Have you imagined the questions the members of Plymouth Church were asking during the 1850s? Why can’t the church stay out of politics? Why are we involved with the Underground Railroad? How do we know the people we are helping are not dangerous? What is the vetting process? Can anyone guarantee that nothing bad will happen to us? Don’t we have enough to do just taking care of ourselves? Should a church be breaking the law? What could the government do to us?
Churches across the United States are now asking those same questions. Many are part of what they are calling the New Underground Railroad.
Recent executive orders on immigration and two Department of Homeland Security memos move past earlier guidelines to focus only on criminals for deportation, and instead put undocumented immigrants at risk of deportation for something as minor as a traffic ticket. We are being asked to ignore the fact that immigrants are statistically less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.
The present administration’s ramping up deportations raises new questions, but the immigration system has not been effective or humane for a long time. We break families apart and penalize the kind of people we want in our country. Since 1995 the United States has allowed 5,000 visas per year for unskilled workers (and a guest worker program of about 200,000). But for years this country has imported most of its agricultural workers, so twelve million people work in the shadows. Ninety percent of undocumented men are working, because our country needs their labor.
People who do not think of themselves as political, but take their faith seriously, feel compelled to speak out. Churches are resisting the deportation of undocumented immigrants. They believe that the Jewish tradition compels us to practice hospitality to the foreigner. They recognize that the Gospels are clear about the Christian requirement to care for the outsider. Jesus warns those who pretend to follow, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”
The Sanctuary Movement includes more than 800 courageous congregations that have committed to protecting immigrants. They pledge to pray, educate, and give money. Churches like Judson Memorial in Manhattan have formed study groups that are looking for thoughtful and responsible ways to follow Christ’s instructions. Churches like Pilgrim St. Luke’s in Buffalo are preparing to use private homes as part of a modern-day underground railroad to move undocumented immigrant families to Canada.
Christians are asking good questions.