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Faith groups celebrate holiday season by descending on the border

People protest against U.S. immigration policies on the American side, right, of the U.S.-Mexico border in Southern California on Dec. 10, 2018. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres

(RNS) — For a quarter century at Christmastime, hundreds have gathered on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border just south of San Diego for a binational performance of a “posada,” a Mexican tradition in which worshippers re-enact the biblical story of Mary and Joseph’s struggle to find a place to stay before Jesus was born.

But this year’s performance of the Binational Posada, which took place Dec. 15, was a little different.

The most obvious change was in the service itself: Organizers said U.S. Border Patrol agents forced those on the northern side to stand behind a second fence dozens of yards from the main fence, a first in the gathering’s 25-year history.

The extra security follows the events of Dec. 10, when more than 30 religious leaders were arrested along the border — feet from where the Binational Posada would be held — while protesting the treatment of asylum seekers.

“It was really tough to coordinate the traditional posada song,” said Adam Estle, a participant at the service and director of field and constituencies for the National Immigration Forum. “Being so far apart — it was really difficult to actually do that in any sort of synchronization.”

Not nearly so visible was the presence of more than 150 Christians — primarily evangelicals — who joined the gathering as part of a delegation organized by the Global Immersion Project and National Immigration Forum, flooding the ranks of attendees on both sides of the border fence.

The Christian contingent encapsulated how the political debates about U.S. border policy have engaged faith groups in 2018. The widespread pushback to the use of tear gas against asylum seekers in a Central American migrant caravan, the separation of migrant families and calls to build a new border wall have moved religious Americans to come to the border — some to learn about the issues, others to express solidarity with immigrants.

Estle’s delegation, which organizers said included evangelical business leaders and nonprofit executives, crossed the border into Tijuana, Mexico, where the group visited churches currently housing members of the caravan, met with city officials and heard lectures on the history of Central America and current U.S. immigration policy.

In California, a group of clergy has teamed with labor unions to organize a one-day “Faith Caravan” on Dec. 22 that will bus around 100 fellow clergy, local politicians, lawyers and medical professionals from Los Angeles into Tijuana. Once there, they plan to provide legal counsel and health screenings for caravan members seeking asylum in the United States and participate in an interfaith prayer service.

The “Faith Caravan” follows in the footsteps of religious groups such as World Relief, an evangelical Christian organization that sent some of its legal services staff to Tijuana to assist those seeking asylum.

“The welfare of what the Bible calls ‘aliens’ is an essential part of the Judeo-Christian tradition,” said the Rev. Frank Alton, an Episcopal priest and one of the organizers of the trip. He added that he saw Christmas as a spiritually appropriate time for the trip.

“‘No room at the inn’ is such a perfect image (for this issue), a religious image, a theological image in the broader sense,” he said.

Border police arrest clergy and other protesters at a rally on the American side of the U.S.-Mexico border in Southern California on Dec. 10, 2018. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres

Other faith-based organizations are hosting events closer to those making decisions about the border. On Dec. 18, the Christian social justice group Sojourners and several other groups performed a posada procession in Washington, D.C.

“Joseph and his family were strangers in their ancestral land,” Sandra Ovalle, Sojourners’ immigration campaigns coordinator, said at a press conference for the posada. “Posada invites us to re-examine our posture toward those who are looking for a place to rest, and they remind us today of the Central American migrants who find themselves estranged in their ancestral lands. We are invited to examine our posture of welcome as they make their way.”

Ovalle and others called for faster processing of asylum interviews at the border, alternatives to detention and comprehensive immigration reform legislation.

This past week, two faith groups — Church World Service and the Justice for Muslims Collective — convened a vigil outside the offices of Customs and Border Protection to commemorate 7-year-old migrant Jakelin Caal Maquín, who died in CBP custody Dec. 13 due to dehydration and shock.

But faith leaders continue to stream to the border region, urged by their consciences or bent on stirring the consciences of their fellow Americans.

U.S. law enforcement personnel patrol the American side of the U.S.-Mexico border as people protest in the distance in Southern California on Dec. 10, 2018. RNS photo by Jair Cabrera Torres

Rabbi Charles Arian, head of the Kehilat Shalom synagogue in Gaithersburg, Md., organized a group of 10 people — mostly rabbis — to the region in mid-December through the Kino Border Initiative, a Catholic organization that allows participants to learn more about immigration by providing assistance and ministry to migrants on both sides of the border.

