After a 16-year-old boy witnessed a gang member murder another young man, gang members came to his aunt’s store where he worked, threatened him and ordered the store closed. Later, another family member was beaten. All of this left the boy scared to leave his house, even to go to school.
Identified as “J.B.B.C.” in U.S. federal court documents, the boy came to the U.S.-Mexico border in June and asked for asylum, or safe refuge. Having traveled from his home in Honduras, he hoped to join his father, already in the U.S. with a pending asylum case.
Most children seeking safety at the U.S.-Mexico border today are immediately returned to Mexico or sent back to Central America. Immigration officials, citing COVID-19 as justification, have essentially closed the border to those seeking refuge (though cross- border travel for work, school and commerce is allowed). J.B.B.C. would have been removed from the U.S. as well, had a federal judge not intervened. The judge stopped the boy’s removal, noting it would likely violate asylum law and an anti-trafficking law designed to protect children traveling alone.
U.S. and international law recognize the right for people fleeing harm to request asylum. Such laws arose in the aftermath of the Holocaust, recognizing that thousands of people perished after countries refused to give safe refuge.
Since 2017, however, the current administration has sought to “crack down” on asylum seekers to prevent fraud. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, a series of policies slowed and blocked entry to nearly all asylum seekers.
Preventing fraud is a worthy goal, but there is already a legal process to do just that. Every asylum seeker must argue his or her case in court. In order to prevent a small number of people from making false claims, immigration officials are turning away countless more with legitimate fears of violence and persecution, sending them back into dangerous situations.
The ancestors of many Anabaptists who live in the U.S. today fled persecution and violence in Europe. These immigrants did not have to prove to a judge someone was trying to harm them. They did not have to spend months or years in a detention center waiting for their day in court.
Heb. 13:2 instructs Jesus’ followers to show hospitality to strangers. The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenos, which means love for the stranger. Hospitality was considered a key characteristic of early Christian communities. Philoxenos is in stark contrast to another word with the same root, xenos. Xenophobia is fear of the stranger. As Christians, we are encouraged to turn away from fear to love.
We have nothing to fear and everything to gain by welcoming asylum seekers. Providing safe refuge is a win-win. People find safety while also contributing much to their new communities — just as early Anabaptists did.
A number of bills in Congress would restore protections for asylum seekers, including the Refugee Protection Act and the Asylum Seeker Protection Act. Urge your members of Congress to support these bills. You can find resources to learn more about asylum at mcc.org/safe-refuge, including short videos, fact sheets and worship resources.
Even during COVID-19, asylum seekers can and should be safely brought into the U.S. by following internationally recognized procedures. Violence and political persecution do not stop for a pandemic. Neither should our commitment to protect those fleeing harm.
Tammy Alexander is senior legislative associate in the Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington Office.