Providing safe harbor

Eighty years ago this week a ship carrying 937 people, almost all Jewish immigrants escaping Nazi Germany, returned to Europe after being turned away by the governments of Cuba, the United States and Canada. At one point, the ship came close enough to the shore near Miami that passengers could see the city lights. Upon their return, some found safety in other European countries; 254 perished in the Holocaust.

After World War II, many countries realized they did not do nearly enough to protect people fleeing violence and genocide. As a result, the international community created the 1951 Refugee Convention and, later, the 1967 Refugee Protocol which was ratified by 146 countries, including the United States.

Refugee and asylum laws protect immigrants fleeing persecution and violence and hold national governments accountable to do their part. There are an estimated 28.5 million refugees and asylum seekers worldwide. Most asylum seekers currently arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border are fleeing gang violence, domestic violence or political persecution in Central America. In Fiscal Year 2018, 76 percent of asylum seekers passed an initial screening by U.S. immigration officials to determine if they had a legitimate fear of returning home.

A former Benedictine monastery in Tucson, Ariz., is now used as a shelter by MCC partner Catholic Community Services for families seeking asylum in the United States. Families typically spend one or two nights in the shelter while they arrange bus travel to stay with relatives or friends in the U.S. MCC photo/Saulo Padilla.

Many early Anabaptists also fled persecution and violence. Those who came to the U.S. in the 18th, 19th or early 20th centuries arrived at a time before there were strict requirements for seeking asylum, before there were visitor visas or immigration quotas and before there were border walls.

The role of the United States as a safe haven has ebbed and flowed over the years, sometimes welcoming immigrants and sometimes restricting and demonizing newcomers. We come closer to fulfilling God’s vision for humanity when we follow God’s instructions to not “mistreat any foreigners who live in your land. Instead, treat them as well as you treat citizens and love them as much as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:33-34, CEV).

Asylum seekers from Central America ask very little of us. The vast majority have family here in the U.S. to support them. All they ask is that we keep the door open so they can be safe and keep their children safe from harm. At a time when U.S. unemployment is low and many industries need workers (particularly in fields such as elder care), open doors could be a win-win situation.

In the coming weeks and months, Congress will consider how to respond to asylum seekers arriving at our borders in a supplemental spending bill and in the regular Fiscal Year 2020 spending process. Will they spend more money on walls and detention or on food and diapers? Will they support harmful tariffs on Mexico or will they invest in safer, more prosperous communities in Central America?

Urge your members of Congress to spend less on walls and detention and to keep the U.S. as a place of safe harbor for asylum seekers and refugees.


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