Arian said he put out a call for companions on a border trip earlier this year, after news broke that the Trump administration was separating migrant families along the border. He acknowledged that the ongoing situation with the caravan added another layer of relevancy to the trip, but insisted it was about education, not activism.

Still, he stressed the importance of sending faith leaders to observe the situation, including rabbis like himself.

“The commandment in the Torah that is most repeated is to ‘remember the stranger’ and ‘remember that you were slaves in Egypt,’” he said. “That’s repeated 36 times.”

He and his fellow participants met with immigrants during their stay and witnessed rapid-fire trials for migrants charged with misdemeanors for crossing the border illegally — a result of the Trump administration’s “no tolerance” policy. Arian expressed frustration with the system, saying the judge he observed did his best to treat immigrants humanely but was nonetheless caught up in a “machinery of injustice.”

“I think the slogans of the left and the right don’t appreciate the complexity” of the border situation, he said. “The only way it’s ever going to be fixed is if everybody sets aside ideology.”

Emily McFarlan Miller contributed to this report.

About the author

Jack Jenkins

Jack Jenkins is a national reporter for RNS based in Washington, covering U.S. Catholics and the intersection of religion and politics.

93 Comments

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  • Faith groups should show their compassion by helping people in their home countries with their money rather than advocating for illegal migration using tax payers money to support people who become essentially wards of the state the minute one foot steps on US soil.

  • How do you propose the faith groups use their money to end the violence perpetrated on these folks in their home countries by gangs and drug cartels?

  • By moving there, becoming citizens, and voting in their elections.

    Conversely they could lobby the American government to invade these home countries, establish military occupation governments, and engage in nation-building by arresting and executing drug cartels, right-wing death squads, left-wing death squads, putting in place the American Constitution and governmental institutions in suitable translations, and turning the countries back over to the local populace in a couple of generations.

  • US interference in those countries is what put them in the mess that they are in today, not their cultures.

  • “ … the use of tear gas against [thugs using women and children as cover while assaulting border agents with rocks and bottles] …”

    Fixed that.

  • Exactly!! US support for dictators in Central America prevented democratic institutions from taking hold in many of those countries.

  • As soon as Mexico sends the check, these sort of anti-American gatherings won’t be occurring anymore. The final stage in the negotiation for the check is underway, and the only thing left to be determined is whether the check is made out to the US Treasury or directly to the Godly Trump. Since both Russia and Saudi Arabia made out their checks directly to the Godly Trump, it is likely that Mexico will do the same.

  • Of course a lot of money could be saved, and lives saved as well, if we just mined the first 400 yards north of border from the Pacific to the Gulf.

  • I agree that the United States has not helped.
    That being said, Central America is known for its banana republics, dictators and despots.
    Add to that, it’s corruption among the people and institutions makes life challenging.
    That is what should NOT be brought to the United States.

  • Then perhaps look into the lives and conduct of the majority of Latino immigrants in the US and stop making assumptions about us.

  • Yep. Same terrorist tactics used against Israel and troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    You really have to wonder what kind of people would place their children in harms way for their politics.

  • “its corruption among the people and institutions makes life challenging. That is what should NOT be brought to the United States”

    Exactly. That is why it was so important not to let any Italians or Irish in. If they had gotten in, there is no telling how badly they would have corrupted our people and our institutions. Of course, one of the Paddy’s did slip through, and now he is corrupting our Supreme Court.

  • It is our land so why don’t we have our own wall. So simple. Then we just open gate to invade.

  • Typical thoughtless comment from you. Although you reinforce my statement.
    Both Italy and Ireland seem to have long standing institutions which support its government and a stable society.
    A college professor once said that integrity of ones institutions is what matters.

  • ….Except that the liberal, open-borders “faith groups” in this article, are indeed “advocating for illegal migration.”

    Once the caravan gang publicly refused Mexico’s astonishing offer to take them ALL in — with flat-out shelter, provisions, and even jobs — it became absolutely clear that this was a political caravan aimed solely at Trump. A calculated, leftist, political caravan that uses the women and babies as human media shields.

    Good luck getting the liberal faith groups to publicly discuss THAT part of the show.

  • No, the dictator-wannabe served two terms and his anointed successor to be Queen lost the 2016 election.

  • Except, of course, the faith groups, a goodly portion of the Democratic Party, Spuddie, and a number of commenters at RNS.

  • It’s a complete exaggeration. Aren’t you allegedly in a “faith group”? Doesn’t your bible teach you to “welcome the stranger in your midst”? I guess you want to see papers first, since that’s more important than humanity.

