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ICE Raids Divide American Christians

As a debate raged about how Mike Pence reconciles Trump's immigration policy with his Christianity, some churches opened their doors for immigrants looking to avoid detention.
Pope Francis meets President Donald Trump at the Vatican on May 24th, 2017.

Pope Francis meets President Donald Trump at the Vatican on May 24th, 2017.

In the run up to what the Trump administration said would be widespread immigration enforcement raids Sunday, countless places of worship across the country declared themselves sanctuary spaces for immigrants. Those places of worship joined what experts have characterized as a growing movement of religious communities opening their doors to non-citizens in order to prevent family separations that they say run counter to their faiths. But with white Evangelical Christian Americans still overwhelmingly backing the Trump administration, the sudden outpouring of support for immigrants also revealed the growing fissures between American faith communities wrought by the White House's immigration policy.

President Donald Trump said on Monday that the immigration raids slated for Sunday were "very successful," but immigration advocates have suggested that there were few signs of Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity in the administration's 10 target cities, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

In the United States, there is no law barring ICE from enforcing at churches; instead the agency has established guidance for agents suggesting that they "avoid conducting enforcement activities at sensitive locations unless they have prior approval from an appropriate supervisory official or in the event of exigent circumstances," an ICE official told Pacific Standard in April. "The locations specified in the guidance include schools, places of worship, and hospitals."

When church and other faith communities welcome strangers, they are banking on the administration avoiding what some say would amount to a public relations disaster. ICE's guidance exists "largely because ICE does not want the bad press of a family—almost always a family with a very sympathetic story—being handcuffed in front of a crucifix or a baptistery," explains Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization and advocacy for World Relief and co-author of a book called Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigration Debate. "The sanctuary movement is basically insisting that if ICE is going to execute deportations that they do not believe are morally justified, they will have to do so in ways that capture the public's attention, which organizers believe will prick the conscience of most Americans, most of whom—polls show—want a better way forward than deportations that divide families who haven't committed serious criminal offenses."

In Houston, one of the target cities, Democratic Representative Sheila Lee Jackson met with a group of interfaith community leaders on Saturday who pledged to open their doors to immigrants under threat from the raids. The meeting was held at Houston's Living Water International Apostolic Ministries. Apostle R.C. Stearns, the leader of the Living Water congregation, says that, despite his ministry's offer of shelter to "those who are willing to correct their status," there were "no call ins; no one has come by." Still, he says, the offer of shelter "was necessary" given the threat to local families with undocumented members.

Stearns' congregation was joined by countless others across the country. In Los Angeles, Reverend Sunny Kang told the press that United University Church was one of several such places of worship to offer sanctuary to the targets of the immigration enforcement raids. Other churches like New York City's Universalist Society also opened their doors.

"Houses of worship have a long history of providing refuge to the vulnerable," says Evan Berry, a professor at American University whose work has focused on religion's relationship to the public sphere. "They are institutions uniquely positioned to stand up to authoritarian governments and act as de facto protectors of rights and justice."

The sudden uptick in Christian and other faith communities offering shelter to immigrants last weekend comes as the latest development in a growing divide among Americans of faith over Trump administration immigration policy. On Friday, Vice President Mike Pence—a self-professed devout Christian—came under fire after visiting an overcrowded immigrant detention center. Pence continued to support the administration's immigration policies in his comments to the press following his visit, laying blame on the lack of resources for the detainees on Democratic opponents who have refused to allocate more money to Trump administration immigration and border security policies. A flurry of posts on social media denounced Pence as a "fake Christian" following his comments, sparking debate among Christian Americans over the possible liturgical precedent for his and widespread white Evangelical Christian support for the administration's treatment of immigrants.

If there is a deeply felt divide between Christians and other religious communities over Trump immigration policy, that's in large because of the diversity of American Christians, experts say. "You can have two churches on a street reading from the same bible, drawing people from the same community, but the dynamics and beliefs will influence whether a church is insular or a sanctuary congregation," says Sandra Barnes, professor of human and organizational development at Vanderbilt University, who specializes in the role of religion and congregations as change agents in society. "These are things that are driving these divisions that we are seeing and reading about so much more today than ever before."

It remains difficult for some to understand how Trump-supporting Christians understand biblical passages that teach believers to love their neighbors while immigrants continue to die and face a number of alleged human rights violations in U.S. government custody.

Berry notes that some right-wing faith leaders justify their support scripturally, citing Romans 13, which requires that people "be subject to the governing authorities." Barnes notes, however, that the chapter ends with a message of acceptance. "In that same chapter, later on, it says, the overarching law is to love other people," she adds. "If you read further, you'll be challenged to think about what we're doing in immigration. The rest of that chapter is how we should treat other people."

"There is not a strong theological or scriptural basis that could be used to support the administration's policies," Berry says. "The religious actors that support the Trump agenda are vocal, but they do not seem to be using religious or theological language in their public remarks. White Evangelicals, like [American Southern Baptist Pastor] Robert Jeffress, regularly point to Romans 13 as a validation of political power, but their reliance on this single passage is increasingly hollow, and appears to be part of theology in which the current president has a blank check to pursue his authority, a check which was not given to the previous president."

Soerens also notes that polling shows white Evangelicals are the most likely to support Trump administration policies, but even among those Trump supporters, there is a degree of nuance that is lost in attempts to understand their views. Soerens' own World Relief was vocal in opposing the Trump administration's travel ban targeting people from Muslim-majority nations, for instance.

"I think there are people within every religious community who are very troubled by the administration's immigration policies and also people in every community who are supportive," Soerens says, "but the ratios certainly vary from one group to another."