Think about this: why would anyone travel thousands of miles on a journey that many do not survive — except for the hope that their destination (the U.S.) is significantly safer than where they currently live? I cannot imagine taking such risks unless my current circumstances left me with no other options besides death. I have met many people who are undocumented in the U.S. They are not criminals. They are not economic threats. They are mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, and sometimes teenagers trying to escape untold violence and oppression. They are our neighbors, community members, and friends. They are people simply trying to do what it takes to survive.
Our immigration system is broken. It is hard for anyone to say otherwise. But I think our values are broken too. When gun-toting vigilantes are able to successfully threaten buses full of children put at risk by their parents because it was a better option than staying at home, something is desperately wrong with our values. We can say their home country needs to get its act together, but that does not address the hostile response in the U.S. by some people. Politics aside, the morality of refusing such people violates the values of both my Christian faith and my understanding of how my country was founded by persecuted refugees seeking freedom.
Comprehensive immigration reform is about real people with real blood flowing through real veins. It is not about numbers, other than the fact that the U.S. grants the lowest number of visas to the countries with some of highest homicide rates in the world — violence that the U.S. government has had a hand in creating over the past several decades. This is not about following the law, because our current immigration laws are simply unjust and violate the values upon which this country was founded: a country of immigrants in which “all people are created equal.” It is about God’s children desperately seeking refuge in a country that boasts itself as the “land of the free” and the land of hope and promise.
My congregation offered sanctuary because the life of a human being, as well as the lives of his wife and two small children, hung in the balance. Luis Lopez Acabal was under threat of being deported back to Guatemala where gangs had cornered him and gave him the ultimatum to join the gang, leave the country, or be killed. His family scraped together what they could and sent him on the next bus north. It took him a entire month to work his way through Mexico. As our elders and I were wrestling with the question of what we could do, several commented that they felt like “God is knocking on our door.” How were we to respond? As people of faith informed by scriptures that repeatedly call God’s people to “welcome the stranger,” “treat the resident immigrant among you as one of your own,” and “love your neighbor as yourself,” we were compelled to offer refuge.
In the 1980s there was a sanctuary movement that actively welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing civil wars in Central America. Churches sometimes housed hundreds at one time. We are housing one, but we know he represents millions. Currently five churches across the country are protecting five threatened people, with more cases building. So far two cases have been won this year through administrative relief, giving Daniel Neyoy Ruiz and Beatriz Santiago Ramierz the opportunity to return home without threat of deportation. More than 100 churches have pledged offer or support sanctuary, and that number is growing.
No immigration reform is acceptable unless it allows the more than 11 million people from all parts of the world, not only Central America, to come out of the shadows, to be heard and counted, and to be given an opportunity to gain legal status and contribute more fully to our communities. We claim to have a justice system that upholds the value of “innocent until proven guilty,” but enforces an immigration system that detains hundreds of thousands on the premise that they are guilty until they can prove their case for relief.
It is time that we who have the power use our place of privilege to amplify the voices of those crying out in the wilderness for justice. It is time we reach deep into our prophetic traditions, regardless of faith, to speak truth to power — that all people are children of God and deserve our respect and dignity. It is time to lay down our fears of the “other” and open our doors to those seeking refuge, treating them as one of our own, because they are.
The Rev. Eric O. Ledermann is the pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Tempe, Ariz., where Luis Lopez Acabal has been in sanctuary since Sept. 4, seeking refuge from the threat of deportation and being ripped away from his wife and two children. Rev. Ledermann, a southern California native, has served churches in Ohio, New York, and California before coming to Arizona with his wife, Sindy, two children, and German Shepherd named Joey.