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Migrant Children, Uninvited Guests, and Welcoming the Stranger

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The debate over the large-scale migration of children from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico has characteristically devolved into political theater. Perversely, as the evidence builds regarding the dangers that have driven the children's flight, opposition remains high in Congress and the Administration to a fair and full review of their claims to protection under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA). As detailed in this blog last month, many Members of Congress support amending the TVPRA so that children from "non-contiguous" states would be screened by U.S. border enforcement officials and rapidly removed if they are determined (1) not to have been victims of trafficking, (2) not to credibly fear trafficking or persecution if returned, and (3) able to "withdraw" their applications independently. These truncated procedures will ensure that traumatized children will not be able to access an attorney, articulate their claims persuasively, or have their cases reviewed by an immigration judge.

In a June 14, 2014 C-Span appearance, Congressman Steve King (R-IA) made the case for gutting the TVPRA and offered a telling look at the reasons for Congressional dysfunction in response to this human crisis. King accused the Obama administration of "completing the crime of human trafficking" by placing the Central American children with parents and other family members. By this illogic, returning at-risk children to their home communities (which King favors) would represent a form of complicity with transnational criminal gangs. When reminded that the administration has been adhering to the law [1], King replied that Congress is "in the business of changing the law," a retort with which legalization advocates would certainly agree. When asked if it mattered that those entering were children, King stated that it was hard to "draw the distinctive line" between children and adults. He warned that the unaccompanied children were mostly boys of "prime gang recruitment age" (between the ages of 15 and 17), implying that they threatened U.S. communities. In fact, report after report has affirmed that gang recruitment and violence is one of the leading reasons that the children have fled their homes, need the review provided by the TVPRA, and would be unlikely to join gangs in the United States. As an alternative to placing them in homes, King proposed that the children be confined in camps in South Texas, arguing (in part) that they could be housed "more cheaply" than the Office of Refugee Resettlement was "planning to do." Yet it manifestly does not cost more to place children with their relatives than for the government to pay to keep them in camps. For good measure, King repeated his frequent admonition that the United States was "being invaded by illegal immigrants." As evidence, he argued that the "highest" percentage of "interdicted" immigrants ever reported by border officials was 25 percent. Yet the Border Patrol regularly reports far higher "effectiveness" rates, whether measured by percentage of arrests of known illegal entrants, or by "arrests" and "turn-backs" as a percentage of total illegal entries.

Last year, King criticized members of "the faith community, including conservative elements, [who] have taken the position that we have a moral and religious obligation to welcome illegal immigrants." In the Gospel of Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus identifies with the hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, ill and the "stranger" and teaches that nations will be judged by how they treat these "least ones." In his exegesis of this parable, King equates the "stranger" (from the Greek "xenos") with a "guest foreigner," or an "invited friend, invited guest," and not as "someone who came in against the law."

Of course, it can be problematic to invoke particular biblical passages as "proof" of the wisdom of contemporary public policy positions (like support for or opposition to comprehensive immigration reform), but King badly misreads and misuses Matthew 25 by translating "xenos" as an "invited guest." After all, the source of this parable was born in a manger (there was "no room at the inn" for his family), preached the need for radical empathy with social outcasts and the vulnerable, had no place to lay his head (Lk. 9:58) during his itinerant public ministry, and suffered crucifixion as a lawbreaker, a criminal. It would be odd - indeed, contrary to the entire thrust of Jesus's life and teaching -- if this language spoke only to his identification with "invited guests."[2]

King would do better to situate Matthew 25 within the long, Scriptural tradition of concern for the vulnerable and powerless. In the first five books of the Bible, the command to love the stranger appears more than 30 times. "Xenos" appears only once in the Gospels (in Matthew 25), but the word "xenos" appears in Job 31:32, when Job denies that he neglected the stranger during his just life. In this passage, "xenos" is translated from the Hebrew word "gēr," which means a sojourner, stranger, alien or resident alien.[3]

According to Fr. James P. Walsh, S.J., Old Testament scholar and Associate Professor of Theology at Georgetown University, the gēr "is part three of the listing in Hebrew Scripture of the personae miserae, the widow, the orphan (or fatherless), and the gēr." What all three have in common, Walsh says, "is powerlessness and vulnerability: they are objects of God's special care and protection and Israel is commanded to give them the same special treatment that God does." While the phrase "'widow and orphan' is proverbial in the culture of the ancient Near East" found in the Codex Hammurabi and elsewhere, Walsh explains that the "gēr is mentioned only in Israel." It signifies "an outsider with no resources, no recourse in the face of unjust treatment, and no helper, except Yahweh and his people." In Deuternomy, says Walsh, "the laws go out of their way to bring in the gēr : the phrase 'the gēr within your gates' recurs again and again, meaning the outsider who is not really a member of the community and, thus, needs special concern and consideration in obedience to God's command."

Rep. King overlooks the timeless themes and lessons from this long tradition. '''Legal immigrant' is an anachronism," says Walsh. "It presupposes a modern political situation of defined boundaries, lines crossed, paperwork and documentation. The biblical picture is different. It consists of outsiders and insiders. Under this tradition, the gēr is not to be abused, but is to be the object of special protection and concern on the part of the insider." The latter would, nowadays and analogously, include Members of Congress - they might be seen as the twenty-first century "elders at the gate" responsible for justice. By contrast, children who have fled from and fear return to perilous situations are today's quintessential outsiders. The biblical tradition teaches that they should be an object of special protection and concern.

1. The TVPRA requires that children from non-contiguous states be placed in the least restrictive settings possible during their removal proceedings.
2. As a factual matter, the children have been lovingly received by close relatives and by many communities throughout the nation. In many cases, they have been "invited."
3. Gēr is translated into Greek in a number of ways.