Congregations seek to protect families impacted by recent federal raids
By Rick Jones | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE – As the U.S. debates the moral and legal ramifications of federal raids on illegal immigrants, the United Nations Refugee Agency will commemorate World Refugee Day on Wednesday, June 20. The event began in 2000 to raise awareness on the global responsibility for refugees.
While the global recognition is less than 20 years old, the integration of immigrants and refugees into U.S. society has been a part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) platform for decades.
“I think for Presbyterians, it really is central to our understanding of the gospel. There are 92 times that Scripture reminds us of our responsibility to welcome and love our neighbors,” said Susan Krehbiel, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance associate for refugees and asylum. “I think World Refugee Day has become a moment for us to recognize refugees that we have welcomed throughout our church history as well as reaffirming our commitment to welcome those whose lives are still at risk.”
In 2015, former Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons launched the rallying call of #WeChooseWelcome as a commitment to welcoming refugees from different nationalities and faiths in response to growing anti-refugee and anti-Muslim sentiments.
Since President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, the U.S. government has ratcheted up its commitment to round up undocumented individuals for immigration violations. Krehbiel says it’s the church’s responsibility to hold government leaders accountable to humanitarian commitments.
“I think in 2018, we must remind leaders of our historical role in our country, to be a beacon of welcome at a time when our government is attacking humanitarian policies and creating new policies and procedures that actually block people from being rescued and finding a safe place to live,” she said. “We want our government to change its direction for the good of all people. How we enforce our immigration policies matter. How we treat our immigration neighbors, church members and family matters.”
In recent weeks, First Presbyterian Church of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, found itself on the front lines of the dispute when 32 men were arrested at their workplace for alleged administrative immigration violations. Agents with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations and deportation officers with Immigration and Customs Enforcement took the men into custody and removed them from the business during the raid.
First Presbyterian’s pastor, the Rev. Trey Hegar, says the church, as well as the community, has a long history of helping immigrants and refugees resettle.
“About 40 years ago, during the Vietnam War, families from Laos and Cambodia came to the U.S. as part of a refugee resettlement process. Our congregation was very involved in helping to resettle families here,” he said. “As a result, Mount Pleasant has quite a large refugee population that has entered their third generation. Grandkids are now a part of the effort.”
First Presbyterian became a hub of activity in mid-May as immigrant family members gathered with church and community activists to begin work on a plan of action.
“Because of the relationships we had already built in the community, the families and community leaders and organizations across the state knew of our presence. The church was opened, and scared families huddled here,” said Hegar. “We had immigration and civil rights attorneys on hand to help agencies and immigration groups. We knew a lot of the impacted families because of the church’s potluck dinners and other social gatherings. We had taken part in community bridge building. The families felt very safe having a place to come and meet.”
Hegar says that during immigration raids, there is no legal precedent about what should happen to the children left behind.
“Literally, anyone can just walk up and take them to the foster care system. If the church or another organization has prior permission, they can be placed under the care of another organization,” he said. “Members of a community task force are on the school board or are teachers, so they wanted to be ready for that.”
Hegar says the community has its own support network and many agencies use the church to meet with families, distribute goods and help with rent and utilities. “One of the men detained coaches little league soccer and a lady in our church was very hurt by his arrest because he coaches four of her grandchildren.”
Krehbiel says she’s encouraged by what she’s seeing in churches like First Presbyterian in Mount Pleasant.
“We are seeing more and more people speak out in favor of humanitarian principles and asking how they can help, and being creative in their responses,” she said. “People are rejecting some of the statements that our country can’t accept people and are afraid of ‘foreigners.’ At least we hear a lot of Presbyterians rejecting that. So that’s promising.”
Krehbiel added that she’s hopeful the desire for change will continue throughout General Assembly. “I’m hoping people will find others who care about this issue and reach out and find them and that they will add their voice to those calling for our government to support refugee resettlement and asylum.”
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is able to respond to emergencies because of gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing. To support PDA’s refugee ministry in the U.S., gifts can be designated to DR000095.
You may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.