The immigration crisis unfolding on the US-Mexico border continues to dominate the news. Nearly two thousand children have been separated from their parents since a "zero tolerance" policy was adopted for those entering the US illegally.
One facility in McAllen, Texas, houses two hundred such children. According to a migrant rights worker who visited the facility, one girl "was so traumatized that she wasn't talking. She was just curled up in a little ball." A quiet boy was seen clutching a piece of paper that was a photocopy of his mother's ID card.
The head of the American Academy of Pediatrics visited a similar shelter in Texas, where she saw a toddler crying uncontrollably and pounding her little fists on a mat. She had been taken from her mother the night before and brought to the shelter.
Staff members gave her books and toys, but they weren't allowed to pick her up, hold her, or hug her to try to calm her. As a rule, staff are not allowed to touch the children in the facility.
A "zero tolerance" policy
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told reporters last night that the "vast majority" of children being held in detention facilities were sent to the US alone by their parents. She stated that this issue "has resulted after years and years of Congress not taking action." Others blame the Trump administration for the crisis.
My purpose is not to fix blame but to consider practical options. Let's begin with some history.
In 2005, President George W. Bush launched Operation Streamline, a program that referred all unlawful entrants on the border for criminal prosecution. They were imprisoned, and their trials were expedited for the purpose of deporting them. However, exceptions were generally made for adults traveling with minor children.
The Obama administration detained illegal border crossers as families together in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody rather than criminal detention.
Last month, after Homeland Security reported a 203 percent increase in illegal border crossings over the past year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a "zero tolerance" policy directing Homeland Security officials to prosecute all cases of illegal entry into the US. Few exceptions were made for parents traveling with minor children.
The administration says it must separate children from parents because of the Flores agreement, a longstanding federal court settlement that bars the government from jailing migrant children. However, critics claim that nothing legally requires migrant families to be separated while their cases are being pursued.
Federal law requires a lengthier process for those seeking asylum. The children of these adults are separated from them for a much longer time. Complicating the situation even further, some adults reportedly pose with children who are not their own. And smugglers use rented or kidnapped children as cover.
As noted, nearly two thousand children have been separated from their parents and placed in mass detention centers or foster care since this policy began. More than one hundred are younger than four years old.
"A country that governs with heart"
Response has been strong and emotional.
Melania Trump's office responded to the unfolding crisis: "Mrs. Trump hates to see children separated from their families and hopes both sides of the aisle can finally come together to achieve successful immigration reform. She believes we need to be a country that follows all laws, but also a country that governs with heart."
Laura Bush stated in a Washington Post op-ed: "I live in a border state. I appreciate the need to enforce and protect our international boundaries, but this zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. And it breaks my heart."
In an interview with Christian Broadcasting Network, Franklin Graham said of the border crisis: "I think it's disgraceful, it's terrible, to see families ripped apart, and I don't support that one bit. And I blame the politicians for the last twenty, thirty years that have allowed this to escalate to the point where it is today."
What does the Bible say?
God's word calls us to obey the government: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities" (Romans 13:1). Border security is biblical: "When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples" (Deuteronomy 32:8). We are warned, "Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set" (Proverbs 22:28; 23:10).
At the same time, Scripture commands us: "You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him" (Exodus 22:21). The Bible says that God "loves the sojourner" (Deuteronomy 10:18) and instructs us: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers" (Hebrews 13:2).
The issue becomes even more complex when children are involved. Jesus said of them, "to such belongs the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:14). The Bible calls children "a heritage from the Lord" (Psalm 127:3).
Three options and my response
This is obviously a very complex issue without simple answers, but there seem to be three basic alternatives.
One: The government could choose not to prosecute illegal immigrants with children. However, we are a nation of laws. And we do not want to escalate the number of families attempting to enter the US illegally.
Two: The government could incarcerate and prosecute all parents who are illegal immigrants while placing their children in separate facilities (the current policy).
Three: The government could prosecute all illegal immigrants but keep families together in temporary shelters while their cases are pending, an approach Sen. Ted Cruz and other senators are supporting. Manpower could be increased to process immigrants as quickly as possible; asylum cases could be expedited.
According to the biblical worldview, when we are forced to choose between options, choose life.
Jesus taught us, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27). We are a nation of laws, but our laws are intended to serve our people.
No law should victimize the innocent, especially children. Laura Bush concluded her op-ed: "In 2018, can we not as a nation find a kinder, more compassionate and more moral answer to this current crisis? I, for one, believe we can."
I am praying she's right.