In addition to the political debate regarding President Trump’s executive order on immigration, there is also a theological debate. Some have suggested that immigration and refugee resettlement are not major biblical issues or, perhaps, not a biblical issue at all. Here is a list of examples of biblical passages regarding refugees and immigration found in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.
Today, I would like to focus just on refugees, who are perhaps the most vulnerable immigrants in this controversy. A refugee is a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape persecution, war, or violence. Faced with life-threatening circumstances, refugees have no choice but to flee, leaving behind their home and community, family, and friends. As many of the scriptures I have listed show, many of our ancestors in the faith were refugees. Even Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus and fled to Egypt to escape Herod’s order to kill all the young Jewish males in the vicinity of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-18).
The Episcopal Church, like many other religious communities, has long been active in refugee resettlement and in working with immigrants to the United States. Episcopal Migration Ministries resettles approximately 5,000 refugees each year. Saint John’s Cathedral is the spiritual home of the 350 members of Sudanese Community Church and the majority are refugees. Denver's Lutheran Family Services (LFS) Refugee and Asylee Programs are frequent guests at this Cathedral. We are not disinterested parties and have not been for a very long time.
Worldwide, there are more than 65 million people have been displaced by war, violence, famine, and persecution. Some critics of refugee resettlement have said that the United States already has taken in more than our share of refugees. The reality is that the United States is doing far from its fair share. Only ten nations host 76 percent of the worlds refugees. The United States is nowhere close to being on that list.
Some have claimed that refugees don’t assimilate into our society. However, in communities across America, refugees are predominantly model citizens and have revitalized small towns, learned to speak English, hold jobs, started businesses, contributed to charities, sent their children to public school, and held elected offices.
Another myth about refugees is at the heart of the controversy over the executive order. Namely, the assertion that the vetting process is lacking. In fact, the United States already has an extremely rigorous and thorough vetting process for allowing refugees into our country. The State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the National Counterterrorism Center all contribute to the process that our military leadership and national security experts from recent Democratic and Republican administrations have called “thorough and robust,” safeguarding the American people while also extending the country’s hand to the refugees in greatest need. If you want to learn more about the vetting process, see the Obama White House’s infographic here and the Department of Homeland Security’s video here.
And, finally, what about the potential for terrorist activity by refugees? No person accepted to the United States as a refugee has been implicated in a major fatal terrorist attack since the Refugee Act of 1980 set up systematic procedures for accepting refugees into the United States, according to an analysis of terrorism immigration risks by the Cato Institute. Before 1980, three refugees had successfully carried out terrorist attacks; all three were Cuban refugees, and a total of three people were killed. Since the Cato Institute analysis was published in September 2016, a Somalian refugee injured 13 people at Ohio State University in November 2016 in an incident described as a terrorist attack. No one was killed. The Cato Institute report also says, "The chance of an American being killed in a terrorist attack committed by a refugee was 1 in 3.64 billion a year. The annual chance of being murdered by somebody other than a foreign-born terrorist was 252.9 times greater than the chance of dying in a terrorist attack committed by a foreign-born terrorist."
As I write this reflection, I am thinking about thirty-six Vietnamese refugees my parish and I helped to resettle in Houston in 1975. They lived in our homes until we could find suitable housing for them. We helped them find jobs. We helped their children prepare for the school year. We welcomed them to the life and worship of our church. I still hear from some of them from time to time. Four generations of them now live on the West Coast, the East Coast, and the Gulf Coast. They are respected and contributing members of their communities. They are engaged in businesses and professions that have created jobs and contributed to the nation’s economy. And they are grateful for the opportunities life in the United States has provided.
My Christian faith and community provided the necessary motivation and compassion that I needed at the time to direct my own prayers and action to respond to their plight. I learned from them that refugees are among the most vulnerable of our neighbors. I feel the same way today, forty-two years later.
So, because our Scriptures and teachings of our faith call upon us to action on behalf of refugees, and because welcoming refugees is an important value in our national heritage, I invite you to prayer and action on their behalf.
I'll see you in Church!
The Very Reverend Ron Pogue
Saint John’s Cathedral