Asylum Seekers, Family Separation, and Political Order

Two weeks after Maria’s 9-year-old daughter, Esther, returned home from an errand with her face bruised and clothes torn, she and her daughter sweated profusely under the desert sun 10 miles south of the U.S. border. Esther’s beating had been the tipping point. Maria had tried to hold out. She had grown up in the town; it was her home. But the gang ranks were growing, and with larger ranks came crueler belligerence. Some in her extended family had lost children to gang violence. All had been robbed at some point or other. When Esther returned home bloodied, Maria knew it was time to escape.

Maria had heard rumors that families threatened by violence could seek asylum in the United States. She felt she and Esther had to be ideal candidates. Gangs were everywhere; her daughter had been abused; the whole town was corrupt. As she and Esther approached the border agent and nervously began answering his questions, it quickly became apparent they wouldn’t be admitted as refugees. The agent’s demeanor said it all. They were moved to several different lines until finally arriving in a large holding room. Two days later, authorities approached Maria and Esther to take Esther away. Maria was screaming too loudly for her daughter to hear the agent’s explanation.

The question before American society is whether asylum seekers like Maria should be subject to prosecution and whether prosecution should require family separation. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently defended the Justice Department’s policy of prosecuting asylum seekers and separating children from parents facing prosecution. He appealed to Romans 13, saying people should “obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes.” But this policy is morally abhorrent and, far from being justified by Scripture, is condemned by Scripture. Many Christians have objected to Sessions’s misuse of Romans 13 to support the current policy, but some still support the policy itself.

I want to address both the injustice of the separation policy and Sessions’s faulty hermeneutic.

Unjust Policy

Few civilians are in a position to verify the on-the-ground data Sessions summarized for civic leaders in Indiana last week. Few have access to concrete figures or to the evidence asylum seekers bring with them to support their plea. But we don’t need insider knowledge to question Sessions’s defense of the separation policy. He believes that the United States has maintained a de facto open borders policy for nearly a decade, and most asylum seekers’ claims of persecution are illegitimate, made in order to take advantage of America’s lax border enforcement.

But there are inconsistencies in Sessions’s account. First, he claims asylum status doesn’t apply to “those who have suffered a private act of violence.” It’s reserved only for those persecuted by the state. But this distinction is nonsense. It should be obvious that Maria and Esther’s experience, for example, is deeply, irrevocably political. It’s a crass mischaracterization to claim they were threatened and abused by a “private” gang, especially when many Central American gangs wield incredible power over local (and even national) politics. In extreme instances, gangs are the government. In any case, when children are abused, it hardly matters whether the violence was state authorized or not.

Second, the separation of children from their parents is morally reprehensible and can’t be justified on the procedural grounds Sessions cites in his address, where he claims the law “requires that children who cannot be with their parents be placed in DHS custody within 72 hours.” Is the imperative to jail parents so urgent it demands punishing both the parents and children?

Stripping children from their parents is cruel, regardless of their parents’ temporary legal status. Moreover, the United States has more than ample resources and facilities to detain or monitor immigrants without separating parents and children.

Thus, children are being taken from parents for no other (stated) reason than that the department insists on jailing immigrants and asylum seekers, and if a child is traumatized—or as we’re learning in some instances, trafficked—in order to uphold the narrow letter of the law, as far as Sessions is concerned, so be it.

Romans 13

To justify the separation policy, Sessions appeals directly to Paul’s political excursus in Romans 13:1–7. Paul explains the community is to be subject to governing authorities, for the authorities that exist are appointed by God to restrain evil and reward good. But Paul doesn’t say God appoints the laws; God appoints the authorities, who create the laws.

Therefore, we aren’t obligated to respect every law simply because an authority orders it. If the authority commands what is evil, then naturally no one should uphold it, Christians included. No one is obligated to do what is unjust. This basic idea makes nonsense of Sessions’s interpretation.

Paul concludes the section with a careful commendation: “to pay respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” The “to whom it is due” clause is crucial. It allows for the possibility that the authority might not be due honor or respect. In fact, there are clear instances in which the authority should not be honored. If Sessions’s interpretation of Romans 13 were followed, it would render even martyrdom meaningless, for if Christians were always to honor the authority’s command, they would have to forsake their faith if commanded to do so.

It’s impossible to justify separating children from parents on any scriptural grounds.

Sessions argues that God has ordained authority to establish order, but what about the familial disorder wrought by the separation policy? He believes separating children from their parents is “orderly” simply because it follows a narrowly interpreted statute, therefore the higher, moral ordering of family life is secondary or irrelevant. But according to the Christian tradition, a law that violates the moral order is intrinsically disordered and thus lacks authority. An unjust law is no law at all, Augustine said.

It’s impossible to justify separating children from parents on any scriptural grounds. Quite the contrary: Scripture resolutely condemns the policy. Those who authorize it will be judged. The only reason ever to forcibly separate a child from its parent is if a child is threatened, abused, or neglected by the parent; the intervention is to rescue. But the vast majority of asylum seekers don’t risk a border crossing with their children in order to harm them; they do it to protect them.

Love Your Neighbor

Some Christians believe that Sessions is wrong about Romans 13 but right about prosecuting immigrants: all who cross the border illegally should be prosecuted. But I’m not arguing for leniency toward all offenders or for open borders. The question before us isn’t whether wrongdoing should be prosecuted, but whether asylum-seeking counts as a criminal offense and whether families should be divided if parents are prosecuted for seeking it. Nothing requires the Justice Department to use such punitive measures. Some say harsh penalties are necessary to deter other immigrants, but damaging children in order to deter adults is cruel and unjustifiable.

The current Justice Department policy of separating children from parents is evil.

The current Justice Department policy of separating children from parents is evil, and Christians who accept the command of Jesus to love God and neighbor should cease defending the policy and instead speak out on behalf of abused immigrants. Brothers and sisters, these are young children! Children. Snatched away from their parents, detained, and relocated—dehumanized to make a political point. Write and call your representative. Reach out to local Hispanic communities to ask what you can do. Demonstrate. Pray. And remember, “he who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (Jas. 4:17).


Editors’ note: For more context, see Joe Carter’s explainer piece.

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