Religious leaders have recently been in the news for speaking out against the Trump administration policy of family separation. Catholic leaders have blasted the policy for traumatizing parents and terrorizing children. The United Methodist Church took disciplinary action against Methodist Jeff Sessions. Even Trump supporter Franklin Graham said that it was “disgraceful.”
While many are praising religious leaders for speaking out in defense of migrants, criticizing the policies — and even criticizing the Trump administration — is insufficient. Religious leaders must instead appeal directly to all those involved to stop participating in this policy.
Religious leaders, familiar with a model of political action that has worked for decades, have limited themselves to publicly issuing statements criticizing policies and privately lobbying legislators to pass humane and just immigration laws. Even progressive religious leaders who march in protest with their congregants are operating on a model that depends on the good faith and reasonableness of legislative and executive officials. Religious leaders assume that political leaders will be shamed into ending the policy if we can protest, lobby, make public statements, and shine a light on what is happening with the children at the border.
To some extent, this strategy has worked — Republican members of Congress have issued statements against the policy and President Trump signed an executive order promising to end the policy of family separation. But a close reading of the order indicates that migrant children are still in danger from this administration. The executive order opens the door to the indefinite imprisonment of children and does not definitively bar continued separation of families. Worst of all, there is no plan to reunite the children and parents that were already separated; they are expected to remain in detention for the foreseeable future.
In other words, though the administration appeared to cave to public pressure, their actions suggest that they are not acting in good faith.
It is time for religious leaders from every faith to urge all people of good will to refuse to cooperate in any way with policies that harm children.
These new initiatives from the Trump administration depend on the participation of a wide variety of people — agents of the Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, drivers, flight attendants, managers, and staff of the detention facilities.
Some of these workers, like the CBP agent who reportedly taunted mothers by telling them that they will never see their children again,seem to relish being cruel to these families. Others, like former child detention facility employee Antar Davidson, might have taken these jobs to put their bilingual skills to good use and to advocate for children. Others, perhaps, just needed a job.
But regardless of their motives, many of these people are enabling cruelty towards immigrants.
Religious leaders must make a direct appeal to every person who plays a role: refuse to obey inhumane orders. When the order is to take children from the arms of their parents or to prevent traumatized children from seeking comfort in each other’s embrace, religious leaders must insist that workers tell their superiors that they will not comply.
Many workers have already done so. Detention center staff have quit their jobs, flight attendants have refused to serve flights where these children are the passengers, and, in some cases, airlines have followed their lead.
I do not propose this lightly. I understand that many of them have families to support. Some who refuse to obey their superiors will surely face serious consequences — disciplinary action, dismissal, the loss of income, and pension benefits.
But there are times when “I was just following orders” or “I had to support my family” are not going to be acceptable excuses in the eyes of history.
As the border policies change from generating the terrible images of wailing, terrified children to something that might be no less pernicious, but more palatable to viewers of the evening news, it will be even more important for religious institutions to ask their members to reawaken consciences that might have gone numb and to remind them of their allegiance to a higher law.
Churches, synagogues, mosques, and their members must also stand ready to provide spiritual and material support to all those who lose their jobs for reasons of conscience. Migrant families could not be terrorized without the cooperation of ordinary people, so we must help ordinary people refuse to cooperate in whatever way we can.