Trump commended for halt to border family separations

WASHINGTON (BP) -- Several Southern Baptist leaders commended President Trump's executive order Wednesday (June 20) addressing the separation of children from parents at the United States-Mexico border.

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One cited a resolution adopted June 12 at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Dallas as an important step in bringing about the executive order.

The leaders called on Congress to enact reforms to the immigration system.

Trump signed the order to change an administration policy that had resulted in more than 2,300 children being taken from parents or guardians who were seeking asylum -- many reportedly fleeing violence in Central America -- or entering illegally since mid-April. Prior to the president's action, administration officials had contended in response to bipartisan pressure that the policy was required and Congress must act to resolve the controversy.

The House of Representatives, meanwhile, rejected a conservative bill to reform what is generally regarded as a broken immigration system in a 231-193 vote today (June 21). A vote on a more moderate proposal was delayed until Friday (June 22), according to published reports.

In a June 20 tweet, ethicist Russell Moore said he is glad to see the Trump administration "is listening to Americans on the moral atrocity of separating children from parents at the border. This is a good first step.

"Now let's fix this system," said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). "We can have security while still showing compassion to those fleeing violence."

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a "zero tolerance" policy April 6 in a directive to U.S. Attorney's offices along the Mexican border that resulted in families being separated. The policy's implementation came as the Department of Homeland Security 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.

Alan Cross -- a Southern Baptist minister who serves as a missional strategist with the Montgomery (Ala.) Baptist Association and as a consultant with the Evangelical Immigration Table in the southeastern U.S. -- said SBC messengers "made a strong, Gospel-oriented statement" when they passed nearly unanimously a resolution on immigration.

The SBC resolution called for "maintaining the priority of family unity." It also repeated a 2011 call for immigration reform that secures the borders and provides a pathway to legal status "with appropriate restitutionary measures." The new resolution noted the lack of meaningful change 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.

"This resolution made in the midst of a national crisis showed incredible leadership," Cross told Baptist Press in a written statement, "and, I really believe, helped encourage President Trump to reverse the family separation policy to keep migrant families together. America is looking to the church for leadership on immigration, and Southern Baptists are providing it."

Travis Wussow, the ERLC's vice president for public policy, told BP he is encouraged the administration "took the first step toward addressing its policy that separated children from their parents. American policy, even immigration policy, is best when it promotes the flourishing of families.

"As Southern Baptists have said for years and reaffirmed at our annual meeting last week, our immigration system is broken and it's long past time for Congress to fix it," Wussow said in written comments. "We will continue to work for policies that ensure border security, maintain family unity and restore justice to the vulnerable."

When he signed the order, Trump told reporters the United States would have "very strong borders, but we're going to keep the families together."

He feels "very strongly" about separating children from parents, Trump said in the White House Oval Office. "I think anybody with a heart would feel very strongly about it. We don't like to see families separated. At the same time, we don't want people coming into our country illegally. This takes care of the problem."

Response to the order diverged over its impact. One analysis contended the order would allow the federal government to keep undivided families in detention indefinitely, while another viewpoint said it restores what is known as the "catch-and-release" program that typically has permitted some to remain in the United States while awaiting immigration hearings. Many of those scheduled for hearings do not appear for their court dates, according to reports.

Administration officials were unable to answer all questions and reportedly made at least one conflicting policy change in the wake of the president's order.

It is uncertain if the children already in detention will be reunited with their parents, according to reports. "[I]t is still very early, and we are awaiting further guidance" regarding reunification of children and parents in detention, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) told The New York Times. HHS is "working toward" reunification of the separated families, the official said, according to The Times.

In an apparent conflict with the order, prosecutions of parents illegally entering the United States with children will be halted until sufficient detention centers for entire families are available, The Washington Post reported June 21. A senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told The Post many of the parents and children now detained will be released because of the lack of centers.

Trump's order calls for the secretary of the Department of Defense to provide existing facilities or, if needed, build new ones for detainee families.

Sessions, meanwhile, will ask a federal court in California to revise what is known as the "Flores settlement" so the administration can detain children, even with their families, longer than the 20-day limit now in effect, according to the executive order.

The more moderate House proposal to reform immigration 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 Times reported.

While it also appears unlikely to pass, some members of Congress are trying to provide a solution in law to the family separation problem specifically.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a Southern Baptist, introduced June 19 the Protect Kids and Parents Act, S. 3091, which 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.

Southern Baptist and other evangelicals joined the chorus of voices calling for a change in the administration's family separation policy as photos, videos and reports of distraught children gained wider circulation recently. Southern Baptist and other evangelical female leaders expressed their opposition to family separation during a news conference call June 18.

Members of Southern Baptist churches 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."

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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