by Jim Killam | 6-minute read
Chicago attorney Hunter Wiggins frequently travels to the Mexican border at Laredo, Texas, to give free legal representation to people seeking asylum in the U.S. At our March 15 forum, he will lay a Christ-centered foundation for understanding immigration issues. Then he will discuss changing interpretations of U.S. immigration law, what is happening to families and individuals at the border — and how Christians can respond.
Here’s part of our recent conversation with Hunter.
How did you get involved personally in this issue?
For a long part of my career, I have been involved in a whole range of pro bono issues. A couple of years ago the law firm I was working with at the time had opened an opportunity to go down to Laredo, Texas. They built a small immigration clinic to work firsthand, primarily with women and children who were seeking asylum coming across the border into Texas.
As a result of that, and of the things that God was doing to me in my heart, I became very captured by this. … I just kept going down there more and more, close to 15 times, and meeting with hundreds of women and men who have been held, frankly, in prisons that are not called prisons. Who are seeking asylum.
Has your personal view evolved as you have been around the people living this story?
Over 20 or 25 years, God has instilled a deep sense of justice and mercy in me. It has taken different forms. But becoming closer to it has made it more salient. I don’t think my overall views of how we should treat poor and vulnerable people have changed, but what I have seen (in Laredo), and the overall church’s response to it, has brought it into focus for me.
Clearly this is a polarizing issue in our country. How do we talk about it, even in a church setting, without it becoming just another pro- or anti-Trump argument?
I understand that it’s polarizing politically. But I am frankly kind of shocked that it’s polarizing within the church. I think people can have a wide range of views about things politically. I think how the church speaks, and how Jesus speaks, about poor and vulnerable people is fairly clear. Now, how you best care for poor and vulnerable people might have a range of political options, but I think the fact that the church is called to be a voice and to be a caregiver to those folks shouldn’t really be in dispute. So I’m a bit surprised when I find that it is.
I try to think about it in the context of being a member of the kingdom of God first, and a member of a particular nation a very distant second. So with that lens, I would hope that some of the elements of polarization would fall away.
How would you say most Americans misunderstand what is happening today at the Mexican border?
I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding about what is causing people to seek refugee and asylum status. The misunderstanding is that it is primarily driven by economic opportunism, rather than being driven by true danger and risk of harm.
What is happening today in terms of families being separated?
The family separation was visible inside the United States and it caused a tremendous uproar. So instead, there has been a change in practice to make it less visible. And the result has been less attention.
The Mexican state of Nuevo Leon (across the Rio Grande river from Laredo, Texas) has the same safety designation as Sudan and North Korea. It is deemed a place that no American should travel. And this is where we tell people they should stay with their children for a month, while they wait to come back for their hearing. If they survive and are able to make it back to the hearing in a month, usually there’s another hearing. And another hearing. And if at any point they fail to make that hearing, or something happens to them, then their case is dismissed. This has resulted in more than 50,000 potential refugees and asylum-seekers amassing along the border of Mexico, where they are preyed on and robbed, and raped, and in some cases murdered by gangs who recognize their vulnerability.
That is a new policy in the last six to eight months, and it’s the reason why you don’t see or hear about separated kids as much. It creates a situation of “out of sight, out of mind” for many Americans. They are not out of sight and out of mind to Jesus, and they should not be out of sight and out of mind to the church.
So it becomes less a question about politics?
This is a place I would draw a distinction between how the church should act and how a government might act. The government may think that is a fine policy. I think the church should not see it as such. … The church ought to recognize what is happening to these people whom Jesus has told us to care for, and we ought to be doing something about it.
The countries about which we are talking — Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras — each of those countries is more than 85 percent Christian. Two of them have a larger percentage of Christian population than the United States does. So these are our brothers and sisters in Christ in addition to our fellow human beings. I think people might want to know that.
What would be a best-case result from the forum you’re going to be doing at our church?
That more people learn what’s really happening. Let their hearts be talked to by the Holy Spirit, and let him take them where they should go. The fact that you all even want to have this conversation is a wonderful thing.
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Loving the Stranger: A Christian Reflection on Refugees and Immigration
6 to 7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 15
First Free Rockford
2223 N. Mulford Road