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© Frank

interviews

From Pew to Poll

by Matthew Soerens
April 1, 2020

This interview with Matthew Soerens, the US Director of Church Mobilization for World Relief, was conducted and condensed by frank news. 

frank | Will you tell me about the work you do?

MS | I work for an organization called World Relief, a Christian humanitarian organization started in the 1940s. We work in about a dozen countries around the world. Since the 1970s, we’ve also been one of the organizations that partners with the US State Department to resettle refugees. We were founded, and still are a subsidiary of, the National Association of Evangelicals.

We are a faith based organization; our mission is to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable.

In the US context, we’ve particularly focused on serving refugees and other immigrants.

My role is focused on helping churches and other Christian institutions think through issues of immigration through a Christian theological perspective, that's also informed by an understanding of how immigration law and policy work. I am also the national coordinator for the Evangelical Immigration Table, which helps to lead with a bunch of larger national evangelical Christian entities, denominations and other networks. 

How has your day to day work changed since Coronavirus? 

I think the biggest thing that has changed is that it almost feels a bit tone deaf to reach out to a church and say, “Hey, you want to have a biblical conversation about immigration?” It doesn't relate back to the experience we're all living in the very immediate term. It seems a bit off to most people. 

But, there are a lot of people who we would have categorized as vulnerable before this crisis hit, who are probably more vulnerable now. Either because of the economic dynamics or vulnerability to the virus itself. A lot of my work in the last two weeks has been trying to focus on how we call our constituencies of churches and individual Christians – as they take care of themselves and their families, which of course we want to encourage them to do – to not forget that there are people who are even more vulnerable in this context than most of us are. How do we focus there?

Are you looking at health conditions in detention centers holding detained immigrants?

Anyone who can't practice social distancing should be an area of concern. There are a number of those groups; those who sleep at homeless shelters, someone who is incarcerated. But where that most directly affects our work, is people who are in immigrant detention facilities, which look a lot like incarceration.

A detention facility looks as most people would imagine a jail to look, but technically it's not supposed to be punitive. 

Most people there have not committed criminal offenses; it's people who have pending civil immigration proceedings in front of them, whether that's an asylum hearing or they've been living unlawfully in the country for 20 years and they're now facing deportation, which might be because they committed a crime and that brought them to the attention of ICE. Often, it's not related to any criminal activity at all. Those individuals are people we've been particularly concerned about, especially to the extent that some of them are older or have underlying health conditions. 

Literally the consequences for having crossed the border unlawfully 20 years ago could be a death sentence if they're going to contract this disease in the detention center. 

What are you recommending detention centers do?

The most obvious thing to do would be to start with those who don't have criminal convictions. In a vast majority of cases there is no reason to think that there is a public safety threat. I'm not saying release them if there is a threat to public safety. But in the vast majority of cases, that's not the case. 

It's people who only have civil violations. If they have a criminal violation, the most common charge is unlawful entry. It’s not a violent offense, it is related to their immigration status. Or those who got picked up for minor traffic violations, even a DUI – I'm not condoning driving under the influence of alcohol, but we wouldn't give someone the death penalty for that. And that’s what we are looking at if someone has an underlying health condition. I would argue that the Department of Homeland Security should be paroling those people out.

How do you get DHS to do that? What needs to happen?

They have the authority to do that immediately. 

To be fair, I think they are doing so in some cases. Even in the last 24 hours, I've heard of people who've been detained for quite a long time being released. I'm hoping they are coming to that conclusion, or that some of the advocacy is having that effect. But I don't know yet if that's happening across the board, or if this is a more of a localized decision that's happening in a few places.

You also focus on the undocumented population. How do our current circumstances affect them?

That's certainly an area with a population of unique vulnerability. They're uniquely vulnerable before this happens, which means they're going to be uniquely vulnerable in the midst of this crisis. Undocumented immigrants are more likely to lack insurance, which might make them less likely to go get tested and get treatment.  Where we've particularly seen undocumented immigrants affected is more in terms of economics because they tend to be disproportionately at the front lines of some of the industries that are most affected in the short term, like restaurants.

I pulled stats from the Pew Research Center that found that 10% of food preparation and serviceworkers are undocumented. In my neighborhood, I can tell you it's a lot higher than that. Maybe that's true at a national level, or maybe it's hard to get good data on people who don't like to answer surveys, like from employers who are violating the law by hiring them. But where I live most restaurants have at least kitchen staff who are mostly immigrants, and a significant share of them are undocumented. Those people are almost all out of work or down to minimal hours. When you are paid on an hourly basis, and you went from working 60 hours a week to working 10 hours a week, you suddenly don't know how to pay rent. I know people who are affected by that directly and it's happening all over the country. 

Do you anticipate any federal action putting cash in undocumented workers hands? 

Do I anticipate it? Honestly, no. Do I think it would be morally appropriate? Yes. 

