By Allison Tanner
Horrific images of white border patrol uniformed men on horses whipping Black migrants and forcing them to flee the country were circulated last month. These photos were met with outrage from our country and its leadership, but, tragically, not with actions that would ensure those seeking asylum are met with dignity and hospitality. Many who have been horrified by these images seem far less disturbed by the fact that thousands are at our borders seeking shelter and safety, only to be met with a closed door or worse, deportation procedures. Or that migrants have been living at the border for months hoping to be granted their international right to seek asylum, only to be ignored by President Biden who continues to enforce Trump-imposed restrictions. Although throngs raged at Trump’s turning migrants away with his sardonic declaration “our country is full” two years ago, we continue to accept the practices he put in place to prevent offering welcome. In classic liberal fashion, there is an abundance of public outrage for racist images and rhetoric, but a dearth of demand to end racist systems and inhumane practices.
The often-ignored pleas of migrants and refugees at our borders matches the lack of concern for keeping roughly 30,000 people locked away in ICE detention on civil (not criminal) charges, often for years. And where is the outcry for the 11-18 million undocumented migrants who are forced to live as 2nd class non-citizens? Not just the Dreamers, not just those holding Temporary Protected Status, not just those deemed “good” or “hard-working,” but the masses of mostly Black and Brown immigrants, many of whom have been forced to flee their homeland due to the actions of our government. It is often lamented that our immigration system is a broken system, but the truth is that it functions as intended: to racially exclude, exploit and expel those deemed “other.”
It is easy to get overwhelmed by these realities. Despair or detachment are not just common responses but coping mechanisms. After all, immigration injustice is only one of so many ugly manifestations of white supremacy coursing through our country’s veins. And yet, to ignore such racialized violence hardens our hearts to our own humanity as well as the humanity of so many seeking shelter, safety and belonging. Like so many other injustices our country practices, it is through feeling the pain they cause, finding God in the midst of that pain, and joining the life-giving communities of resistance that we can participate in the work of liberation.
My congregation, Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, became a Sanctuary Congregation in response to Trump’s election. The Spirit called us to enter this sacred work as one way we could shine our light and conspire with love. It has been a heart-wrenching yet also life-giving journey. We have met brave people who have taught us how to hope. We have partnered with an interfaith community who has taught us how to pray with our feet. We have practiced our faith through bearing witness, raging together, struggling to find our small part to play in defying a massive system of injustice, and celebrating the joy of connection, healing and redemption.
In 2017, we took to heart the biblical mandate to welcome the stranger. Over time, the Spirit invited us to deeply love our immigrant neighbors. By 2020, our commitment had evolved to the work of releasing the captives. During COVID, we were part of a movement that released 50% of all captives in ICE detention centers! We witnessed families reunited and communities restored. As we provided opportunities for healing of others, we found our own healing from being citizens of a country who is causing such harm to so many. We even had the opportunity to house a young man in our sanctuary and learn his heartbreaking story of fleeing violence in his own country, only to be met by the violence of ICE in this country. Because we could provide shelter for him, ICE was forced by a federal judge to release him after nearly four years in detention. We networked with multiple congregations to accompany him and sat with him for his asylum hearing seven years after he first entered this country seeking safety. His story became our story, and his fears of being deported became our fears for his future. After much prayer, we braced ourselves for the expected devastating result of the judge who held his fate in his hands, a judge notorious for being particularly difficult and unjust. And then, we witnessed a miracle. Our friend was granted freedom. He will be able to work, put down roots and build a life in the United States. He will finally be free from the fear of violence or deportation that have plagued so much of his young life. While he will have to live a 2nd class non-citizen existence, he will know freedom. In rejoicing with him, we found our own freedom from our country’s destructive systems that seek to kill the soul.
Our work continues. Since Biden has taken office, ICE has been able to repopulate detention centers to pre-COVID numbers. Thousands remain at our borders and millions live in our country without rights, dignity or security. And, of course, the devastation of immigration injustice is just one manifestation of the oppression caused by white supremacy and racialized capitalism in our country. But we have found hope. We have found healing. We have found the very presence of God in our midst, continuing to liberate the captives, heal the soul-sick, and invite us to partner together in becoming beloved community. We have been able to participate in the very gospel we preach and to experience the joy of redemption. Our story, because we refused to look away, has allowed us to be about the life-giving work of God, even and especially in places of death and destruction.
Not every congregation is called to immigration justice. But we are all called to the places around us filled with injustice and inhumanity; the places we’d rather look away from and distance ourselves from. We are all called to bear witness to pain and suffering. We are all called to the work of liberation. And when we heed this call, we find ourselves face to face with the very work of God in the world.
Rev. Dr. Allison J. Tanner is a pastor, educator and organizer working for justice and healing in her community. She currently serves as the Pastor of Public Witness at congregational partner Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, in Oakland, California.