After protesters shouting “Go home” turned back busloads of immigrant mothers and children in Murrieta, Calif., a furious Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, sat down at his notepad and drafted a blog post detailing his shame at the episode, writing, “It was un-American; it was unbiblical; it was inhumane.”
When the governor of Iowa, Terry E. Branstad, said he did not want the migrants in his state, declaring, “We can’t accept every child in the world who has problems,” clergy members in Des Moines held a prayer vigil at a United Methodist Church to demonstrate their desire to make room for the refugees.
The United States’ response to the arrival of tens of thousands of migrant children, many of them fleeing violence and exploitation in Central America, has been symbolized by an angry pushback from citizens and local officials who have channeled their outrage over illegal immigration into opposition to proposed shelter sites. But around the nation, an array of religious leaders are trying to mobilize support for the children, saying the nation can and should welcome them.
“We’re talking about whether we’re going to stand at the border and tell children who are fleeing a burning building to go back inside,” said Rabbi Asher Knight of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, who said leaders of more than 100 faith organizations in his city had met last week to discuss how to help. He said that in his own congregation, some were comparing the flow of immigrant children to the Kindertransport, a rescue mission in the late 1930s that sent Jewish children from Nazi Germany to Britain for safekeeping.
“The question for us is: How do we want to be remembered, as yelling and screaming to go back, or as using the teachings of our traditions to have compassion and love and grace for the lives of God’s children?” Rabbi Knight said.
The backlash to the backlash is broad, from Unitarian Universalists and Quakers to evangelical Protestants. Among the most agitated are Catholic bishops, who have long allied with Republican politicians against abortion and same-sex marriage, and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose adherents tend to lean right.
“This is a crisis, and not simply a political crisis, but a moral one,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. On Tuesday, Mr. Moore led a delegation of Southern Baptist officials to visit refugee children at detention centers in San Antonio and McAllen, Tex. In an interview after the visit, Mr. Moore said that “the anger directed toward vulnerable children is deplorable and disgusting” and added: “The first thing is to make sure we understand these are not issues, these are persons. These children are made in the image of God, and we ought to respond to them with compassion, not with fear.”
Also on Tuesday, a coalition of evangelical organizations sent a letter to members of Congress, opposing proposals for expedited deportation of the migrants. A similar letter is being prepared by a wide range of mainline denominations, including the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Earlier this month, 20 national Jewish groups issued their own statement.
The Catholic Church also opposes any effort to make it easier to deport children; last week, the archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Francis E. George, said he had offered facilities in his diocese to house some of the children, and on Monday, bishops in Dallas and Fort Worth called for lawyers to volunteer to represent the children at immigration proceedings.
“We have to put our money where our mouth is in this country,” said Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We tell other countries to protect human rights and accept refugees, but when we get a crisis on our border, we don’t know how to respond.”
Republicans have rejected calls by Democrats for $2.7 billion in funds to respond to the crisis, demanding changes in immigration law to make it easier to send children back to Central America. And while President Obama says he is open to some changes, many Democrats have opposed them, and Congress is now deadlocked.
Various religious groups are trying to assist the migrants directly by offering food, shelter and legal services. The Episcopal Church is providing hygiene and nutrition packets; the United Methodist Church is offering showers and clothing; the United Church of Christ has started a nationwide fund-raising appeal. Catholic Charities U.S.A. has opened seven “welcome centers” along the border.
“As a Christian organization, we feel like we have no choice — we are clearly called by Scripture to respond to all children in need,” said Jesse Eaves, the senior adviser for child protection at World Vision, a large evangelical charity.
Attitudes among evangelicals are changing, particularly at the leadership level, according to the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
“I remember when my fellow evangelicals said, ‘Deport them all, they’re here illegally, end of story,’ but the leadership now supports immigration reform,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “There’s still angst in the pews, but if they listen more to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John than to Rush Limbaugh, they’ll act with compassion towards these children.”
The Rev. Larry Snyder, the president of Catholic Charities U.S.A., said the charitable work had not been welcomed in every community.
“Some city authorities are intimidated by the hate talk that you hear, and I even talk to some pastors who say they have to be careful because their parishioners aren’t behind us,” Father Snyder said. “If Jesus said anything, it was that your neighbor is everyone. I wish people would embrace that a little more than they do.”
Asked about the concerns religious organizations are expressing about unaccompanied minors, the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said, “Generous acts from average citizens don’t routinely generate headlines, but they accurately reflect the values of the vast majority of Americans.”
A spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner did not respond to a request for comment.
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Some political leaders have cited religious or moral arguments in offering support for the migrants. On Friday, Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts tearfully cited the Bible and declared, “I don’t know what good there is in faith if we can’t, and won’t, turn to it in moments of human need,” as he suggested that migrant children could be temporarily housed at military bases in his state.
And on Monday, briefing reporters in Rome after meeting with a top Vatican official, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York praised Pope Francis’ support for the migrant children and said, “I emphasize that New York City agrees with the position of the Holy See, that we have to embrace all immigrants.”
In Des Moines on Monday night, the mayor, Frank Cownie, attended the church vigil held by supporters of the migrant children. About 200 people gathered, from Catholic, Lutheran, United Methodist, Quaker and United Church of Christ congregations, as they heard stories from immigrants and expressed a desire to change the way their state’s posture toward the migrants might be perceived.
“I think for me the most important thing is to show that people in Iowa are compassionate and welcoming,” said the Rev. Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz, the pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church.