If somebody is getting paid under the table, I have no idea how, logistically, that could get sorted out. But for people who filed their taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Notification Number, which is this special number that the Internal Revenue Service created decades ago, whether it was originally its purpose or not, it is now basically how undocumented people file their taxes. This is something that most Americans do not know exists; people do not realize we have this alternate way to file your taxes if you are ineligible for a social security number. But we do have that system and there's four and half a million people who filed their taxes in the last year that we have data for, using those numbers. 

There are probably 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, many of which are children who probably do not work. So likely, the majority of undocumentted people working are filing their taxes with those ITINS. It would be very easy to give them the same sort of stimulus check that recently passed. I am expecting myself to receive that check. That's really nice. We'll use that, or share it with a family in need. But I know people who could use it a lot more right now. From an economic standpoint, if you want to keep money moving through the economy, you give those stimulus checks to people who are going to spend it the day they get it, instead of people who might save it, or think about their children’s college education for the future. And undocumented folks are usually in that first category.

I should make clear, some of them are also working 60 hours a week right now at grocery stores or in hospitals. They're also on the front lines of the people who are considered essential, and frankly, are at more risk than most other people. In the grocery store I shop at, there's no toilet paper and there's no canned foods, but somehow there is still produce, which means somebody is still picking produce in the fields in California. The vast majority of those people are immigrants, and the majority of those immigrants are undocumented.

Do you see the supply chain being affected at all?

At this point it doesn't seem to be affected. I don’t know agriculture work well enough, but I've seen people working and sometimes they are working closely together. It seems possible to me that could be a place where the disease starts to spread. It tends to be a younger workforce, which could mean that a lot of people get it and not ever have symptoms, which is a whole other problem for the spread. I certainly worry that that could happen and affect the workforce, then maybe Americans would appreciate how important those immigrant workers are. 

But for the time being, they're still working and it’s not just undocumented immigrants, but also resettled refugees. A ton of those folks work in food processing. Not picking the crops but putting them in packages and refrigerated warehouses. Those are essential jobs. Those don't pause when a lot of other jobs pause.

Do you think the pandemic will be politicized to push border conversations?

Yeah, I mean, I would be naive having lived through the last several years to not presume that would be the case. 

And how do you see that playing out?

Some of the narrative will be: this is a foreign disease and foreign people brought it and we have to watch out for foreigners.

We won’t hear that from any epidemiologists who know that we live in a globalized society, and no disease is going to stay in one place. 

It has already been part of the narrative with people calling this the “Chinese Virus.” Somebody asked me about that and my response was, well do we talk about the Zoom meetings we're all doing as Chinese? Zoom was founded by a Chinese immigrant. Do we talk about the doctor saving people's lives as that Chinese doctor? 

We don't usually refer to people based on their places of origin. And if we're doing so only in response to the virus, that's a pretty good clue that we are not being very even handed. As far as we can tell this originated in China, but that doesn't have anything to do with many, many Chinese Americans or other Asian Americans who are being maligned right now as a result of those origins. 

I would also say, there are decisions that have been made around, for example, shutting down refugee resettlement or closing borders, which I think might be prudent in terms of a public health response. I worry that pretext might be used to keep borders closed for longer than is medically necessary. And from people who have been trying to restrict refugee resettlement for a long time. 

You occupy a pointedly contentious space between the evangelical church and immigration. A recent article in the New York Times connected evangelicals and the political response to Coronavirus. 

I read that piece. It basically highlighted a few anecdotal cases of evangelicals who are anti-science and doing things like holding large church services in defiance of science-driven requests to practice social distancing. But the reality is the vast, vast majority of churches have cancelled their Sunday services or moved their services online. To be honest, this sort of piece – which I realize is perhaps all some New York Times readers know about evangelicals – is not that far from President Trump’s infamous claim that Mexican immigrants are bringing drugs and crime and are rapist… “and some,” he assumes, “are good people.” This piece had a similar statement, after highlighting several negative examples: “Not every pastor is behaving recklessly, of course,” but the author doesn’t bother to mention any such pastors by name, nor that they represent the vast majority of churches, nor that many prominent evangelicals like Rick Warren have called it “dumb” and “unbiblical” to continue to hold in-person gatherings. 

Whether it’s a Republican presidential candidate talking about Mexican immigrants or a liberal opinion writer focused on evangelicals, it’s usually a bad idea to highlight the worst examples of any group of people without acknowledging how exceptional they are. 

When it comes to media coverage of evangelical views on immigration, the real story is more nuanced than is typically assumed. The majority of white evangelicals were opposed to the family separation policy that the Trump administration put into place a few years ago, but the majority of white evangelicals also support a wall. Depending on which poll you look at, most white evangelicals are supportive of Dreamers getting legal status. Yet they're also the religious demographic most likely to say that immigrants present a threat to our customs and values. It's not quite as simple as evangelicals hate immigrants or love immigrants. 

