Evangelical Leaders Urge Trump To Release Vulnerable ICE Detainees During Pandemic

These evangelical leaders say their belief in the dignity of each human life compels them to protect vulnerable detainees from COVID-19.

An evangelical Christian coalition is calling on President Donald Trump’s administration to release immigrant detainees who are vulnerable to the novel coronavirus and who “do not pose a threat to public safety.”

People in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities can’t practice the “social distancing” advised by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, nine evangelical leaders pointed out in a letter to the Department of Homeland Security’s acting secretary, Chad Wolf, on Monday.

“In the interest of public health,” the leaders wrote, it’s better to let vulnerable detainees live with “family members, friends or hosts from local churches.”

“Our concern is rooted in our Christian belief that each human life is made in the image of God and thus precious, and, like you, we want to do everything possible to minimize the loss of life as a result of this pandemic,” the leaders wrote.

A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent takes handcuffs off before booking an immigrant in Los Angeles on March 1.
A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent takes handcuffs off before booking an immigrant in Los Angeles on March 1.
Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

The letter was organized by the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of evangelical groups and leaders that has pledged to work toward bipartisan immigration reform. The signees include leaders of prominent evangelical humanitarian groups, denominations and umbrella organizations, such as World Relief, the Assemblies of God and the National Association of Evangelicals. Russell Moore, a theologian who leads the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination, and Samuel Rodriguez, a Latino Christian leader and adviser to Trump, also signed.

At least 72 ICE detainees and 19 detention facility employees had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Monday, according to The Washington Post.

Immigrant advocates, health experts and some members of Congress have been calling for the release of some detainees in light of the pandemic. Several civil rights groups have sued ICE over the issue.

ICE has said it is reviewing its detained population and releasing people who have a high risk for severe illness if they contract COVID-19. As of April 6, ICE had identified more than 160 people for release, according to the agency’s website.

In their letter, the evangelical leaders point out that most individuals detained by ICE in recent months either haven’t been convicted of any crimes or have only minor, nonviolent offenses.

It may be necessary to continue detaining those who pose a threat to public safety, the leaders wrote, but those who can be safely released should be given alternatives to detention while waiting for their immigration hearings, such as staying with loved ones or being hosted by local churches or community organizations.

Hyepin Im, president of the Asian American Christian group Faith and Community Empowerment, said that her “Christian commitment to affirming the dignity of each human life” compelled her to speak up.

“With the threat of the coronavirus transmitting among both detainees and the staff of immigration detention facilities ― and then potentially spreading further within the general public ― it is unconscionable to detain so many individuals, especially when there are proven alternatives available,” she said in a statement.

San Diego's Otay Mesa Detention Center, an ICE detention center privately owned and operated by the prison contractor CoreCivic, has become a hot spot for the new coronavirus.
San Diego's Otay Mesa Detention Center, an ICE detention center privately owned and operated by the prison contractor CoreCivic, has become a hot spot for the new coronavirus.
Bing Guan/Reuters

An increasing number of evangelical leaders have taken a progressive and very public stance on immigration policy since around 2007, according to Janelle Wong, a University of Maryland professor who has studied evangelicals and immigration. The nine leaders behind this particular letter have been longtime advocates for immigrants, including undocumented immigrants. But the views of these leaders are not at all in line with those of many evangelicals in the pews, Wong suggested.

Although evangelicals of color are a rapidly growing subset, most American evangelicals are white (64%), according to the Public Religion Research Institute. Studies have repeatedly shown that white evangelicals express the most conservative positions on immigration of any American religious group. They are particularly likely to say undocumented immigrants should be deported, to support building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico wall and to say that undocumented immigrants should be disqualified from applying for citizenship if they use government benefits. They are also the least likely religious group to favor allowing undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, known as Dreamers, to gain legal resident status.

Trump’s immigration agenda aligns closely with that of most white evangelicals, Wong said.

“I don’t see rank-and-file white evangelicals supporting the views expressed in this letter unless Trump himself signals support,” Wong said.

Liz Dong, an evangelical Christian Dreamer from China, said she knows that Christians can and will disagree about immigration policies. Still, she said, she was heartened by the letter and hopes to see more Christians speak up.

Dong said she hopes Christians of all stripes will be able to see “beyond our own comfort or conveniences” and recognize that undocumented immigrants and families are uniquely vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19, physically and financially.

“My hope is that evangelical Christians, regardless of where they stand politically, can recognize the inherent dignity and potential in each human life as created in the image of God and speak of people accordingly,” Dong said.

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