  • Don’t forget that Russia contributed as well.
    However, the dictatorships existed well before the US and Russia got involved in foreign actions.
    Almost seems as if parts of the world are incapable of self government.

  • Assumptions about who?
    We seemed to be talking about the lack of an ability to self rule of Central American countries.
    The Europeans and US seem to be able to do it just fine.
    What’s the difference?
    Maybe you could enlighten the board.

  • In order to be in my midst, the stranger needs to get there legally.

    If the stranger has arrived by breaking the law, there is a problem.

  • It is more likely that the hopefuls preferred the US economic opportunities compared to Mexico. Similar to the experiences of the immigrants to Europe a couple years back who went out of their way to get to Germany and Scandinavia due to better economic prospects.

  • “Almost seems as if parts of the world are incapable of self-government.”

    That really does appear to be the case. Yet interestingly, democracy is still hypocritically held as the standard. Many dictators claim to the legitimately elected will-of-the-people.

  • Whether or not the person is here legally, they are already in your midst. Start praying for forgiveness.

  • We arrest and try every other criminal, or do you have an axe to grind against law in general and enforcing laws?

  • Start being an authentic Christian.

    Jesus never placed the law before human beings. He was criticized for welcoming Samaritans and fraternizing with those regarded as being outside the law. Actions are louder than words. Your words won’t get you into heaven.

  • “Start being an authentic Christian.”

    You wouldn’t know an authentic Christian if one sat on you.

  • How could that be, since I’ve never claimed to be a Christian? The fake Christians elbow their way to the front seats of the synagogue, loudly proclaiming their orthodoxy and condemning others. Jesus had words for those people.

  • “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19: 33-34)

    Oh, well.

  • So, ANOTHER topic you know nothing about on which you wish to pontificate?

    You’ve got the proclaiming and condemning down pat.

    Christians render to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.

  • >>more than 30 religious leaders were arrested along the border <>others to express solidarity with immigrants.<> participate in an interfaith prayer service<<
    THE most important thing that can be done, seeking God's counsel on the matter

  • We’ve done that for decades……except we supported right-wing despots with their death squads. Our drug laws enrich drug cartels. We have contributed mightily to the chaos in Central America.

    But, blame those who suffer most.

  • Closing the border and enforcing the drug laws would conclude the drug cartels.

    No, the problems in South and Central America predate any American involvement:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guatemala#Independence_and_the_19th_century_%281821%E2%80%931847%29

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicaragua#Independence_%281821%29

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Salvador#Independence_%281821%29

    Each quickly devolved into oligarchies, dictatorships, and civil war long long before the United States became a world power.

    It is the obligation of those who live in those countries to remedy their problems.

  • No, they had autocratic governments and poor and poorly educated masses in the 18th century. After independence they had a series of dictators, oligarchs, and generalissimos who took the place of the foreign autocrats from circa 1820 on.

    All this occurred LONG before the US was a world power, which took place in the very late 19th century.

    The U.S., on the other hand, had a generally literate population, from countries such as the UK where there was a history of civilian government and respect for the law, and a disdain for aristocrats and potentates.

    Parker12 is correct – our culture supports our government.

  • So it’s a racial thing. The white race from Europe is superior and had a right to its conquest of the poor, stupid, uneducated indigenous masses. In Central and South America starting with the predecessors of the United Fruit Company soon after the locals got rid of the Spanish rule.

  • I used to believe that we were in conversation with at least a minimal Christian here for your part. I was mistaken.

  • It is certainly a cultural thing.

    The period from about 1820 to 1899, the year the United Fruit Company was formed, was rife with dictators, unrest, civil war, and martial law sans any American involvement at all.

    I had not thought of it as racial, and as a North American you may not be qualified to make that argument, but I will listen to it if you make it.

    The myth that it was all the Americans’ fault is the late 20th century invention to replace Kiping’s “The White Man’s Burden” with a new myth, “The White Man’s Fault”.

    It is was and is not.

  • Everything is Gods you fake Christian. Praise the Lord Praise THE Lord

    PRAISE YE THE LORD OR BURN IN HELL

  • Leviticus 19: 33-34 is NOT a reference to illegal immigration.

    It might be cited to support aiding new immigrants who have arrived in the USA legally.

  • The solution, of course, is to remove any “economic opportunities” for illegal entry into the United States.

  • Do you always look at elements of faith and charity through the lens of law enforcement? How special! What a big heart — the heart of a Pharisee.

