Advocacy for 'The Least of These" on the Hill

March 29, 2017

I am currently in Washington D.C. with 20-some other ELCA bishops, and a similar number of ELCA Churchwide staff members, D.C. based ELCA Legislative Advocates and partner ministry people. Tomorrow we will all head out to talk with various members of congress (or usually their staffers) about out Immigration and Refugee concerns. Yes, this focus has been fueled by President Trump's Executive Orders and governmental action around these issues.

Tomorrow I will be visiting with Oregon state senators and representatives - or again, mostly likely staff members of theirs. I'll be in the offices of Sen. Merkley, Sen.  Wyden and Rep. Schrader. I anticipate that the people I visit will be on much the same page as our church. The question, then, is how to make the best us of our time(s) together.

As a rule in Advocacy it does not serve anybody to spend time on concerns that can't be leveraged. Were I here on climate concerns I might want to speak to "leaving oil in the ground." But, the current administration and congress wants to pump all they can. So, what do you talk about? I met with a 25 year staffer for the EPA over breakfast today, and we talked about this. What one would talk about is how to pump oil mindful of who might be getting hurt and how one minimizes negative impacts of such a practice. That's just reality. (What he and I, and a few others actually talked about, though, was how to make the voice of faith more present in the climate and environmental conversations!)

Overall our agreed upon, ELCA message for tomorrow is "Welcome and Protect.

  • How do we continue to Welcome Asylum seekers and Refugees to the country? The current Administrative cap on Refugee welcome for 2017 is 50,000 individuals. This is down from the 110,000 proposed by Pres. Obama before leaving office and well below the 100s of thousands we have welcomed in the past. In fact, a cap of 50,000 refugees is the smallest number ever for the U.S. since formal refugee programs have been established. "Is this something you, Senator, can help speak to?"
    • In this conversation I will speak to common religious values held by all people of faith - and values held by out country for 200 years.
    • We are all immigrants. Not so, of course - some of us our indigenous Americans and some arrived here as slaves - but as a Lutheran church we remember and value our immigrant roots. We deeply value the immigrant stories of others. I have some personal stories of Oregon, Latino immigrants and their current struggles in hand - always good for advocacy. And, I have my family story as a German/Lutheran immigrant.
    • "Welcome," however, is not largely under the control of Congress. It is the president that has set the 50,000 person cap. So . . . moving on.
  • Protection. How do we protect children and families, those fleeing from Mexico and Central America, those in detention or transition in U.S. boarder facilities, or those already in the country? This would include families whose members are of mixed documentation status, Dreamers, etc. etc. We know most people coming north from Central America are fleeing, and experiencing, vicious gang activity in cities, drought and climate induced weather events in agricultural communities, drug cartels, sex trafficking and extortion. How do we know this? We know this because we talk with these people, because we have relationships with sister churches in these countries, because we have taken the time and energy to travel to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to see for ourselves. These are the stories we as a church can share.
    • There are a number of existent laws designed to protect families seeking asylum, or more specifically to protect children and the integrity of families seeking refugee status. "Can you, Senator, help us see that these laws are followed?"
    • We know that the countries in question have virtually no ability to repatriate people our government expels and "sends back home." "Can you, Senator, work towards a robust International Affairs Budget that helps such countries and through peaceful means help the citizens of such countries be safe and not have to flee?"
    • How can we help speed up processing for families who have been 'stuck' in the U.S. transition system for going on two years now? "Senator, can you help us give this issues some visibility?"

Because I know, or at least suspect, that those I talk with will be on the same page one other question I will have for them is, "How can I - how can we as a church - help you in your work?" Part of the answer, I know, will be through sharing our stories from 'on the ground.' Congress can't do their work if we don't talk with them. 

Attached here are some of the documentation we, present here for these few days, were given for background reading. There was more, but I though these might be of interest to you.

My personal goals as I do this work, and return home, will be:

  1. Refer to Asylum Seekers and Refugees by these very words, for this is just what they are. "Illegal Immigrants," "Mexico's rejects," "People we don't want here," is neither honest, respectful or morally acceptable. Nobody wants to leave their homes, their people, their farms or their families. People fleeing from Central America do so for love, for the love of their children and their families. They are courageous individuals. I am going to work more intentionally to re-frame the conversation.
  2. To increasingly connect Oregon Synod congregations with the ELCA AMMPARO program. More to come on this!
  3. To continue to help facilitate the work we do as leaders around sanctuary concerns.

Thank you for your prayers for those of us in D.C. this week. Thank you to those we answered my "What shall I say to them?" question from a prior post. A lot of you said, "Don't let them build the wall." (Or something to that effect.) This decision would seem to rest in the hands of our president more than our congress. Funding will be a "separate ask" from the White House following the adoption of a 2018 budget. I'm not totally sure how that works yet. But, as one Central American voice with us this week said, "If my children were starving, or their lives were at risk, I wouldn't let a wall stop me." Whether we agree with such a sentiment of not, it is easy to see the truth of this for so many others. A wall won't solve anybody's problems.


Bp. Dave