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My first-ever visit to a jail-like setting took place during an October 2015 trip to Thailand, where I met with Christian Pakistani refugees.
There, at an immigration detention center in Bangkok, I met Arbab. At the time, he was 21, with soft brown eyes and an innocent smile. His dark, curly bangs and beard covered his face because he couldn’t cut them while in detention. He’d been stuck in a cell for more than six months, with no contact with his family and no money to pay bail.
We spoke behind two separate chain-link fences, standing about 4 feet apart, and we both gripped the metal wires as he told me his story. He said his father was a lawyer who defended Christians against Muslims back in Pakistan. When the family started receiving death threats from Islamic groups, Arbab and his family grabbed their bags and fled to Thailand, where they hoped to appeal to the United Nations for refugee status.
The problem was, they entered Thailand on a tourist visa and then stayed beyond the expiration date—which meant the Thai government now considered them undocumented immigrants. Because Thailand never ratified the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, Arbab’s family had no legal protection or rights in Thailand.
I heard many stories like Arbab’s while in Thailand: Thai police broke apartment doors, roused dozens of Pakistani refugees from sleep, and trucked them to the immigration detention center. Pakistanis are easy to spot with their darker complexions and deep-set eyes, so few dared venture out of their houses for fear of being arrested and detained. Arbab got caught while trying to find a job—and now he occupied a cell so packed that he could barely find space to sit or lie down, with such inadequate meals that he’d lost weight. I heard similar reports of detainees taking turns to sleep back-to-back; of air so humid and suffocating that cellmates stripped down to their underwear; and of malnutrition, poor medical care, and deaths.
These stories horrified me. The horror became even more real when I met these refugees, looked into their eyes, drank their milky tea, and sat next to them as they cried tears of fear and hope. I remember thinking, “I’ll bet the United States wouldn’t deal with these people so unjustly.” At that time, the country I knew and loved was a place that welcomes the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free—and I knew these families would be a beautiful blessing to any country that would receive them.
I wrote about their desperate plights for WORLD, attracting many reader responses filled with outrage and compassion. Some even asked if they could sponsor these families. While Thai officials saw these refugees as lawbreakers, our readers saw them as brothers and sisters in Christ.
That is why, during one of the worst global refugee crises in history, it’s been upsetting to see similar things happening in my own country: Inhumane conditions in detention centers, the stripping of our asylum system, a record cut to refugee resettlement numbers, family separations, sending asylum-seekers back to dangerous border cities in Mexico … If you want a larger understanding of our current border policies, I created a timeline of some of the major policy changes that have taken place in the last two years.
But even more disappointing are some of the voices within my own evangelical circles. Some people seem to view immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers with suspicion and fear rather than justice and compassion. I say all this not as a journalist, but as a fellow Christian and an immigrant who loves my adoptive country. I say it not as someone who champions open borders, but as someone who values security, law, and order yet also seeks humane treatment toward those who seek refuge from us.
In my six years of reporting for WORLD, I have never received so many negative, impassioned emails and comments as I have over the topic of immigration and the border. Here are some main objections: Many readers are upset because they sense criticism against the Trump administration, criticism that to them smells a lot like the liberal mainstream media freaking out over everything involving President Trump. Some asked why I don’t mention migrants who commit terrible crimes, but that’s not the same as asylum-seekers. Some point fingers at “liberal lawyers” coaching asylum-seekers to create fraudulent claims (yes, lawyers “coach” their clients—they help them understand the law and look for legal ways to make their case). Many state that most of these “so-called asylum-seekers” released into the United States just disappear (statistics state the opposite) or take advantage of government benefits (asylum-seekers cannot receive federal benefits until they receive asylum—and even so, only for a limited time). Some have asked why people don’t just apply for asylum at the U.S. embassies in their own countries (because the United States doesn’t accept asylum applications that way).
There are a lot of misunderstandings regarding immigration (a very complicated system) and the current border crisis (another complicated, multilayered phenomenon). Some of those misunderstandings are due to the time and effort necessary to read up on the history, geopolitical events, and laws that make up the border issue. It doesn’t help that border policies and laws are changing seemingly every week. Honestly, I’m still barely keeping up and am trying to educate myself—and this is literally my job.
That said, these objections reflect a stance similar to that of Thai officials cracking down on Christian Pakistani refugees: “They broke the law. We can’t handle the amount of their needs. We can’t be sure to trust them. We need to secure our border and protect our citizens.” And absolutely—these are all valid reasons. But surely we can still find room for humane treatment, recognize the tough choices people feel forced to make, and listen to their stories not just through the judgment of law, but with grace and empathy for fellow image-bearers of God.
What’s more, our laws are not always God’s law. Our laws change all the time, reflecting the latest stance of our culture and government. I’m sure many people who support our government’s zero-tolerance immigration policies today also balk at implementing something like the Chinese Exclusion Act or Jim Crow laws. Call me naïve: I think a just and law-enforcing yet compassionate approach is possible. The National Immigration Forum lists some good strategies.
I don’t believe that people who support the Trump administration’s border policies are cruel, unsympathetic folks. And I don’t want to suggest that all the responses I’ve gotten from readers have been critical—some have been refreshing and encouraging. I appreciate people who ask for more resources because they’re still not sure what to believe, because at least it demonstrates a willingness to seek and measure truth.
So here’s my plea: It’s OK that we Christians disagree on certain policies regarding immigration. But precisely because immigration policies are not something that the gospel is all that clear about, we should keep an open mind and not just rely on our favorite news source to form staunch opinions. The truth is usually a lot more complex than quick news bites and tweets.
For those who want deeper understanding, here are some good resources:
• This article and this one explain the basics of our immigration system and why it’s not so easy to “just get in line.”
• Welcoming the Stranger by World Relief’s Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang is a good beginner’s guide to help Christians look Biblically at immigration.
• World Relief has a helpful two-part series answering prevalent border crisis questions, including questions about the asylum process.
• The Evangelical Immigration Table is a good go-to place to learn, pray, and speak out as a church community.
• For those of you who prefer to listen rather than read, I’ve really enjoyed the This Week in Immigration podcast by the Bipartisan Policy Center—you’ll find the commentators balanced, knowledgeable, and apolitical.