As August neared its end in 2012, Williams Guevara left home in El Salvador. He was 17 years old. And alone. And on a dangerous journey.
Guevara’s father was abusive. He beat Guevara with ropes and belts. His hands and legs are scarred. His father made him work as a child. Guevara could not keep the money he made. He said he was tired and hungry all the time.
There was always the threat of gang violence in El Salvador, too. The country has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Then, one day, Guevara’s father beat him with a machete.
Guevara made his decision to leave.
He left home on his own.
The journey was dangerous traveling hundreds of miles north from El Salvador to the United States. He rode on top of a train and nearly fell off. Then, he walked for days. He walked through the desert. Guevara was fighting for his life on two fronts. The conditions of the desert are life-threatening. The heat is scorching and there is little water. Then, there are robbers along the journey, people who prey on migrants.
Guevara said he crossed the border near Los Fresnos, Texas in 2012. He was caught and held in an immigration detention center. The uncertainty of what was going to happen in the detention center was terrifying. The room where he was kept had no windows, he said.
“There is one door and the room [was] always cold,” Guevara said. “It’s really cold ... when I [got] there and my clothes were really wet.”
Guevara was sent to Baltimore to live with his brother while the US government decided whether to deport the teenager. Living in the US was one of the first times Guevara felt safe, he said. But there was always the threat looming over him that he could be sent back to El Salvador, back to his abusive father.
At the same time, Guevara had to learn English. He said it was hard to understand people, as though everyone was talking in a different language on fast forward. He went to high school like other students his age, then spent several hours at night school to learn English.
With the help of Catholic Charities, Guevara received a green card. He said getting the green card was “unbelievable. It was just amazing.” He is a federal employee now and in a few years he will be a US citizen.
In February 2014, Guevara testified before the Maryland General Assembly to change the laws around child custody. He was staying with his family in Baltimore at the time. Under previous laws, a person was a child until age 18 but the new law would raise that age to 21 and give immigrant youth more time to pursue citizenship.
“If I had left El Salvador eight months later, I would have been 18 when I came to the United States,” he said during his testimony. “Without this new law, I would have been sent back to El Salvador where my father would start abusing me again.”
Guevara helped changed the law to something he felt was more just. With stories of immigration central to much of the Biblical narrative, Christian theologians have a lot to say about our nation’s immigration laws. They said that if you applied basic Christian principles to our laws, immigration in America would look a lot different.
A Christian immigration law
The Bible has been held up as a defense on those preaching a kind of open borders policy and by those taking hardline views on the topic.
However, the conversation in and around American churches about immigration often focus more on politics and economics than it does on the Bible, said Daniel Carroll Rodas, author of “Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible.” Carroll visits places to speak about the topic of migration and a biblical response.
“In discussions in local churches, it wasn’t very much of a Christian conversation,” he said. “It was about politics and economics and national security, things like that. … The premise of the book was to try to get some kind of biblical orientation to those discussions so that when Christians came to those discussion they would have some kind of framework explicitly tied to their faith, which is not something you see all the time.”
The Bible’s first book of Genesis underlines how all humans are made in the image of God, Carroll said. They have both worth and potential. A Biblical approach to immigration would recognize that worth as a human and the potential for immigrants to improve communities.
Even that seemingly subtle shift changes a lot, Carroll said. Immigrants are no longer burdens or threats. Instead, they are valuable in the eyes of God. The tone of the discussion changes, even if the conversation still focuses on politics or economics, Carroll said.
There are pragmatic changes to immigration law, like changing the national quota system for visas, Carroll said. In the current system, each country can get up to 7 percent of the available visas that year, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Whether one country has 10,000 people trying to leave and the other has 10 does not matter. They get the same number.
Next, the government should admit its systems for handling immigration are overtaxed and understaffed, Carroll said. The government should welcome the help of outside groups, such as the Christian churches. Instead, what is happening is the government is doubling down on its efforts to restrict access at the border and dissuades groups that are trying to help migrants. One of those groups is Border Angels. They leave resources like water at the border for migrants on the journey to the desert. Workers for Border Angels have reported the water jugs being shot or slashed, according to an interview by leaders with NPR.
Carroll said much of the pushback against more compassionate immigration policies come from Christians who do not understand what the Bible says.
“Part of the issue when you have people in churches disagreeing, sometimes it’s because they have no idea what the Bible says,” Carroll said. “Or they may have just one or two verses, that’s what they go to, that’s what they’ve heard on the radio or something like that.”
The one or two verses Christians point to on immigration likely include Romans 13:1, Carroll said. In a 2018 press conference, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions used the passage to defend the Trump Administration’s family separation policy.
“Persons who violate the law of our nation are subject to prosecution,” Sessions said. “If you violate the law, you subject yourself to prosecution. I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for His purposes.”
Sessions may have been using the Bible to his defense because the church, specifically the Catholic Church, was one of the most vocal opponents to the policy.
Christians with tough stances on immigration quote this passage a lot, Carroll said. The belief goes that God created the U.S. government, therefore what laws the U.S. government has should be followed.
Carroll said when people confront him with the passage he asks them not to look at the verse in a vacuum but see it in context with all of the verses before it and the numerous migration stories of the Old and New Testaments.
“I take them to 1 Peter, where it’ll say that every Christian is a sojourner,” he said. “And so what we see then is that migration actually becomes a metaphor for the Christian faith itself. We serve a different king. We should have different values. We have, the Bible tells us, a different citizenship. And so, all of us, actually are strangers.”
