This month, as news spread that the Trump administration was separating immigrant and asylum-seeking children from their parents at the Mexican border, there was a widespread outcry from religious groups. Many of them decried Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ use of the Bible to justify immigrant deterrent methods on the border. It was not only the faith traditions that have consistently advocated for immigrants—the Catholic and mainline Protestant and Muslim and Jewish groups—but also those white evangelicals who are often key Trump supporters. Franklin Graham called the practice of separating families “disgraceful,” though he didn’t blame the president for the policy. The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution prioritizing “family unity” during an immigration process that should be free from “nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation.” Their voices joined a chorus of dissent, and last week, the president issued an executive order to halt the separation policy—while still keeping families detained without a clear path forward.
It is right and good to see such a faithful outcry to injustice. But in this moment, all faith groups must do more. They must do more than issue thoughts and prayers and statements. They must work to combat the systemic injustice still taking place—an area where evangelicals have often fallen short, even as Latinos join their churches in rapid numbers. The Catholic Church is the primary religious home of millions of Latinos, but now 19 percent of American Latinos identify as evangelical or Pentecostal—a challenge and an invitation to these faith communities for direct action.
The reality is that the separation of immigrant families has already been taking place across the country, as ICE raids rip workers from factories and fields in Tennessee, California, Iowa, and Ohio, among other locations. Children are living in paralyzing fear as they wait for their undocumented parents to come home. Parents fear being swept up as they drop children off at school. Psychologist Susan Stucchi-Duran’s 2011 study of the Del Monte raid in Portland, Oregon, where 160 people were detained and eventually deported, showed that the raid created “community trauma” and family disintegration, alongside feelings of abandonment, isolation, and depression. A study by the Pew Research Center shows the widespread fear of deportation that Latinos face.
Immigration critics would argue that people fail to realize the foundational issue regarding immigration is about breaking U.S. law. If it were only about laws and process. What we are witnessing is unaccountable police action on a nationwide scale with an unlimited mandate intent on instilling fear.
Undocumented workers continue to face the wretched irony of looking for (and being desired for) work yet confronting a legal state apparatus that puts them at jeopardy every time they drive to work. As historians of the Latino/a experience in the United States, we get the irony of both despising and needing Mexican and Central American labor. During the early decades of the twentieth century, Mexican immigration continued unrestricted, even though Mexican people were viewed as undesirable. They were needed for a variety of industries reliant on cheap labor. The nativism of the 1920s reverberates today when Trump describes Mexicans as rapists and criminals, parroting a historical narrative that sees immigrants as degenerate to the moral life of the U.S. It is also not lost on us that when the U.S. saw a need to blame economic problems on a population, the country did so during the 1930s by deporting and repatriating nearly a million Mexican and Mexican Americans back to Mexico, in what historians call the “decade of betrayal.” ICE raids signal that we may be seeing another replay of that betrayal.
Some congregations have mobilized to protect undocumented persons from deportation by offering to house them within their buildings through what is known as the sanctuary movement. Sanctuary as direct action is most prevalent in what we describe as a benefactor class of religious traditions committed to social justice for decades, but also a class that stands to lose very little in terms of social and cultural capital because the numbers of Latinos in Unitarian Universalist (UU), Jewish, and mainline Protestant congregations is very small compared to Catholic and evangelical churches.
Evangelicals and Pentecostals, by and large, have been unmoored from any deep theological tradition of social teaching regarding immigration, never having developed a systematic response to state injustices. When set in the balance against the weighty record of Catholic and mainline Protestant public social and civil advocacy, indeed the writing on the wall spells out that evangelicals and Pentecostals are found wanting. This absence of advocacy has thus far not been ameliorated by para-church organizations, such as the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, whose leader Samuel Rodriguez has been self-appointed to advocate on behalf of Latino evangelicals. In fact, Latino evangelical leaders in high places of political power—such as the once-rising State Senator Steve Montenegro, a champion of Arizona’s SB 1070, (whose bid for 8th congressional district was supported by the state’s convicted and now presidentially pardoned former sheriff, Joe Arpaio)—show that Latino evangelical politicians can, do, and will vote against the basic-human interests of those sitting in their very pews.
