In Rare Bipartisan Outcry Against Migrant Family Separation, White Evangelicals Avoid Implicating Trump

June 24, 2018
Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions

Two months after the White House announced a new “zero-tolerance” policy for “illegal border crossings” on the Southwest Border, the Trump administration faced perhaps its most vociferous and bipartisan pushback yet. While the policy’s wording was vague, reports have indicated that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been charged with criminally detaining every person that arrives at the border—including asylum seekers, who have full legal right to present themselves at the border.

In just one month, the number of migrant children in US Department of Health and Human Services custody rose from 8,886 to 10,773. Under the White House’s new policy of subjecting every border crosser to criminal prosecution, adult migrants are being sent to federal jails while their children—some as young as 8 months old—are removed from their care and put into temporary detainment facilities with other members of their age group.

In mid-June, reporters were allowed unprecedented access to these “tender age” shelters and began to release photos and stories of children sleeping under foil blankets in cages, screaming for their parents, and crying themselves to sleep.

The stories sparked a public outcry from both sides of the political aisle, with high-profile Republicans George Will and Steve Schmidt renouncing their membership from the party in the wake of the news.

Faith leaders, too, largely joined in one voice to denounce the separation of families at the border. Religious groups issuing official statements of condemnation of the policy included the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Quaker Friends Committee on National Legislation, the Islamic Society of North America, the Jewish Orthodox Union, and the Soto Zen Buddhist Association.

In past moments of shared condemnation of White House policies, some white evangelical Christian stalwarts have often publicly defended Donald Trump and his administration’s moral leadership. In the past week, however, some of the president’s formerly unwavering Christian supporters have denounced the practice of family separation and called for immediate policy change.

The evangelical Faith and Freedom Coalition, whose founder Ralph Reed has publicly backed Trump since his election, released a statement Tuesday calling for an immediate end to the separation of children and parents at the border.

“The Bible instructs God’s people to show compassion and love for the foreigner and the immigrant,” the statement said. “Scripture combines this obligation to care for the alien with a corollary responsibility of the immigrant to obey the law and respect the customs of the nation in which he resides.”

Avid Trump supporter and evangelist Franklin Graham, too, called the current practice “disgraceful [and] terrible,” but declined to implicate the current administration, whose policy change resulted in the uptick in family separations.

“I blame politicians for the last 20, 30 years that have allowed this to escalate to the point where it is today,” Graham told CBN News.

Still other white evangelical Trump supporters have maintained that the “zero-tolerance” policy putting young children in detention centers is a lesser evil than other social and political ills. Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked the Bible passage Romans 13 to cite the inherent goodness and morality of following the law—in this case, the new policy of family separation instituted in April. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, told the Dallas Observer that, while the separation of families is “gut-wrenching,” it was “equally gut-wrenching” to hear about a child being “murdered by an illegal immigrant, being separated from her parents forever.”

Conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family, too, argued that the nation faces far more pressing issues than the removal of babies and children from their migrant parents. Quoting Planned Parenthood’s public statement lamenting family separation at the border, Focus argued that “the most dangerous place for a child to be is in the womb of a woman inside a Planned Parenthood clinic.”

While many Christians—politically conservative and otherwise—have pointed to what they understand as pervasive Biblical themes of welcoming and harboring immigrants, one group of Christians is less unequivocal. The Washington Post reports that in a January Washington Post-ABC poll, 75 percent of white evangelical Christians saw the “federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants” as positive, compared to 46 percent of U.S. adults and 25 percent of non-white Christians.

--by Caroline Matas

Image Source: Mike Pence and Jeff Sessions. Photo by Gage Skidmore, Flickr Creative Commons.