter to Congress sent in October, that was updated and re-sent last month stating “in Scripture we see both welcome and walls. We do not find blanket amnesty and asylum, nor debt escalation. It is a book of wisdom, not of folly.”
Gina Piccalo is a Los Angeles-based correspondent whose writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Beast and elsewhere.
It disgusts me as a Christian that some of those evangelicals/fundies claim that opposing immigration reform is seen as a “Biblical mandate.”
h/t: Gina Piccalo at Mashable