Serene Jones and Kelly Brown Douglas
President Biden is facing a pivotal moment on immigration policy—one that will define América’s image on its treatment of migrants in desperate need of help. It’s not going well.
Last month, the nation watched in horror as the government brutalized thousands of Haitian migrants at the U.S.-México border. These migrants—who risked their lives to travel to the United States due to a devastating earthquake, presidential assassination, and deep economic despair in their home country—were whipped by mounted U.S. border patrol agents and accosted with racist, derogatory slurs. While many immigrants gained entry to the United States, thousands were deported back to Haiti, some in chains. Now, there are reports that thousands more Haitian migrants are on their way to the United States.
All of this chaos is happening during the presidency of Joe Biden, who has made his deeply-felt Catholicism a centerpiece of his political career and carries rosary beads with him wherever he goes.
As leaders of a progressive seminary that uses faith to fuel social justice and frequently visits the border with students, we are appalled that a president who has defined himself by his faith is acting so diametrically opposed to its most basic tenets. He isn’t welcoming the poor, marginalized, and vulnerable; he’s turning them away. He isn’t getting rid of the Trump administration’s abuses; he’s continuing them. And he isn’t evincing any empathy for those risking their lives to reach the United States; he’s responding to them with anger and force.
That leaves us with a blunt message for the president: do better. Live up to the best and most deeply humane aspects of the Catholic tradition, which has spent centuries doing vital social justice work around the world. Let your faith—which has shaped your political career and policy beliefs for the better in so many ways—now also lead you to treat immigrants with respect and compassion.
We’re under no illusions that will be an easy step to take. We live in an age of profound xenophobia, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and overt racism. We understand that Biden’s current position is the safer one to take politically, especially with Republicans already racing to paint him as soft on immigration. But that’s no excuse for betraying his faith and all that it demands of its adherents.
This isn’t an abstract criticism: Biden has spent decades explicitly linking his politics with his faith. In a November 2020 interview with America Magazine, he stated, “Everything Jesus did was sort of consistent with what generically we were supposed to do: treat people with dignity.” His “Vision for America” platform during the Democratic National Convention explained that “The first obligation we all have is, ‘Love your God,’ the second one is, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” And his entire presidential campaign was framed as a “battle for the soul of the nation.”
Unfortunately, his presidency hasn’t lived up to this, particularly on immigration. For months, he has continued to use the inhumane practices put in place by former President Trump, arguably the most anti-immigration president in modern history. That came to a head late last month at the border crossing near Del Rio, Texas, where an influx of Haitian migrants had taken refuge.
Biden, to his credit, harshly condemned the border patrol agents seen whipping Haitian migrants, saying the behavior was “outrageous.” But he said nothing about abandoning the decades-old policy—used aggressively by the Trump administration—that allows for the detention and deportation of migrants on public health grounds without giving them the normal opportunity to file asylum claims.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki even had the gall to say that flying Haitians back doesn’t constitute deportation since they didn’t legally enter the country. U.S. special envoy to Haiti Daniel Foote angrily resigned, calling the Biden administration’s deportations “inhumane.”
It’s important to understand that many migrants to the United States only make the difficult, treacherous journey because they feel their life depends on it.
Let your faith—which has shaped your political career and policy beliefs for the better in so many ways—now also lead you to treat immigrants with respect and compassion.
Our students and faculty have seen their desperation firsthand. In 2019, Union Theological Seminary visited a facility in El Paso, Texas that provides food and shelter for immigrants released from ICE after crossing the border. There, workers support thousands of migrants—babies, young children, mothers, and more—who wish for a better tomorrow. Most arrive with the few personal belongings they have in pillowcases. We also visited a fence surrounding a tent encampment where we knew that, inside, thousands of children were detained in squalid, heartbreaking conditions.
The Bible tells us that when Jesus was a child, he was in grave danger from the wrath of King Herod. So, Mary and Joseph took their child across borders from Bethlehem to Egypt for protection. Flash forward to today, when thousands of migrants simply want the same for themselves and their families. President Biden, we commend you for your deep sense of faith and lifelong commitment to your church. Now you just need to live up to its teachings.
Serene Jones is president of Union Theological Seminary and Kelly Brown Douglas is dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union.
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