Separation of immigrant families prompts strong response

Photo: Gorlovkv /

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EDITOR’S NOTE: On Wednesday afternoon, June 20, President Trump signed an executive order mandating that officials continue to criminally prosecute everyone who crosses the border illegally but requiring them to seek to find or build facilities that can hold families—parents and children together—instead of separating them while their legal cases are considered by the courts.

The recently implemented zero-tolerance immigration policy that separates children from their parents who cross the border without proper documentation prompted strong reaction from some Baptists—particularly after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the New Testament in support of the policy.

“People who violate the law of our land are subject to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” Sessions said at a June 14 gathering in Fort Wayne, Ind.

Sessions made the comments two days after messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Dallas approved a resolution calling for reform in the immigration system to “make it more just, humane, efficient and orderly.”

The resolution expressed messengers desire for reform that includes “an emphasis on securing our borders and providing a pathway to legal status with appropriate restitutionary measures, maintaining the priority of family unity, resulting in an efficient immigration system that honors the value and dignity of those seeking a better life for themselves and their families.”

‘Outrageous’ and ‘heinous’

Suzii Paynter, executive coordinator, expressed outrage both at the effect of the zero-tolerance policy and Sessions’ use of Scripture to justify it.

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Suzii Paynter

“The policy of ripping children from the arms of parents is outrageous, and quoting Scripture in its defense is heinous,” Paynter said.

“While it is necessary to control the flow of immigrants and refugees into the country, the use of tactics meant to traumatize and inflict irreparable harm to children and their parents is un-American and certainly do not appear anywhere in the Bible I read.”

Russell Moore, president of Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, posted a photo of a crying immigrant child to his Twitter account June 18 with the tweet: “Father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and widow are wronged in you” (Ezekiel 22:7).”

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Russell Moore

Later, Moore posted a recording obtained by ProPublica from inside a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility. On it, listeners can hear crying immigrant children who were separated from their parents and the response of a Border Patrol official. Moore tweeted: “Are our consciences so seared that we do not hear the horror in this?”

Moore was among the religious leaders who signed a June 1 letter from the Evangelical Immigration Table to President Trump, urging his administration to reverse the zero-tolerance policy that separates families.

‘Need our prayers’

Gus Reyes, director of the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission, issued a statement June 18 calling for prayer for everyone involved in the situation along the Rio Grande.

“These children and their parents need our prayers,” Reyes said. “This is a frightening time for them, because they have been separated in a strange land. Children and families hold special places in our hearts because of the teachings of Scripture.

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Gus Reyes

“Our law enforcement personnel along the border need our prayers. They are in a difficult situation of having to enforce laws that are causing human suffering. It is always hard to see children suffer.

“Our political leaders in Washington need our prayers. Many are torn between competing interests related to securing our southern border, enabling needed workers to enter, upholding existing law and protecting families.”

‘Honor a higher authority’

Reyes noted he was in Washington, D.C., meeting with lawmakers about the matter, and he urged others to practice responsible Christian citizenship.

“Scripture instructs us to respect the laws of nations, but the Bible also indicates Christ followers are to honor a higher authority,” he said. “We obey the laws of governments unless they call on us to violate the instructions of God, then we seek to change the laws. God is sovereign over nations, and in a democracy Christians have a special responsibility to bring godly influence to government policies.

“Living in a democracy, Christians have a responsibility to seek to influence government in the direction of care and justice for all people, especially the ‘least of these,’ as noted by Jesus in Matthew 25.”

‘We can do better’

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Kathryn Freeman

Kathryn Freeman, director of public policy for the CLC, participated in a June 18 call-in news conference organized by the Evangelical Immigration Table. It featured a panel of Christian women who discussed refugee resettlement and justice for Dreamers, as well as concern about the forced separation of immigrant families.

Freeman noted the plight of asylum-seeking parents who have fled violence in Latin America, only to find themselves criminally charged and separated from the children at the U.S. border.

“Texas evangelicals do not want this done in our name,” Freeman said. “To tear small children from their parents is absolutely heartbreaking, and it is not legally necessary. Every past administration has exercised discretion in these cases, especially when individuals have credible fears of violence in their home country and when their children are affected. We can do better as a nation.”

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