Reckoning with the children on our doorstep

When unaccompanied children show up at our front door, the Jesus question gets really simple.

By Alan Bean

What do we do with the unaccompanied children, some say as many as 100,000, who have surrendered to American border officials in the last few months?

Barack Obama speaks of a humanitarian crisis but thinks fast-track deportation is the answer.

Our arbitrary and capricious immigration laws are a big part of the problem. If these children were from Cuba, they would be put on a fast-track to citizenship. If they were from Mexico, they would be immediately deported.

But these kids are primarily from three countries: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and a Bush-era law demands that border officials behave “in the best interest of the child,” which normally means placing them with family members in the United States pending an immigration hearing. If there is no family, the Bush doctrine placed the children in foster homes.

These common sense procedures were designed to assure that the unaccompanied children who come to America aren’t victims of trafficking.

But the sheer number of children, many of them girls under 13, has simply overwhelmed the immigration infrastructure. So the youngsters from Central America are now being warehoused in grossly overcrowded shelters. It can take a year to schedule an immigration hearing, and that was before the amazing uptick in child immigration from Central America began in earnest this past October.

The Obama administration is looking for ways to override the compassionate regulations passed in simpler times. The president wants to ensure that children who qualify as legitimate refugees are allowed to remain in the country; but how do we make that call without incurring additional delays?

Most observers agree that the rise of violent gangs is a major factor driving the exodus of children from Central America. A quick glance at international “intentional homicide” rates tells you everything you have to know about this phenomenon.

In the United States, 4.8 people per 100,000 population are murdered in an average year. That’s high. Really high. In Canada, the figure is 1.6 per 100,000. In the United Kingdom it is 1.0. An intentional homicide rate of 4.8 may be shockingly high by conventional standards, but in Guatemala the rate is 39.9, in El Salvador it’s 41.2 and in Honduras, the most violent nation on the face of the earth, it’s a jaw-dropping 90.4 — almost 20 times the American rate.

Consider what would make you send your 10-year-old daughter on a dangerous trek across Central America and Mexico knowing that physical and sexual assault would likely be part of the ordeal? Only a desperate family pressed to the utter brink would make that kind of decision.

In other words, every unaccompanied child languishing in American detention shelters qualifies as a refugee, no matter how the definition is drawn.

Religious commitment seems to have little influence on how we respond to the immigration crisis. According to a recent Pew poll, 43 percent of the religiously unaffiliated agree with the current policy of mass deportation while 48 percent oppose it. The only religious constituencies showing more compassion than the “nones” are Hispanic Catholics (59 percent of whom oppose mass deportation), and African-American Protestants (46 percent).

Only 41 percent of white evangelicals oppose the policy of mass deportation and the white mainline is only slightly more compassionate at 42 percent.

How would Jesus deal with these unaccompanied children? To ask the question is to answer it.

But is this the right question? Jesus went to his cross because he refused to conform to the harsh dictates of conventional morality, a path few politicians seem eager to follow. You get elected by adapting to public sentiment, not challenging it; and that makes the kingdom ethics of Jesus an annoying irrelevance for pundits and politicians.

Nonetheless, the role of Christians is to speak for Jesus — full stop. It can sometimes be hard to know what Jesus would do, or precisely how we should speak in his name. But when unaccompanied children show up at our front door, the Jesus question gets really simple.

We should welcome these children into our country, our homes and our churches without reservation.

But what about national sovereignty?

What about it? Do national boundaries trump the teaching of Holy Scripture from cover to cover? If you have no allegiance to the Christian Bible, or to the man at the center of the story, it matters little what the Good Book says. But Christians don’t have the luxury of disagreeing with their Master.

But don’t we believe, deep in our hearts, that being born in the United States of America gives us a seat in the lifeboat-of-the-elect and gives us the right to knock the undeserving “illegals” back into the shark-infested waters with the precious oar of citizenship? And don’t we believe that Jesus signs off on our special status?

We must reckon with the enormous gulf separating out lifeboat ethics from the compassionate heart of our Savior. We disagree with Jesus and we don’t seem to care because, well, we have so much pious company.

We are ardent consumers and there is no natural limit to our desires. We will always need more of everything. There can never be enough to go around. So the kids on our doorstep must go back to their gang-infested communities where rape, extortion and murder have become a way of life. If we give them the security and opportunity they crave, there might not be enough for us. We can’t give everybody a place in our American lifeboat.

Now hear the good news. In the Kingdom of God there is always a little more room in the inn, just enough space for one more bed, one more squeeze of toothpaste, one more ladle of stew. The spirit of scarcity can surrender to a spirit of exuberant abundance. Jesus said so, and what he has bound in heaven is bound on earth:

“Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (Luke 6:38).

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.