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For Many Immigration Activists, Welcoming “Strangers” Is an Act of Faith

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Readers of different religious traditions, and even those within the same tradition, may read sacred Scripture in radically divergent ways. Among the most pronounced ways this occurs is in the common refrains that religious immigration activists tend to cite. The Hebrew Bible directs adherents to watch over the ger, a term that alludes to a permanent resident or a convert and is often defined imperfectly as “stranger.” The New Testament depicts Jesus as a refugee, and the Quran directs the religious to care for both the wayfarer (aabir sabeel) and the homeless (ibn sabeel). These religious values motivate many to advocate for refugees and would-be immigrants, while many others understand their religious mandate differently.

Exegetical variety aside, experts and nonprofit leaders say that religious activists have rallied of late in response to the president’s immigration policy and rhetoric. Since President Donald Trump’s election, immigration activists have demonstrated a “new energy” and a “new level of urgency,” even though they were concerned about high levels of immigrant deportation under President Barack Obama, says Grace Yukich, associate professor of sociology at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut, and author of One Family Under God: Immigration Politics and Progressive Religion in America.

“The anti-immigrant rhetoric during Trump’s presidential campaign frightened immigrants and their allies, including many faith-based activists, who saw such rhetoric as antithetical to their religious traditions’ calls to welcome the stranger,” Yukich says. The activists are concerned about what they interpret as White House efforts to curb the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), to reduce both legal and illegal immigration, and to curb the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment. Activists are also concerned about separation of families on the border, targeting of undocumented immigrants without criminal records, and the tragic incidents of immigrant children who have died within U.S. custody. The activists worry both about the immigrants and “the moral and spiritual health of a nation that often treats immigrants in cruel and inhumane ways,” Yukich says.

Mark Hetfield, president and chief executive officer of HIAS, has seen more American Jewish passion for welcoming refugees and asylum seekers than he has observed in decades. (HIAS was founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.) “They want to volunteer to welcome them, to set them up in new homes and new communities, and to help them navigate our Byzantine and often vicious legal process,” he says. “Unfortunately, with the Trump administration’s allowing the fewest number of refugees in the 40-year history of the program, and with the ‘remain in Mexico’ policy, volunteer opportunities are increasingly scarce. Consequently, we’ve facilitated more advocacy opportunities to change these policies.”

More than 2,000 rabbis and hundreds of congregations have formally committed to work with HIAS to support welcoming refugees, and HIAS helped organize more than 100 meetings between constituents and their congressional representatives this summer. “The global refugee crisis of 2015, and then, just before the Jewish high holidays, the photograph of the lifeless body of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on the beach in Turkey, woke up our entire community, and they’ve been actively engaged in welcoming refugees ever since on a scale we haven’t seen since the late 1980 and the Soviet Jewry movement,” Hetfield says. “The big difference today is that they are not welcoming refugees who are Jews, but welcoming refugees as Jews.”

Religious activists are helping immigrants by providing legal services along the border, raising money to help immigrants and their families, and offering sanctuary to those at risk for deportation through the New Sanctuary Movement, which offers “sacred resistance,” Quinnipiac University’s Yukich says. Activists are also educating communities about immigration policies and collaborating with groups like No More Deaths, an Arizona-based organization that provides water and other necessities to immigrants and is part of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson. Read the Whole Article

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