Trump's 'zero tolerance' policy denounced, defended

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WASHINGTON (BP) -- Southern Baptist and other evangelical female leaders expressed their opposition Monday (June 18) to separating children from parents on the border as Congress prepares again to take up the immigration issue.

The call for a change in the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy that has resulted in family separation at the United States' border with Mexico came as Republican criticism grew even while executive branch defense of the practice hardened. Nearly 2,000 children were taken from parents or guardians who were seeking asylum -- many reportedly fleeing violence in Central America -- or entering illegally from April 19 to May 31, according to published reports of a June 15 briefing by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting June 12-13 in Dallas addressed the latest controversy in the decades-long immigration debate by adopting a resolution again calling for border security while "maintaining the priority of family unity."

In a June 18 news conference call, Trillia Newbell -- director of community outreach for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) -- said the government "should not separate children from their parents except in the absolute rarest of cases. Where families have been divided, they should be reunited as expeditiously as reasonably possible. Our immigration policies should reflect these principles."

Kathryn Freeman, director of public policy for the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, said of the "zero tolerance" policy on the call, "Texas evangelicals do not want this done in our name. To tear small children from their parents is absolutely heart breaking, and it is not legally necessary. We can do better as a nation."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the "zero tolerance" policy April 6 in a directive to U.S. Attorney's offices along the Mexican border. The policy's implementation came as DHS reported a 203 percent increase in illegal border crossings from March 2017 to March 2018 and a 37 percent increase from February to March of this year.

"The situation at our Southwest Border is unacceptable," Sessions said in a written statement. "Congress has failed to pass effective legislation that serves the national interest -- that closes dangerous loopholes and fully funds a wall along our southern border. As a result, a crisis has erupted at our Southwest Border that necessitates an escalated effort to prosecute those who choose to illegally cross our border."

President Trump blamed the other party, tweeting June 18, "It is the Democrats fault for being weak and ineffective with [Border] Security and Crime. Tell them to start thinking about the people devastated by Crime coming from illegal immigration. Change the laws!"

Members of his own party, however, said the administration could change the policy. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a Facebook post "zero tolerance" is "a new, discretionary choice" and the administration's hands are not tied.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a Southern Baptist, announced June 18 he would introduce legislation in an effort to resolve the crisis. His proposal would double the number of federal immigration judges, authorize temporary shelters for entire families and expedite review of asylum cases so they are settled within 14 days.

"While these cases are pending, families should stay together," Cruz said in a written statement. "Children belong with their mothers and fathers."

Mark Harris -- former pastor of First Baptist Church in Charlotte and a Republican congressional candidate in North Carolina -- called for Congress to solve the problem.

“As more has come to light about what is occurring at the border, I have a growing concern with what is happening,” Harris told Baptist Press in written comments.

“I believe Congress needs to act quickly to address this situation, that Congress must fix the loopholes laid out yesterday by [DHS] Secretary [Kirstjen] Nielsen, and any solution must begin with the understanding that children belong with their parents,” he said. “Children must not be separated from their parents unless there is a real threat to the safety of the children or if the parents are involved in serious criminal behavior.”

In a June 18 briefing, Nielsen called for Congress to amend a 2008 law designed to protect trafficking victims she said is being taken advantage of by child smugglers, to reform the country’s asylum laws and to revise agreements to permit detention of entire families.

The House of Representatives is expected to vote soon on at least one immigration reform bill. One measure labeled as a compromise would provide Dreamers -- undocumented immigrants who were brought to America as children and have been protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program -- a path to citizenship while funding a border wall and cutting legal immigration, The New York Times reported June 14.

The SBC resolution adopted nearly unanimously June 12 again requested reform -- as a 2011 resolution had -- that secures the borders and proves a pathway to legal status "with appropriate restitutionary measures."

The resolution noted the lack of meaningful revision in the immigration system the last seven years "that would make it more just, humane, efficient, and orderly." It declared "any form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation is inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

ERLC President Russell Moore expressed his gratitude for the resolution's passage in a written statement for the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT).

"I am grateful for the way that churches all around the country are ministering to immigrant communities," Moore said. "Now is the time for our country to act justly, to stop separating families, and to fix an immigration system that is hurting too many people in our country today."

Southern Baptists hold a variety of views regarding resolving the immigration problem that has resulted in an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country. In their 2011 resolution, SBC messengers acknowledged immigration reform "has prompted often-rancorous debate in the American public square."

This year's Resolutions Committee received three properly proposed resolutions related to immigration and -- without any substantive changes in immigration policy -- decided the 2018 messengers "wanted to reaffirm what [was] said in 2011 while also speaking to present concerns shared by all messengers regardless of a variety of opinions as to policy solutions," said Chairman Jason Duesing, academic provost of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

"Thus, like in 2011, the 2018 resolution seeks to affirm the value and dignity of immigrants as human beings and our responsibility to minister to them while also speaking to the need to preserve border security while implementing immigration reform that provides a just and compassionate path to legal status," Duesing told Baptist Press in written comments. "As the submitted resolutions this year spoke to the current crisis of family separation, we also wanted to include statements that affirmed the longstanding support Southern Baptists have had for the value of the family and thus allow the messengers to express their desire to see immigration reform carried out to maintain the priority of family unity."

On June 14, Sessions defended the "zero tolerance policy," citing the command of Romans 13 "to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order."

Southern Baptist and other evangelical leaders took issue with Sessions' appeal to Romans 13.

"Romans 13 requires respect for government and its rightful responsibility, and in the United States, that means respect for our constitutional order," said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, June 18 during his "The Briefing" podcast. "It does not mean satisfaction or an absence of protest against the law if the law is wrong and unrighteous and unjust."

The June 18 evangelical women's conference call sponsored by EIT also addressed the plight of refugees of all religions. June 20 is World Refugee Day.

At the current rate, there will be 27,000 fewer Christian refugees specifically permitted in the United States than in 2016, Freeman said on the conference call. In the past decade, more than 60,000 Christian refugees from the Middle East have resettled in America, but almost none have been able to do so in 2018, she said.

More than 10,000 people -- including Moore and other evangelical pastors and leaders -- have signed onto a June 1 letter to Trump requesting a reversal in the "zero tolerance" policy and the restoration of a "robust refugee resettlement program."

EIT is a coalition of evangelical organizations supporting immigration reform. In addition to the ERLC, the organizations in EIT's leadership consist of the National Association of Evangelicals, World Vision, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, World Relief, Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, The Wesleyan Church, and Korean Churches for Community Development/Faith and Community Empowerment.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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