We can have secure borders without denying those fleeing persecution

(RNS) — The woman had set out for America after authorities in her home country, Iran, had discovered she was a practicing Christian. She, her husband and their children had just a few days before government-sanctioned imprisonment and possible death came knocking at their door. What followed was a treacherous journey, first to Venezuela then to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Granted asylum by U.S. officials, she and her family are now legally and permanently in the United States after undergoing intensive vetting by the U.S. government to prove her fear of religious persecution was well-founded.

We spent time with this woman a few weeks ago with a group of evangelical Christian women on a visit to the border between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. Our meeting was arranged by a “Good Neighbor Team” of church-based volunteers mobilized by World Relief Southern California, which is giving her family support. 

As mothers and Americans, we are alarmed by the effect of the current state of the U.S.-Mexico border on our communities. What we saw firsthand and heard from Border Patrol agents and church leaders serving migrants on both sides of the border is unsustainable. It is a blight on our country that we’ve allowed this situation to persist, and there is no end in sight. Congress must bring order to the border.

But drones, walls and manpower alone cannot solve the problem. We are grateful for the various elected officials over the past couple years who have recognized this and stayed at the table working on a comprehensive solution. We need them to act now to get a solution across the finish line.

Unfortunately, as part of the most recent negotiations in D.C., we are concerned some leaders are showing signs of reversing course. Calls to end asylum and the due process guaranteed by our laws are growing louder. As a result, the Biden administration has reportedly proposed the creation of new legal authorities to allow the U.S. government to expel migrants without processing their claims to asylum, abandoning longstanding legal commitments. 

The House of Representatives’ version of this policy is H.R. 2. The nonprofit organization Open Doors U.S. recently reported that this bill would dramatically restrict asylum eligibility. The proposed restrictions would be so extreme that the Christian Iranian woman we met could have been denied asylum due simply to her family’s route to the U.S. and never been given the opportunity to present proof of religious persecution. 

Such draconian changes are a rejection of our nation’s history as a beacon of hope for a world craving freedom. Even more importantly, there is no evidence these restrictions will stem the situation at the border. 

We now have three years of data on what happened when the Title 42 public health emergency rules, applied during the COVID-19 pandemic, suspended due process for asylum seekers: More people were frightened into evading the Border Patrol rather than avail themselves of the process and protections offered under existing U.S. law. 

While these clanging cymbals trying to extinguish asylum may sound louder than before, they do not represent a majority of Americans on immigration policy.

According to a recent national poll, 86% of registered voters said they would reward candidates who work across the aisle on immigration reform, seeking solutions to restore order at the border and support those already contributing to our economy. In June 2023, the Southern Baptist Convention voted overwhelmingly in favor of “robust avenues” for immigrants to seek refuge from persecution. A year before, a poll by Lifeway Research showed that 80% of evangelical Christians would back stronger border security coupled with reforms that bolster and clarify immigration policies. 

There are bipartisan proposals ready to do just that, such as the Dignity Act, a bill written by U.S. Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, a Florida Republican, which would appropriate $35 billion in funding for border security, while reforming the asylum process. 

With Congress on the cusp of a border solution, we urge our country not to turn its back on individuals like our Iranian Christian sister and other immigrants fleeing religious persecution. America can both secure our borders and respect human dignity. And we are confident the voters will defy the cable TV pundits and stand up for those elected officials who follow through. 

(Jamie Ivey is a Christian podcaster and author. Bri Stensrud is the director of Women of Welcome and the author of the forthcoming Start with Welcome. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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