As families seeking asylum in the United States come face to face with the nightmare of being separated from their children, many United Methodists are crying out to stop this new "zero tolerance" policy.
In announcing the new policy in May, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, "If you are smuggling a child, then we will prosecute you and that child will be separated from you as required by law. If you don't like that, then don't smuggle children over our border."
On June 9, the Rio Texas Conference approved a resolution requesting the Justice Department "immediately discontinue separating children from their families due to the 'zero tolerance' policy."
The resolution described the separations as "child abuse, harassment and discrimination" and called them a violation of international law.
A number of attorneys say that blocking people seeking safety in the U.S. violates both U.S. and international human-rights law, which together hold that asylum seekers cannot be sent back to countries where they are likely to be tortured or killed.
The Rio Texas Conference, the resolution noted, has within its borders some of the detention centers used by authorities in carrying out the tough enforcement policy.
The resolution had not been on the conference agenda. But after a group of Rio Texas clergy and laity quickly collected about 600 delegate signatures in support of the resolution, the conference voted by more than two-thirds to suspend the rules and consider the resolution.
It passed overwhelmingly, without debate.
WHAT DOES THE CHURCH SAY?
In its Social Principles, The United Methodist Church recognizes all people, regardless of country of origin, as members of the family of God and opposes policies that separate family members from each other.
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"The detentions are occurring in our own backyard," said Dionisio Salazar, a member of Parker Lane United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, and a leader of the resolution effort. "We felt it was important for the conference to take a stand on this, and we're very pleased with the outcome. … Hopefully, it will be a motivation for more of our churches to be involved in this issue."
National Public Radio recently reported about three young Guatemalan women who were on trial at the federal courthouse in Alpine, Texas, about 70 miles from the spot where they waded across the Rio Grande with their 8- and 9-year-old sons.
Agents booked the mothers and took their children away to a shelter in New York City. The mothers asked for and got a trial to explain their cases and plead for getting their children back.
When the judge found them guilty of illegal entry, the women were moved to an immigration cell under the new policy. It is uncertain if or when they will be reunited with their young sons, according to the news report.
The majority of these families are fleeing violence and seeking asylum in the U.S., said Rob Rutland-Brown, top executive for National Justice for Our Neighbors, a United Methodist immigration ministry.
"As a father, I cannot imagine the anguish parents must feel at having their child forcibly taken from them, with no knowledge of where they are being taken and no reunion in sight," Rutland-Brown said.
"Social workers assigned to care for separated children have reported that younger children are suffering from severe trauma due to these separations," he added.
Rutland-Brown sent a message on June 1 appealing for tax-free donations that will allow the Justice for Our Neighbors network to offer immigration legal services to separated families.
Terry Jenkins, a member of Virginia Beach United Methodist Church, a psychologist and retired director of human services for the city of Virginia Beach also knows about the years of trauma these children are facing.
During her work with human services she said "despite the best efforts of other family members and foster care parents, significant emotional damage was often apparent in these children for years to come."
She said young adults who have aged out of foster care often blame themselves for their removal from their parents. She said they often asked, "What's wrong with me that my parents didn't want me?"
"As I considered the number of children impacted by our immigration policy," she said, "I wondered how many will also ask, 'What's wrong with me?'"
The United Methodist Council of Bishops joined with other faith leaders in asking the U.S. government to stop separating immigrant families.
"Tearing children away from parents who have made a dangerous journey to provide a safe and sufficient life for them is unnecessarily cruel and detrimental to the well-being of parents and children," the statement emphasizes.
United Methodist Women have signed on to the "Women of Faith Cry Out to Keep Families Together" letter to U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kristjen Nielsen calling for an end to this practice.
"We know the harm we are doing to children with this policy, which makes this deliberate separating of children from their parents for the intent of punishing the family particularly vile. This must stop now," in a statement from United Methodist Women.
"We call on the U.S. Justice Department to do right by the immigrant children on our borders — surely among the weakest and most vulnerable among us — and immediately end the policy of separating children from their families."
The United Methodist Board of Church and Society urges people to speak out by calling their members of Congress, writing an op-ed piece or connecting with local immigrant advocacy and support networks. Members of the community can also reach out to immigrants on the front lines of these traumas, said the Rev. Jeania Ree V. Moore, director of civil and human rights, United Methodist Board of Church and Society.
She urged people to look for legislation that will be coming to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives soon related to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA/Dreamers) and legislation focused on protecting immigrant families.
"The United Methodist Church has long been engaged in the work of welcoming immigrants and refugees to the U.S. … The newer cruel and inhumane immigration tactic of separating children from a parent when the parent is charged with the misdemeanor crime of illegal entry, appears to be yet another tool to inflict harm and discourage immigration to the U.S.," said Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño, episcopal leader of the California-Nevada Conference.
"These are concerns that must be addressed, but they are best addressed through the complete dismantling of a broken immigration system fueled by racism and xenophobia that makes of children acceptable collateral damage," she said.
Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.