In the gospel of Matthew, we learn that Jesus starts his life as a refugee. After the Magi have presented their gifts to the infant Jesus, an angel appears to Joseph saying, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him" (Matthew 2:13). The family obeys and flees to Egypt, escaping from a despot who is hell-bent on finding Jesus and unafraid of committing mass-murder to do so. They go to a place they don’t know to find safe haven and they remain there “until the death of Herod” (verse 15). The thing that allows them to find their eventual home in Nazareth is Herod’s death.
I was reminded of this passage when I heard that the Biden administration reached an agreement to restart a Trump-era policy that forced Brazilian and Spanish-speaking migrants seeking asylum in the United States to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed. Many of these asylum seekers — people who fled to the United States seeking protection for persecution in their country, but whose request for safety has not yet been granted — ended up waiting in Mexico for months.
Earlier this month President Joe Biden announced that the program will be expanded to include all migrants from the Western hemisphere, many of whom do not speak Spanish. The United States’ policy is a racialized distortion, reducing all migrants in the Western hemisphere to those who can be sent “back” to Mexico. The ACLU, Human Rights First, and Refugees International have questioned the legality of this program and it has been shown to be needlessly cruel: Human Rights First documented more than 1,500 cases of murder, rape, torture, and kidnapping against those enrolled in the program.
Though the Biden administration previously tried to end the policy — informally known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy — the Supreme Court ruled that ending the program was a violation of federal law and ordered the Biden administration to restart it. But the Biden administration has now widened the scope of those who can be sent to Mexico to include anyone from the Western Hemisphere, something immigration advocates said Biden did under political pressure to “get tough” on immigration.
The Biden administration has betrayed the hope that many placed in it for a shift in immigration and asylum policy. In the story of Jesus’ birth, a new leader led to a positive change in migrants’ political reality; in our own time, a new president has made matters worse. If the Holy Family was around today, they’d still be stuck in Egypt.
In his journals, Thomas Merton reflects solemnly about the implications of Christ’s presence in such a world: “But we have sought to bring to birth in the world the image of ourselves and of our own society and we have killed the Innocents in doing so, and Christ flees from us into Egypt.” If we believe in Christ’s incarnational presence among us in the here-and-now, Jesus has been enrolled in the Remain in Mexico program.
Art from the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt often depicts palm trees bowing down to recognize Jesus and offer him nourishment. Cast out from his home, he finds recognition and succor in the very landscape of his exile. Such depictions give me pause, and make me wonder: Might fan palms in Tijuana find themselves bowing in the presence of the holy?
As Christians, we believe it is not just immigrants or asylum seekers who are being bandied about as political pawns; it is Jesus himself. Jesus is being denied adequate legal advice; he has been denied the rights to asylum that are guaranteed under international law. Jesus himself is at risk of being kidnapped and exploited due to the Biden administration’s policies. This Advent, as Christians the world over contemplate the birth of Jesus, they cannot ignore where he is incarnate now, nor the policy decisions that make him absent in our communities.
Christians must also name the ways that governments reject Jesus’ presence through policies and laws. Remain in Mexico is part of a global assault on the rights of asylum, whereby Western powers refuse to even allow asylum seekers to exercise that right. Europe cruelly intercepts and sends migrants back to Libya, where they are subject to exploitation, torture, and sexual assault. At the border between Poland and Belarus, Polish authorities refused to allow asylum seekers into the country and instead blasted them with water cannons and tear gas.
The Remain in Mexico policy cuts against some of the most time-honored values of our faith — the practice of sanctuary and the duty to safeguard asylum-seekers from violence. It also nullifies much of the work of people of faith during the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, who through the landmark case ABC v. Thornburgh secured protections from the asylum process.
But all hope is not lost. Unlike those who wrote the gospels, we do not have to wait until the death of a leader to expect that change can occur. Instead, people of faith must stand up and demand that Biden end the Remain in Mexico policy end replace it with a fair, equitable asylum process. We must do so not only because it is the right thing to do, but because we want Jesus to make a life with us in our communities. We must also name the ways in which our hope that President Biden would offer compassionate immigration and asylum policy has been betrayed.