Rev. Jimmie Hawkins on the Inhumane Practice of Family Separation at the Border

A message from Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, Director, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of Public Witness

May 31, 2018

“And they were bringing children to Him so that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, ‘Permit the children to come to Me; do not hinder them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all.’ And He took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands on them.”

Mark 10:13-16 (Matthew 19:13-14; Luke 18:15-17) 

According to all four gospels, children held a special place in the life and ministry of Jesus. Again and again, Jesus responded to the requests for healing of the ills of children by touching them with a healing touch. One can never forget the tender way he “took them in His arms and began blessing them, laying His hands on them.” Our faith teaches us that one of our paramount responsibilities as a Christian is to nurture and protect them. Psalm 127:3 reads, “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward.” It arises the anger of God when societies do not protect their children regardless of their race, nationality, class or gender. The above gospel of Mark says that Jesus became “indignant” (outraged, incensed, annoyed and vexed) when the children were turned away. It breaks the heart of God when God’s children are harmed.

Indeed, in this very political moment, children and their families are being harmed by a cruel and unjust immigration system. In the past months, we’ve seen an expansion in the number of families who are separated upon entry to the country, new facilities built to incarcerate and detain children, the murder of 19 year old Mayan woman, Claudia Gonzales by Border Patrol last week, and the escalating language the President has used to equate all immigrants with gang members and gang members with animals (read the Stated Clerk and the National Latinx/Hispanic Caucus’ joint statement on the issue HERE).

The conversation about separating families and “missing children” at the border should command the attention of all people of faith, and requires some discernment and critical thinking. On May 7, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” policy towards border crossers apprehended between ports of entry. Under the policy, border officials with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) are to refer every individual apprehended near the border who did not present at an official port of entry to the Justice Department (DOJ) for criminal prosecution for illegal entry or illegal re-entry. This is a horrific extension of deportation trends that were already in place during the Obama administration. ICE is currently experiencing a shortage of facilities where they can house children, and has entered into new contracts with private prison companies to expand that capacity. We were recently devastated to see a press release from one of those private prison companies, GEO Group, cheerfully announcing that they now have prison busses outfitted with car seats.

This policy is being enacted on people who wish to cross the border and apply for asylum status because they are fleeing violence. Applying to be a refugee while outside of the United States and applying for asylum status within the United States, are equally lawful avenues for seeking protection in the U.S. The U.S., as a party to the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees ( cannot penalize a person for illegal entry if they are seeking refugee status, expel a refugee or return a refugee to the country wherein their life is threatened.

The popular narrative that “ICE has lost 1500 children” requires more inquiry, and is a different matter than the policy of separating families when they arrive at the border. Once in custody, unaccompanied children are screened for protection concerns and are eventually reunited with sponsors in the community, which can take 4-5 months. On April 26, 2018, an official with ORR–the office responsible for the care and custody of unaccompanied children, including children who may have been separated from their parents at the border – testified that in its follow-up calls between October and December 2017 to more than 7,600 sponsors with whom children had been placed, the agency could not determine the whereabouts of 1,475 children. This does not mean that the children were lost while in government custody, but rather, that the government could not confirm their whereabouts by phone during the period in which the calls were placed. It is by and large much better for children to be in custody of family or friends than in state custody, and families may have many reasons for not wanting to return calls from government officials.

As people of faith, we must stay focused on policy that promotes family unity and reunification and halt the use of family separation as a deterrent.  It is of vital importance that we create a world wherein children are provided with every opportunity to grow into spiritually, emotionally and mentally healthy people. The pain of being separated from a parent can cause immeasurable and long-term harm to the emotional and mental well-being of a child. We call ourselves the children of God.

What can we do to re-unite separated families?

A Prayer for the Separated Families at the U.S. Border

Reconciling and redeeming God,

we pray for children and families

separated at the U.S. border.

Protect those who are vulnerable,

deliver those who are in danger,

and encourage those who are afraid.

Change the hearts and minds of those

who establish these cruel policies.

Give wisdom and compassion to those

who are called to implement them.

Help us, in our words and actions,

proclaim this good news to all:

that nothing in life or in death

can separate us from your love

in Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen. 

Written by David Gambrell, Associate for Theology, Formation & Evangelism (PCUSA) on June 1, 2018.




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