Every person is a child of God. No matter someone’s religion, country of origin, race, or wealth, we are called to acknowledge that divine spark and encounter each other with respect and compassion.
FCNL’s lobbying on immigration flows directly from this belief. Yet immigrants today are as likely to face barricades, suspicion, and punishment as find opportunity and refuge. Our task as Friends and as advocates is to work for more just, humane policies.
“Getting Tough” on Immigration
For more than three decades, our government has created more punitive immigration laws rather than holistically addressing the system’s flaws. Similarly, the U.S. criminal justice system in the same period created a mass incarceration epidemic in an effort to “get tough” on crime.
Two 1996 laws radically shifted the U.S. immigration system. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act for the first time allowed the government to fast-track deportation proceedings, while the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) increased penalties on immigrants who had violated U.S. laws. As a result, more people became eligible for deportation, and undocumented immigrants had more difficulty applying for legal status.
These policies particularly harm immigrants of color, who are more likely to attract the attention of law enforcement. Racial profiling is documented both in immigration enforcement agencies and in local police departments who have been deputized to carry out federal immigration enforcement. This scrutiny disproportionately puts immigrants of color at risk for deportation or revocation of legal residency. The vast majority of immigrants who face these consequences have been cited for minor offenses such as traffic violations, drug possession, or petty theft rather than violent crimes.
Following 9/11, immigration enforcement moved into the newly created Department of Homeland Security, as immigrants were increasingly perceived as national security threats, creating an extensive, expensive infrastructure. Between 2001 and 2017, the Border Patrol’s budget increased by more than 230 percent.
As congressional efforts to change the legal immigration system have floundered, administrations have used their executive authority to shape immigration policy. President Obama focused on removing people who were newer to the country, even as he established initiatives such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to give undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children a reprieve from deportation.
Immigration Policy in the Trump Administration
One of President Trump’s first acts as president was to sign an executive order increasing immigration enforcement and detention. His administration has rolled back DACA and ramped up efforts to find and deport people who lack proper documentation.
In addition, in the midst of the largest worldwide refugee crisis in history, the U.S. will admit a historically low number of refugees in 2018. The administration has said it will not extend Temporary Protected Status for people from Haiti, El Salvador, Sudan, and elsewhere—threatening in some cases to send people back to their country of origin after decades in the United States.
Racism and xenophobia have always been a part of U.S. immigration policy, but under the Trump administration they are reaching new heights. From a travel ban that prevents people from several Muslim-majority countries from even visiting the U.S., to the president’s reported remarks bemoaning immigration from “s***hole” African and Latin American countries, racial and religious characteristics are being used to exclude.
As Rep. Luis Gutierrez (IL) observed, ”When [the Trump administration talks] about people who speak English coming to the [U.S.], people highly educated coming to the [U.S.], and at the same time say we’re going to eliminate all of the categories of people who are coming from Latin America, Asia and Africa, I think two plus two is four, and that makes a racist policy.”
These policies are fundamentally changing the nature of U.S. immigration. While our borders have never been open to everyone, people from all over the world have historically been able to start new lives here. This administration is redrawing the lines around what it means to be an “American,” leaving immigrants on the outside. The new mission statement for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services even removes references to our country as a “nation of immigrants” and downplays the agency’s role in helping people become citizens.
What We Can Do
Extending care and concern only to “true Americans” normalizes violence, degradation, and the violation of basic human rights. Our elected leaders need to hear—loudly, repeatedly, and insistently—that we are not in unity with laws and policies that deny the humanity and rights of immigrants. Efforts that exclude and punish by race, religion, or other visible markers of difference cannot be supported. We must advocate for Congress to undertake a long-overdue overhaul of the legal immigration system and to curtail the administration’s attempts to reshape immigration policy.
In all this work, we can let our lives speak. How are we recognizing the divinity in each person, regardless of their immigration status or background, in our advocacy and our actions? How are we avoiding the reproof of Matthew 25:43, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me”? How are we holding our members of Congress and our policymakers to the highest standard of compassion and justice in our immigration system?