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I’m a pastor who went to the border. Here’s what I saw

By Elizabeth Villegas

Top Justice Department officials have been implicated in immigrant child separation policies in 2018, telling U.S. prosecutors that even the youngest children should be taken from their parents. I wonder how many of these officials ever went to the border. I did, and it still haunts me.

My husband and I are pastors in North Carolina, a state where one in twelve residents are immigrants. In 2016, I went to Tijuana with Duke Divinity School where we spoke with families who had just been deported. These were not criminals. They were desperate parents taking desperate measures. They were people who had escaped violent situations and now had to return to them.

We also went to Phoenix, Arizona, where we saw Operation Streamline in effect – the zero tolerance immigration deportation effort that had started in 2005. A single judge can try up to 80 defendants simultaneously. I saw 45 people tried and sentenced for illegal entry in 30 minutes. All I kept hearing was, “Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.” Men and women were shackled together by their feet like livestock, and five at a time were brought before the judge. Then they were taken to jail, where they would stay for 30 days before they were deported.

Our broken immigration system didn’t start in 2016. It has been going on for years. And as presidents move in and out of office, the needle moves a little to the left, a little to the right. But it’s still broken. The system hurts people, and it kills people.

I have three kids. What came home with me from that trip was the realization that I would cross the desert, too, to get my children away from violence or to get them proper medical care. I would be guilty too. That’s why my church has continued to do ministry with immigrants ever since.

My husband and I found our local English as a Second Language class, and we started going to the classes. We weren’t teaching. We just went and brought snacks. This turned into friendships. We invited students to our church, and eventually, we started hosting an ESL group at our church too. Then we started a monthly ESL dinner. We bring English speakers together with Spanish speakers, and they take turns preparing the meals, and they get to know each other.

How have we gotten to a place, as a predominantly Christian country, where we are profiling immigrants as villains? The Christian faith was built on the backs of two immigrant women who defied the laws of their time. Mary, the mother of Jesus, fled with him to Egypt to escape persecution after he was born. And Moses’s mother, the Bible tells us, was also not afraid of the king’s edicts.

As someone who lives in community with immigrants, I can’t help but look at politics and recognize how it’s directly hurting the people that I love, how it’s directly hurting my kids’ friends. I see how hard it is for asylum seekers in my church just to set up doctors’ appointments for their children.

This country isn’t set up anymore to welcome strangers in the way that we’re taught in school. Instead, it’s set up not only to keep them out, but to impose lasting trauma on even the youngest children. The America I want to live in is the one where people who look different from each other and speak different languages will cook dinner for each other because they see our sameness underneath. How do we get there as a country?

Rev. Elizabeth Villegas is an Advocacy Organizer for Choose Welcome and serves multi-denominationally in Hertford County, NC and Southeastern Virginia.