Four hours after President Donald Trump signed an executive order to temporarily close the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, five Christian leaders took the stage Jan. 27 at the Evangelicals for Life conference in Washington, D.C., to discuss how churches and individuals can respond to the complex issues surrounding refugee and immigrant ministry.
“The 81 percent of evangelicals that elected Donald Trump now carry the moral and biblical responsibility to advocate for the ‘least of these,’” said Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who read from the Sermon on the Mount at Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration ceremony.
The president’s order shuttered the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, suspended immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – for 90 days and blocked immigration from Syria indefinitely. The order also decreased the potential number of refugees admitted to the U.S. in 2017 by more than half, from the previously declared 110,000 to 50,000.
Photo by Josh Shank, Rocket Republic
Panelists discuss immigration and refugee ministry at the 2017 Evangelicals for Life conference in Washington, D.C. They include (from left) moderator Travis Wussow, vice president for public policy and general counsel for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission; Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief; Bryant Wright, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.; Stephanie Hammond, policy advisor for global conflicts and natural disasters for World Vision; and Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief
Trump’s executive order is meant to allow federal agencies time to review immigration and refugee admission policies and procedures. It requires periodic reports and recommendations for additional security measures.
Jenny Yang, vice president of advocacy and policy at World Relief, explained what the new policy means for the refugee resettlement agency, which relies on partnerships with local churches:
“At World Relief about 70 percent of the cases we resettle are family reunification cases. So, for the next four months we’re not going to see a single refugee family reunited.”
Yang said the organization has “significant concerns” about the executive order, since it denies protection to “some of the most vulnerable people in the world.”
She described the previous refugee vetting process as “the strictest, most stringent program ever,” and encouraged the federal government to reinstate the program as soon as possible with whatever extra measures deemed necessary.
“In the past 30 years,” said Yang, “we’ve resettled three million refugees and not a single refugee has been convicted on the charge of domestic terrorism – not a single one.”
She also outlined the complex screening process that occurs before asylum seekers are referred to World Relief for resettlement, at which point the organization pairs refugees with churches to aid in assimilation. The process requires a face-to-face interview with the Department of Homeland Security, the collection of biographical and biometric data and a database check across all 17 agencies of the U.S. Intelligence Community, among other steps.
Yang said the refugee admission process has been a success and discouraged Christians from pitting compassion and security against one another. “We can do both at the same time,” she pleaded.
Bryant Wright, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., also took part in the panel discussion.
“It makes my heart ache,” Wright said, “I understand what President Trump is doing. He is fulfilling a promise. He’s building on the fear people have of Islamic terrorism – and that’s a real thing.”
But, he continued, “These people are double victims now. They’re victims where they are living, through no fault of their own. And now the United States – that has really prided itself on being a nation of immigrants and refugees – is closing the door when they’re in such a desperate situation. It really breaks your heart.”
Wright said if the window of opportunity closes for Christians to minister to refugees here in the U.S., then churches must go to the Middle East “to minister to Syrian refugees on-site.”
Despite Trump’s aggressive rhetoric on illegal immigration and growing anxiety in the Latino community, Rodriguez said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the future of the immigration program under the current administration.
Rodriguez also said the president’s transition team promised a number of concessions in previous talks:
“This is what we received explicitly, and I know we’re on the record here: There will be no deportation force. Families will not be separated. And President [Barack] Obama’s DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] will be revoked but immediately replaced. The replacement will probably be a short-term DACA … that will give Congress enough time to write up a piece of legislation that will inevitably become a bill with the president’s signature.”
Travis Wussow, vice president for public policy and general counsel for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), moderated the panel discussion, which was scheduled on the event program prior to news about immigration and refugee policy changes. Panelists also included Stephanie Hammond, policy advisor for global conflicts and natural disasters for World Vision, and Matthew Soerens, U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief.
Each of the panelists encouraged Christians to engage the political process on behalf of refugees and immigrants.
Hammond suggested going to town hall events to express opinions from a Christian worldview about caring for the vulnerable.
Soerens added that Christians should spend time listening to what God’s Word says about caring for sojourners and to the personal stories of refugees and immigrants.
Southern Baptists passed a resolution called “On Refugee Ministry” during the 2016 annual meeting which states, “That we affirm that refugees are people loved by God, made in His image, and that Christian love should be extended to them as special objects of God's mercy in a world that has displaced them from their homelands.” The document also expresses support for immigration security measures.
The 2017 Evangelicals for Life conference was co-sponsored by the ERLC and Focus on the Family. The title of the panel discussion was “Ministering to refugees and immigrants: Hard questions, complex answers, and loving our neighbors.”