But perhaps, in some cases, our decoding of that writing is misguided by our interpretive code of what responses ought to look like. That Latino Pentecostal and evangelical churches have long been home to a large number of undocumented immigrants is no secret. Could an intimate setting of worship and social bonding be bereft of any political engagement? Two case studies in California prove instructive.
In a 2005 academic chapter, historian Daniel Ramirez studied the Latino Pentecostal community in the Bay Area. He examined how Latino Pentecostals were spurred into political action and public protest by the notorious 1994 state ballot measure Proposition 187 (which was meant to kill access to education, non-emergency health care, and a number of other services for undocumented immigrants). His study challenged researchers to consider how undocumented Latino Pentecostals live between two publics: the public margin (offered by the safe spaces of churches) and the general public (largely inimical to the undocumented). A look into the public margins required a reckoning of new data, such as “testimonios ilegales,” to show churches historically marked as apolitical, in fact offer immigrants and their families a broad base of solidarity, hospitality, and, in some cases, outright evasion of border enforcement agents. The highly informal system of offering solidarity, safe places, and hospitality is the kind of support that is to be found in Latino Pentecostal churches. But should these churches also be doing more outward political advocacy as well? Given the new age we are living in where ICE raids occur almost daily, where the documented separation of children from their parents seeking asylum at the border has caused the United Nations to chastise the Trump Administration’s policies, are hospitality and spiritual solace enough?
In 2016, sociologist Melissa Guzman Garcia demonstrated in an academic journal article how undocumented Pentecostals in Fresno assert a “spiritual citizenship” to portray themselves as self-sufficient and disciplined contributors of the state, all in hopes of showing themselves to be less deportable. One’s moral rectitude, they believe, could in part influence how the panoptic state views its deportable subjects. In the end, the management of deportability does little to dismantle a system. Moreover, internalizing one’s “illegality” in the context of spiritual citizenship places an undue legal onus on society’s most vulnerable and reinforces a notion of meritocracy based on conservative Christian notions of morality. In this religious and political formulation, the sin and crime of illegality are imputed to the individual rather than the state. The capricious deporting state is swift to render its verdict on such issues. It takes its victims by surprise. Jesus Aceves, an undocumented immigrant, told the Los Angeles Times after he was detained by ICE: “I didn’t expect this. I never thought it would happen to me.” Knowing that the blot of illegality is never removed from the state’s book, his brother, a pastor, reminds his congregation: “These are things we don’t like to talk about because there’s so much fear … but you have to do it. You have to make a plan.” How might undocumented immigrants be better supported if Latino Pentecostal and evangelical churches were to “make a plan”?
Many religious people will continue to do social justice work and aid immigrants. But more needs to be done to advocate, accompany, and shelter traumatized people in light of ICE’s ratcheted-up efforts. Latino evangelical and Pentecostal churches must be more than promoters of “spiritual citizenship” or incubators of a moralistic capitalism that somehow solves everyone’s problems. Latino “court evangelicals” who actively support Trump’s politics are useful as long as they enhance their own political cache; they have failed to do anything tangible for immigrants living under the regime of daily ICE raids. The late agitator extraordinaire Fr. Daniel Berrigan, writing during what he called “a bad time”—in his case, the Vietnam War—said: “But how shall we educate men to goodness, to a sense of one another, to a love of the truth? And more urgently, how shall we do this in a bad time?” We may ask the same about our “bad time” today.
Arlene Sanchez-Walsh is a professor of religious studies at Azusa Pacific University. Her latest book is Pentecostals in America. Lloyd Barba is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of religion at Amherst College.