  • First, you ducked my post about Mexico’s amazing (and charitable!) humanitarian offer that got **trashed** by the caravan gang. NOW, you’re ducking Mark’s rebuttal about the Bible verse you chose to bring up.

    You have mis-applied the Leviticus 19 text, but Mark has applied it accurately.

  • Maybe you could learn something from the Mexicans.

    Yes, *those people* — the “caravan gang” are such evil jerks. Merry Xmas, loser.

  • Merry Christmas to you as well! (And I’m being sincere, yes.) But in the meantime….

    “Caring for the poor, orphans, and widows is something the Bible commands us to do (Galatians 2:10; James 1:27; 2:2–15). However, the biblical fact that we are to care for the unfortunate does not mean we should violate the law in doing so (Romans 13:1-7).
    Supporting, enabling, and/or encouraging illegal immigration is, therefore, a violation of God’s Word. Those seeking to emigrate to another country should always obey the immigration laws of that country. While this may cause delays and frustrations, it is better than acting illegally.”

    — GotQuestions.org, “What Does the Bible say about Illegal Immigration?”

  • Right-wing “Christian” propaganda. There are no such directives in the bible. Your fundamentalist source is a joke. You’re inserting your prejudice into the bible, all to suit your political agenda. To use what you consider “sacred” writings in such a way is obscene and a violation of sacred norms.

  • You even sound like a Pharisee. I don’t have to demonstrate I’m Christian — because I don’t claim to be.

  • Let’s see – I sound like a Pharisee, you sound like an id-ot.

    Apparently I got the better deal.

    Just to be clear, disagreeing with you, the zany Democrats, and “faith groups” who take as their Scriptures the platform of the Democratic Party does NOT render one a Pharisee.

  • If business owners and private citizens obeyed the law and did not hire illegals (includes validating any documents they present), we would have less of a problem. If Americans stopped using drugs the illegal traffic and violence around the border would decrease. If bull frogs had wings, they’d fly.

  • Review the Scriptures. What makes you a Pharisee is your insistence of the law over charity to other human beings. But you don’t get that.

  • Jesus did not come to negate laws.

    He came to fulfill the Law.

    Laws are for human beings, a creature who lives in societies, in order that people have a just and orderly society.

    Illegal immigration is theft.

    Every zany out there who doesn’t like a law, be it a law of God or a law of Man, calls those who observe the law “Pharisees”.

    But the Pharisees did NOT observe the law.

    Therefore, the epithet “Pharisee” is genuinely meaningless.

  • Jesus said NOTHING about “illegal immigration”. You’re a crappy human being.I sincerely hope that someday, you will find it necessary to trudge hundreds of miles on foot to find a better life, and get tear-gassed along the way. Wouldn’t that be so special for you? Merry Christmas, Pharisee.

  • “….you neglect the more important matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” -Matthew 23:23

  • Justice requires that potential immigrants follow the laws relative to immigration.

    No, the Platform of the Democratic Party is NOT a Sacred Text.

    No, your particular wishes and inclinations oblige no one else.

  • Ranting is not helping you build your case.

    Unless you and/or the Democratic Party has some ownership on the Holy Spirit, the “mercy and faithfulness” spiel is propaganda.

    Next you’ll be advocating hold-ups of banks.

  • No, you’re advocating:

    – lawbreaking

    – giving away things to which you have not title

    – advancing the agenda of the Democratic Party

    – and, to this point, nothing about empathy or charity.

  • Laugh at this:

    “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19: 33-34)

    You will note that nowhere in this directive does it say to check for his or her papers first before loving him or her as yourself.

  • Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!!!

    The stranger sojourning did not enter his land illegally.

    Trying to puff up what is at best a misguided open borders policy and at worst outright stupidity with a mantle of Scripture quotations and some pablum about being a Christian is silliness.

  • Thus, you’re a really crappy human being. My comments have nothing to do with “policy”. They have to do with basic human empathy and kindness, of which you are obviously bereft.

  • Somehow it seems unlikely that disagreeing with you constitutes being “a really crappy human being”.

    It is also obvious that everything you know topic would fit in this space: [ ]

  • “Joseph and his family were strangers in their ancestral land. Posada invites us to re-examine our posture toward those who are looking for a place to rest, and they remind us today of the Central American migrants who find themselves estranged in their ancestral lands. We are invited to examine our posture of welcome as they make their way” – Sandra Ovalle.

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