Since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests of immigrants without legal status are up more than 50 percent on Long Island. Nationally, the number of those immigrants with no criminal record arrested by ICE has tripled. Their crime: having fled extreme violence and poverty in their homelands to seek asylum or find work in America.
Given the threats of ICE arrest, Long Island Jobs with Justice has trained almost 500 volunteers to support immigrants by accompanying them to their court appearances, creating neighborhood rapid response networks to stand with them when ICE is present and establishing three sanctuary congregations that offer physical shelter to immigrants facing ICE arrest.
About 80 percent of our volunteers are people of faith, most from the Judeo-Christian tradition. One of our board members warned us that mixing religion and politics can be a problem when people on the political right and left read the same Bible but come up with diametrically opposed interpretations.
He makes a point: White evangelical Christians, who take the Bible literally, overwhelmingly voted for Trump and remain among his most steadfast supporters despite his personal behaviors, rhetoric and policies that are very unchristian.
We turned to a secular historian for some context on how the Bible has shaped political history. Thomas Cahill has written six books on key factors that changed human history. One is “The Gifts of the Jews,” in which he demonstrates how the Jewish belief that humans are made in God’s image and therefore deserve to be treated with dignity led Jews to demand justice for the weakest people living at the margins of their society: the widows, the orphans, the strangers.
Cahill followed this with “Desire of the Everlasting Hills,” about the unique historical contributions of Jesus of Nazareth, showing how he called his followers to bring the weak and vulnerable from the margins of society to the centers of power, as in the Gospel of Matthew, where he challenges us to welcome strangers as he would welcome them.
Now compare these biblical ideas with the religious rhetoric we have heard, such as justifying the separation of immigrant children from their parents because the Bible requires us to obey the law. Or how about using the Bible to condemn gays when there are only four references to homosexuality in the Bible, compared with 300 references to justice for the poor and vulnerable? This biblical preference for the vulnerable was epitomized by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah: “Woe to you who make unjust laws . . .”
Our volunteers — both people of faith and no faith — draw from these core biblical values that demand respect for all people, values that have shaped the American creed and this nation’s historic openness to immigrants.
Recently, Lawrence Provenzano, the Episcopal bishop of Long Island, decried the political dialogue that “has been chipping away at the dignity of the people of God by misrepresenting, by misusing our understanding of Jesus and Holy Scripture . . . for political gain.” As an example, he criticized the negative public conversation about immigrants that “degrades the image of Christ and does not find a place in Scripture where we are called over and over to welcome the stranger.”
We are proud of our volunteers who resist federal policies that distort the biblical and American traditions while serving their neighbors who live in fear of unjust deportations.
Anita Halasz is executive director and Richard Koubek is community outreach coordinator of Long Island Jobs with Justice, an advocacy organization based in Hauppauge.