Commentary: Jesus would demand justice for immigrants

The nation is engaged in a conversation on immigration and, therefore, our congregations should be too. After all, this is not just an abstract philosophical topic — this cuts straight to the core of who we are as Americans and, ultimately, who we are as people of faith.

Those of us who claim one of the Abrahamic traditions know that we have been called to care for the immigrant among us. It is a biblical mandate. And any of us living on this side of the border knows (or at least should know) we are all immigrants.

Our human journey began somewhere in Africa, and here we are, centuries later, a migrated people who came to call this North American plot of land home.

I can hardly imagine what 11 million people looks like, but that's how many immigrants in the United States today have entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas. To wrap my mind around it, I looked up the population of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach (the potential readership of the Daily Pilot) and realized that, together, our cities make up only about 200,000 people (as of 2011).

So even if our two cities were filled solely with immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas, they would make up less than 2% of that 11 million. It's hard to fathom.

That's why we need to focus in from that cosmic perspective on the overwhelming number of 11 million and try to think about one or two of those people — our neighbors, our kids' classmates, maybe even our co-workers.

Last week, I directed high schoolers at our church camp up at Pilgrim Pines. And I invited a keynote speaker, who just happens to be a brilliant Dreamer who shared his story through poetry. Teenagers who had never dared enter into this national conversation suddenly began to see with eyes wide open and to listen with ears that truly heard.

That’s what Jesus calls us to do, after all. Remember, Jesus made the foreigner the hero of one of his most beloved stories, “The Good Samaritan.” In doing so, he completely overturned the popular view that looked down upon Samaritans and demonstrated that ultimately God's kingdom has no borders. Jesus boldly declares: “You have ears to hear, listen!”

But I think Jesus wants us to do more than just listen. That's the first step. If we're not willing to do that, then we need to pause and ask ourselves why we can't listen to the voice of “the other.” But once we're capable of hearing, really hearing — listening with empathy and imagining ourselves in the shoes of the immigrant — then we are called to take the second step and act.

Last February, I went to visit detainees at the Theo Lacy detention center here in Orange County with CIVIC: Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement, an organization that works to end the isolation and abuse of men and women in U.S. immigration detention by building and strengthening volunteer-run community visitation programs.

I was excited to use my newly acquired Spanish. Only when I got there, I realized that most of the people spoke English fine, some without an accent. They were just as American as this white woman born and bred in Orange County — the only difference being some papers. Their stories were heartbreaking and touched me deep inside.

I knew one visit would not be enough.

Imagine the fear that immigrants constantly live in and the isolation felt by those who have been detained (even as the government assures us that people in immigration detention are in civil, not criminal, confinement, the jumpsuits, the mess hall and the guards all lead me to a different conclusion).

And now their one connection to the outside has been cut off. I am not able to visit them at Theo Lacy again.

On July 24, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) shut down the visitation programs offered by CIVIC-affiliated volunteer groups, and detainees in Orange County are now even more isolated than ever. While the Senate has passed an immigration bill and we wait on the House with prayers of a pathway to citizenship, we have no guarantees for those who are detained.

As a Christian, I always have to ask myself, “What would Jesus do?”

God knows he'd probably join them in the prisons until every detainee was set free. He would break down the prison walls. He would demand justice for God's people!

I'm no Jesus, but as his follower, I have to speak out for the voiceless and the disempowered. If the government will take away their voice, we are called to speak truth to power.

The visitation program needs to be reinstated, and our nation needs a comprehensive immigration reform that offers a pathway to citizenship.

THE REV. SARAH HALVERSON is the pastor of Fairview Community Church in Costa Mesa.

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