What just happened?
Over the past six weeks, immigration officials have separated hundreds of migrant families who have either crossed into the United States illegally or have sought political asylum.
A change in immigration policy by the Trump administration is resulting in thousands of children being housed separately from their parents as they await adjudication. The children are being kept in separate facilities and are unable to see their parents for an indefinite period of time.
What is the policy causing the separation?
Until recently, families apprehended at the border were released together and sent back to their home country. Families were typically only separated if the parents were charged with a crime. In April, though, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced, “I have ordered each United States attorney’s office along the southwest border to have a zero-tolerance policy toward illegal entry. Our goal is to prosecute every case that is brought to us. There must be consequences for illegal actions.”
Illegal entry into the United States is a misdemeanor, while illegal re-entry is a felony. By being charged with the crime of illegal entry, the policy forces the children to be separated from the families while the adults await trial.
Why does the Trump administration claim the Democrats are to blame?
In commenting on the issue, President Trump said, “I hate the children being taken away. The Democrats have to change their law. That’s their law.”
A few weeks ago, Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller explained that “their law” referred to two federal laws—the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 and the Flores Consent Decree of 1997.
The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 is a bipartisan law signed by President George W. Bush that says unaccompanied children “are exempt from prompt return to their home country,” unless they come from Canada or Mexico. It does not require that families be separated at the border.
The Flores Consent Decree from 1997 (hereafter, Flores) sets a nationwide policy for the detention, release, and treatment of all minors in the custody of INS. Flores imposes several obligations on immigration authorities related to three broad categories:
1. The government is required to release children from immigration detention without unnecessary delay to—in order of preference—parents, other adult relatives, or licensed programs willing to accept custody.
2. If a suitable placement is not immediately available, the government is obligated to place children in the “least restrictive” setting appropriate to their age and any special needs.
3. The government must implement standards relating to the care and treatment of children in immigration detention.
The Ninth Circuit of Appeals ruled in 2016 that Flores “unambiguously applies both to minors who are accompanied and unaccompanied by their parents.” The ruling also clarified that Flores does not require the release of accompanying parents.
The Flores ruling also does not require that families be separated at the border, though it could place limits on how long children are allowed to remain in custody while their parents seek asylum.
How many children have been separated from their parents?
According to internal Department of Homeland Security data, from April 19 to May 31 there have been 1,995 children taken from their parents at the border. That’s an average of roughly 48 kids per day separated from their families.
Those numbers, however, don’t include the families who presented themselves for asylum legally by coming to a port of entry and were also forcibly separated.
Who could change the policy?
Both the executive and legislative branches have the ability to stop the mandatory separation of parents from children occurring at the border.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions could, for instance, reverse his policy and simply send families who entered illegally back to their home country. Congress could also amend the law so that parents facing misdemeanor criminal proceedings solely for illegal entry could be allowed to stay with their children during the adjudication process.
Why was the policy to separate families implemented?
The Trump administration has given conflicting rationales for why they implemented a zero-tolerance policy that would necessitate family separations. But White House Chief of Staff John Kelly—who formerly headed up immigration enforcement as the Secretary of Homeland Security—implied that the effect was intentional.
In the effort to enforce U.S. border laws, “a big name of the game is deterrence,” Kelly said, adding that separating families “could be a tough deterrent.”
President Trump has also implied that he will use the separation issue as leverage to force Congressional Democrats to agree to his other immigration demands.
Did the White House cite Romans 13 in defending its policy?
Yes. In defending his zero-tolerance policy that separates families at the border, Attorney General Sessions referred to a passage from the apostle Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “I would cite you to the apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13, to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order. Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders also said, “It is very biblical to enforce the law.”
What does the passage in Romans 13 say about government?
In Romans 13:1-7, the apostle Paul writes,
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Is Session’s citation a legitimate use of Romans 13?
Many Christian leaders have stated that Sessions has misused or misconstrued the meaning of Romans 13. For example, Johnnie Moore, spokesman for President Trump’s informal evangelical advisory board, told The Washington Post, “While Sessions may take the Bible seriously, in this situation he has demonstrated he is no theologian.”
Jeff Session’s own denomination, the United Methodist Church, issued a statement condemning the policy and misuse of Scripture. “To argue that these policies are consistent with Christian teaching is unsound, a flawed interpretation, and a shocking violation of the spirit of the Gospel,” the statement says.
Albert Mohler agrees that it was a “misuse” of the text but adds that it “wasn’t a complete misuse” but rather an “overuse of the text, an over-reading of the text, rather than an absolute negation of the text. Mohler says the critics of Sessions use of the passage are “absolutely right that Romans 13 does not argue that every law adopted by every government is right and is therefore to be defended in those terms.”
The passage about government in Romans 13, Mohler notes, requires respect for government and its rightful responsibility—and in the United States that means respect for our constitutional order. That does not mean satisfaction or absence of protest against the law if the law is unrighteous and unjust.”
And as Bruce Ashford, provost and professor of theology and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, explains, “Paul is saying, in effect, ‘Look, it’s true that Jesus is the ultimate Ruler of a cosmic kingdom while Caesar is only the temporary ruler of a limited earthly kingdom. But that doesn’t mean you’re above the law. You should be a good citizen and obey the law except, of course, when God’s law conflicts with Caesar’s law.’”
What Christian groups have opposed the policy?
Franklin Graham, head of Samaritan’s Purse, expressed the opinion of many American Christians when he told CBN, “It’s disgraceful. It’s terrible to see families ripped apart and I don’t support that one bit.”
Last week, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling for immigration reform that maintains “the priority of family unity.” The policy has been publicly denounced by numerous other religious groups and denominations, including World Vision, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Friends Committee on National Legislation (Quakers).
“There’s definitely a groundswell of opposition from virtually every corner of the Christian community,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. “People are able to understand immediately the drive of parents to protect their child and to understand the horror of splitting up vulnerable children from their parents.”