My job is to say, actually, I don't care what the polls say on this. If we're evangelicals, our views should be driven by the scriptures. So let's look at what the Bible says.

And the Bible, it turns out, is a very pro-immigrant book, with some nuance as well. There are passages about respecting governing authorities. I'm not condoning any violation of law or saying that doesn't matter. But we think immigration has actually been very good for the United States. It's been very good for the church in the United States. First or second generation immigrants are a very significant part of growth in evangelicalism in the United States. Biblically, we're commanded to welcome the stranger, to quote Jesus's words in Matthew 25, and to love our neighbors. And it's hard to read Jesus's parable of the good Samaritan and not conclude that your neighbor might be someone who is ethnically or even religiously different than you.

Do you find yourself in biblical debates with other evangelicals about immigration?

I would say what is far more common is debates that are not about the Bible at all. I'll come into a conversation with all these Bible verses and they'll say, but they broke the law, but they're criminals, but they're terrorists. 

Then we can just point to the facts. Yes, some people committed crimes, but let's look at overall crime rates. Immigrants, whether lawfully present or not, commit crimes at lower rates than native born us citizens, and there is good data on that. 

Evangelical churches have largely failed to disciple, which is a Christian word for teach, people in their congregations to think about this topic from a Christian theological perspective. We know that both anecdotally and from surveys where self-described evangelical Christians, say they've never heard about this topic in church. They get silence on the issue, and then they're watching cable news and reading things on the internet.

The cable news that most white evangelicals consume is very different than the cable news that secular Americans consume.

Right. Have you come to understand the driving motivation for white, American evangelicals, to be the loudest in the room in conservative politics and media?

To me it's a cyclical chicken or the egg problem. The problem is people haven't heard about this. They haven't heard a Christian perspective on immigration rooted in the Bible from their local churches. They haven't heard that perspective because their pastors are either uncomfortable, afraid, or feel ill equipped to address the issue. Part of that is, it's a complicated issue for anyone, very few people in this country actually understand US immigration law. But it's also fear.

If I speak on this topic as a pastor, I fear that 10% of my church might not come back next week.

If our struggling church, which is already facing some downward economic pressures, loses tithers then we can't sustain our ministry. So the easiest thing to do is just not address this at all. My challenge to those pastors, who I sympathize with very genuinely, is that this issue is too fundamental to the core of who Jesus calls us to be as his followers for us to ignore. 

Our work has been effective amongst people who are deeply theologically grounded evangelical Christians. Where we've really not been sure how to engage is this category of nominal evangelicals, who don’t actually go to church. You're not going to reach them by getting pastors to talk about this topic, unless it's Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday, because they don't actually go to church except for on holidays.

They still show up as an evangelical on a poll.

People who self-identify in the polls as evangelical, but who aren’t actually affiliated with an evangelical church and don’t actually have distinctly evangelical theological beliefs, are the biggest challenge for us. I mean if you look at the most anti-immigrant voices among prominent evangelicals – and there aren't very many of them – generally don't have institutional affiliations to think about. The ones that represent institutions such as denominations are usually either totally silent on this topic or actually quite supportive. And part of that is they don't represent “white evangelicals.” They represent a whole constituency, many of whom are not white. In many denominations, a quarter of their congregations are immigrants or their children, who are interacting with immigration issues in real time. 

USCIS [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] is closed at the moment. There's a pause on asylum courts and hearings. Do you think that has a positive or negative effect upon reopening?

I don't know. I wake up at night thinking about that. There are political forces in the United States that have been very clear about trying to, for example, shut down refugee resettlements, and have largely done so. There have been efforts to not abide by the terms of the trafficking victims protection reauthorization act, which governs how our government deals with unaccompanied children apprehended at the border. 

The government is taking the position that these things need to be put on hold right now for public health reasons. There's a good chance that some of these are reasonable decisions, given the very unique global public health crisis we’re facing. I wish I could trust it was solely out of public health concerns, and that our country will go back to abiding by what I believe is an appropriate law as soon as medically appropriate. Obviously we haven't even hit the peak of this crisis medically. But I hope that we resume processing entries into the refugee resettlement program as soon as would be appropriate from a science based perspective. 

I'm not gonna say the US should never restrict travel. El Salvador has restricted US citizens from traveling to its country. And that makes a lot of sense. If I was El Salvador, I'd do the same thing right now. I've spent time in Central America and I know that they do not have the hospital infrastructure to deal with the disease on a scale such as it is hitting New York City right now, or China, or Italy. 

So I think it may make sense in this very unique moment to restrict some travel and I think it would be fair for that to go both ways if there are legitimate concerns. 

I think the question is, is that the motivation or is this being used as a pretext for other purposes? And I don't think we know that.