Theologians said early Christians often broke the laws of the Roman Empire because their faith was more important. Essentially, their loyalty was to the kingdom of God more than it was to the Romans. The apostle Paul, the author of the book of Romans, was often jailed because of his faith. Many of his books in the Bible were written while he was in jail.
Connecting ancient and contemporary
Nancy Pineda-Madrid has spent years researching and writing about how the ancient Bible stories connect with current events. She is an assistant professor of theology and Latino and Latina ministry at Boston College.
The migration stories of the Bible, especially the stories of migration, play differently for a Latina or Latino American audience than they do for a white church.
“There’s a connection to a lot of the current contemporary suffering that people are experiencing today like, for example, immigrants who are trying to make their way into the United States or who fear being picked up in this country because they don’t have papers, and papers that the U.S. government recognizes,” she said. “And so the connection there [is] to how Jesus experienced being marginalized in his life and being considered an outsider, a threat to the powers in his day, the Roman power.”
Pineda-Madrid said US Latino/a theologians highlight ways in which Jesus’ crucifixion is an example of the ongoing persecution experienced by the socially marginalized. While many church members may be able to recite the basic crucifixion story — as performed through the stations of the cross — few Christians see the overlap of the story with contemporary suffering, especially migration, Pineda-Madrid said.
“We can’t understand, adequately, Jesus’s suffering and his brutal crucifixion at the hands of Roman power,” Pineda-Madrid said. “We can’t understand (Jesus’s crucifixion) if we don’t understand the crucifixions that are going on in our own time, that there are populations today who are suffering severely.”
A failure to do so, Pineda-Madrid said, is a failure of the faith.
“We have to make a connection to Jesus Christ or our understanding of Jesus’s crucifixion becomes domesticated and is seen as something that is distant from us and not a reality that makes demands of us now,” she said. “… We need to be about work that calls for an end to the evil that leads to the crucifixion of people, like the women in Juarez or people in the violence throughout Mexico, the violence throughout much of Central America and many other countries around the world.”
Amnesty International has reported that six in 10 women are raped while coming to the United States. Criminal gangs and human traffickers prey on the migrants, many of whom have to trust strangers to make the journey. The immigration journey is particularly dangerous for women, Pineda-Madrid said.
Ana Herrera is one of those women who made the journey from El Salvador. Her parents abandoned her when she was just a few months old. She was taken in by her grandmother. They were poor, Herrera said. The neighborhood was dangerous and she witnessed the murder of her cousin.
The next day, at 19 years old, she left for the United States.
Herrera was held in a US detention facility for a month. She said the cell was crammed with people. She had to sleep sitting up because there was not enough space on the floor.
“There’s nobody there for you, like a family member,” Herrera said speaking through an interpreter, her husband. “... Everyone has needs and whether they be emotional, physical, spiritual, and none of those are taken care of in a place like that.”
Eventually, Herrera was sent to live with her aunt in Maryland. She worked with a Catholic Charities legal team and won her case to get a green card.
But getting the ability to stay in the United States was not the end of Herrera’s struggle.
The second crucifixion
If the journey to the United States is one kind of crucifixion for immigrants, the struggle to fit in at a moment when the nation has demonized immigrants is another kind of crucifixion. About half of Americans feel people seeking asylum are not fleeing real violence and over a third of Americans feel people are taking advantage of the asylum process, according to a 2018 poll by NPR/Ipsos.
One of Herrera’s biggest fears was being a stranger in a foreign land, she said. She had no one she trusted to turn to. She felt lonely. There was no other solution than to hold onto her faith, she said.
The isolation and demonization of immigrants in America are antithetical to the Christian understanding of compassion, said Juan Martinez, a professor of Hispanic studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. Martinez said American Christians too often believe they won some kind of spiritual lottery in which they have a God who has rewarded them with wealth without any strings attached, without any obligations.
“The Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures depending on how you would refer to them, make it very clear to the people of Israel that they’re supposed to take the foreigner very seriously,” Martinez said.
Politicians, whether they are of any faith or no faith, have to recognize the threats people are fleeing in Central America are real, Martinez said. The dangers there are forcing people to leave. They are breaking laws and they know it but they are seeking safety.
“If I have real, credible death threats against me and my own do I hang around because XYZ country won’t give me a visa? Or do I flee anyway, take the risk of what that implies, knowing that I’m fleeing certain kinds of violence that will take my life for sure and I’m taking the risk that I will find a way to get through this situation?”
People are in real, immediate danger, Martinez said, and it is the duty of Christians to respond.
Catholic social teaching offers one way of thinking about a response, Pineda-Madrid said. The central idea is thinking about the common good, which is not the greatest good for the greatest number of people or a kind of popular vote, she said.
“It’s concerned about how do we create a social order that enables more and more people to find their way to God, to know who God is in their lives?” Pineda-Madrid said. “And how do we create a social order that supports that? … The common good calls us to make that kind of a critique and to act on behalf of life and to protect the lives of children and families. And those have to be the fundamental goals and values that guide us when we’re looking at questions of immigration.”
The questions about immigration in America are unlikely to go away. The talk of caravans and walls will not stop. There will be debates and news stories, more debates and more news stories.
In the meantime, immigrants will keep coming. They will begin dangerous journeys to cross the border, journeys like Guevara and Herrera made. They walked that path. They both said prayer gave them strength during the dangerous trip.
They were praying to the same God many migrants pray to on their journey, the same God many Americans worship on Sundays.