As violent demonstrations roil Hong Kong, a bold group of volunteers is providing moral support and physical protection for young protesters
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.
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A New York moment:
We’re all reeling from the brutal murders of four homeless men, including 83-year-old Cheun Kok, over the weekend. The suspect is 24-year-old homeless man with a history of violence. The murders highlight not only the vulnerability of people living on the street, but also the record levels of homelessness in the city even as Mayor Bill de Blasio has almost tripled spending on the problem.
The New York Times interviewed one pizza store owner who was sobbing over the deaths. That’s because Hakki Akdeniz was homeless in the city about 20 years ago. He found help and shelter at the Bowery Mission, a longtime Christian organization in the city serving the homeless, and Akdeniz now volunteers there. The city has seen record numbers in its shelter system, although the Times reports a slight decrease in the number of street homeless.
The Bowery Mission’s downtown shelter is close to where the crimes occurred. The organization said it is “shaken by this heartbreaking tragedy—and also renewed in our resolve for the work. We know that addiction, mental illness and homelessness do not need to lead to violence and death. Instead, we hold on to the hope of a renewed life.” Bowery announced it would hold a memorial service for the men on Thursday in its chapel.
The organization shared public transit directions to its shelters, including information about showers and mealtimes. For the last decade, churches in New York have banded together to walk every block in Manhattan each winter, offering help to the homeless. Bowery helps organize the event, called Don’t Walk By. In past outreaches I’ve attended, people living on the streets were often more interested in receiving help once they heard Bowery is a private shelter, because city shelters have a reputation for violence.
“You don’t have to worry about getting beat up here,” a longtime Bowery staffer told me in 2013.
Worth your time:
Atheism is the country’s fastest growing “religion,” and The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson analyzes this trend with input from the University of Notre Dame’s Christian Smith. WORLD recently published an excerpt from Smith’s book Atheist Overreach.
Thompson, who says he himself has “largely rejected” religion, comes to an interesting dilemma for the religionless: “Making friends as an adult without a weekly congregation is hard. Establishing a weekend routine to soothe Sunday-afternoon nerves is hard. Reconciling the overwhelming sense of life’s importance with the universe’s ostensible indifference to human suffering is hard.”
This week I learned:
You’re supposed to eat ramen really fast, because the noodles are only good for a few minutes. This chef encourages slurping.
A court case you might not know about:
I missed this fascinating, complicated case from earlier this summer, when a jury hit Oberlin College with a $44 million defamation ruling over its involvement in publicly shaming a local bakery as racist. Gibson’s bakery had allegedly detained an African American student caught shoplifting from the store, sparking student protests. Among other things, the school temporarily suspended its contract for baked goods with the store. The case is still going through appeals, so we could see more twists in the story.
Culture I am consuming:
I’ve been listening to an indie Korean singer who uses the name Rad Museum and whose album cover art paraphrases Romans 8:18: “I don’t think there’s any comparison between the present hard times and the coming good times.”
Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at email@example.com
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As the Hong Kong protests enter their fifth month, the clash between the democratic ideals of demonstrators and the authoritarianism of Beijing is now being felt in corporate America. This week, the National Basketball Association faces the choice all companies working in China must face: Free speech or access to the massive Chinese market?
On Friday, Daryl Morey, the general manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted an image with the popular protest slogan: “Fight for Freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” He quickly deleted the message, but the damage was done: Chinese sponsors paused their deals with the Rockets, major Chinese broadcasters dropped Rockets games, and two exhibition games for a team affiliated with the Rockets were canceled, according to The New York Times.
The NBA is extremely popular in China, with tech company Tencent reporting that 490 million people watched NBA programming last year. The Rockets have a huge Chinese fan base because Chinese native Yao Ming played for the team for nearly a decade.
Concerned about losing the Chinese market, Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta distanced himself from Morey, noting that Morey did not speak for the team and that the NBA was not a political organization. On Sunday night, Morey followed up with a tweet that read, “I did not intend my tweet to cause any offense to Rockets fans and friends of mine in China. I was merely voicing one thought, based on one interpretation, of one complicated event.”
NBA spokesman Mike Bass on Sunday sent out a statement saying it was “regrettable” that Morey’s tweet “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China.” But the Chinese-language statement the NBA posted on Weibo used much stronger language, saying it was “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment” and that Morey’s views “undoubtedly seriously hurt the feelings of Chinese basketball fans.”
The NBA faced a backlash from politicians and Americans who saw the organization as choosing money over morals. In the United States, the NBA had allowed its players and coaches to express political views regarding racism, police shootings, and gun control. The league refused to hold its All-Star Game in North Carolina because of a bathroom bill that the NBA claimed discriminated against transgender people.
“Basketball fans and the American people more broadly should have absolutely no doubt about what is happening here: The NBA wants money, and the Communist Party of China is asking them to deny the most basic of human rights,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. “In response, the NBA issued a statement saying money is the most important thing.” Other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have also criticized the move, including Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a Democratic presidential candidate.
Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, a Taiwan-born billionaire and the co-founder of Alibaba Group, issued a statement criticizing Morey. He claimed that Westerners misunderstood that all 1.4 billion Chinese “stand united when it comes to the territorial integrity of China and the country’s sovereignty over her homeland,” and added that the pro-democracy protesters supported a “separatist movement.” (Most Hong Kongers are not fighting for independence, but for China to give them the political autonomy it once promised.)
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told a Japanese publication that he supported Morey’s right to free speech. In response, Chinese government-run CCTV announced Tuesday it would stop broadcasting NBA preseason games. “Values of equality, respect and freedom of expression have long defined the NBA—and will continue to do so,” Silver reiterated in a statement Tuesday. “The NBA will not put itself in a position of regulating what players, employees, and team owners say or will not say on these issues.”
Chinese censors also banned South Park, the irreverent animated show on Comedy Central, from the Chinese internet Monday after a recent episode mocked how filmmakers censor their own movies to appeal to the Chinese market. A character in the show gets caught bringing marijuana into China and is sent to a labor camp similar to the ones in Xinjiang in which authorities are holding more than 1 million Uighurs.
In response to their banishment, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone crafted their own fake apology, mocking how China had banned images of Winnie the Pooh because of memes that compared the President Xi Jinping to the Disney cartoon character.
“Like the NBA, we welcome the Chinese censors into our homes and into our hearts,” the sarcastic statement read. “We too love money more than freedom and democracy. … Long live the great Communist Party of China! May this autumn’s sorghum harvest be bountiful! We good now China?”
U.S. action at last:
On Monday, the U.S. Commerce Department blacklisted 28 Chinese tech companies and government agencies for their involvement in the monitoring and detainment of Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang region. The groups, which include Hikvision and Megvii Technology, will be barred from buying products from U.S. companies without approval from Washington.