At the beginning of this year, Christianity Today received a grant funding a position for an immigrant communities editor. What beat is that, you say? It’s a position that examines “the intersection of immigration, the church, and Christian communities.”
As immigration continues to be a volatile current event, we wanted to hire someone who could examine this complex issue from a humane and faith perspective. Enter Bekah McNeel, a longtime education journalist based in San Antonio, Texas.
Living and reporting for a number of years in a border state has changed how McNeel understands immigration issues—and how she perceives the national news coverage that will suddenly show up and attempt to cover a story without “a deep understanding of the context.”
“The coverage was always really jarring,” she said. “You don’t understand how normal it is for people to come and go [across the border]. The thought that a truck full of 18 guys could get as far as San Antonio seems like What? ... The whole thing seems bigger and scarier because you didn’t have a context.”
McNeel joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to talk about why the immigration issues need less policy discussion, speeches, and sermons and more conversations, how emotions are and are not different on the border, and why she’s excited about this position this year.
This episode of Quick to Listen is brought to you in part by Bloodline, the new book by Skip Heitzig, gives you an up-close view of the cross that reveals God’s ultimate mission to save you from sin’s destruction. Bloodline is available wherever books are sold.
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April 3, 2019 Transcript
Morgan Lee: For the past few years immigration has been in the news, and I think when I say that, obviously it's been in the news for a long time, but it's really really really robustly been in the news and been covered. And I think if you're a listener of the show, you've heard of speak about it a lot of times on Quick To Listen. So, you've probably heard our episodes on family separations at the border, the loss of temporary protected status or TPS—in this case for the Salvadorian community—and significant cuts the refugee program. So, thanks to a grant from a philanthropic organization that in this case wishes to remain anonymous, we have been able to hire a part-time editor of immigrant communities to explore a different dimension to the immigration controversies. And of course, that editor here is Bekah. Her focus is not so much on the political dimensions of immigration, but as she was talking about in her story, or when she was talking about her story, she hinted that it's about the life of immigrant communities on both sides of the border—their challenges, their successes, and especially the role that Christian faith plays in these really tense immigration situations.
So, this week on Quick to Listen, we want to talk about some of the most pressing immigration stories and how they intersect with the Church. In fact, how are Christians represented on all sides of the immigration issue, or debate, or controversy, or whatever hot-button word you would use there. So, Mark, as far as gut checks are concerned, like I've said, we have talked about this issue. Right now, I'm just curious when you hear the word immigration though, do you have some sort of visceral reaction that you feel right now in 2019?
Mark Galli: Probably a little bit of tension because when it is in the news it’s about tension, about the disagreement over policy, disagreement over how we understand people, especially from the United States who are coming from other areas to our country. But I'm going to switch the question, just to say when I heard that we were hiring someone for the specific task of immigrant communities editor, my heart soared because as I've mentioned on my—I probably mentioned my wife works for World Relief and one of her jobs is to help immigrants, refugees, whatever their status, asylees, find work in America. And so, we've been invited to participate in some activities of the immigrant communities that are here in DuPage County. And when you enter into those situations, the situation all of a sudden becomes apolitical and becomes very human, and you're meeting with people, with human beings. We went to the dedication of a church recently, which I hardly understood any of the language, but that put a whole different picture and feeling on what immigration is than simply people protesting at the border about this, that, or the other thing. So, with immigration, immigrant communities strikes me as a really interesting way to talk about it.
Morgan Lee: It kind of is this like unexpected gentle note to what is kind of a—
Mark Galli: Yeah, just more humane. We're dealing with real people with families and children and relatives and churches, too.
Morgan Lee: Well, what I was going to say for my gut check is that when I think about immigration right now, I, as someone who is not directly connected to most of these issues, feel a little bit burnt out. And that again, that’s saying something since I don't really have close relationships with stuff that's happening at the border in our country right now. And I would kind of second the fact that we are going to have a community angle, or a community focus, or lens that we're approaching these things—We, I think at CT, really try to produce material that is not going to just further exhaust people, and so I think this is a way that we're trying to be really thoughtful about how we approach it, and how we can both paint stories really accurately but also encourage people about this at the same time.
Bekah, I would love for you to kind of share with our listeners about how long you've been covering immigration, and how you got into the beat originally.
Bekah McNeel: Most of my career has been as an education reporter. But I live in San Antonio, Texas, and so the joke was when school's out, I cover immigration. We didn't mean it to be that way, but that just happened to be when all the big news typically broke about immigration. One summer for instance, it was a truck full of young men and boys found in a Walmart parking lot in the middle of July. It was actually a very tragic story. The family separations happened during the summer. And it just, for some reason, immigrant stories would happen during the summer. And the DACA also crossed over onto my beat as well. And so, I ended up kind of covering both of those things. We didn't have an immigration reporter in my news room, and so I covered some of that. We split it up, but I did a lot of it because my beat took a hiatus in the summer. I've been doing that for now about six years. My biggest immigration stories were three or four years ago, and that kind of launched that to be more of a focus area for me.
Morgan Lee: Can you speak a little bit about how you have seen the border change over the years that you have covered immigration, and also how you've seen maybe the American temperature towards these issues change as well.
Bekah McNeel: Sure. So maybe go a little bit further back, or a lot further back than just how long I've been covering it. I've been watching the border change for decades as violence erupted in the border cities—in it Nuevo Laredo and Ciudad Juárez by El Paso—that changed a lot of things for all of South Texas. It has been a very fluid border my whole life and that began to change when I was in college and beyond, those things started to change.
Morgan Lee: Can you just maybe explain it what it means when you say a fluid border? I don't know exactly if our listeners who don't live on the border can picture that.
Bekah McNeel: Sure. Yeah, and that's and that's actually a scary term for a lot of people because they imagine people coming and going without any kind of check. What I mostly mean is that culturally, and people would go over for recreation. Like we would just go over across the border to eat and shop. We would go down, many times a year down to the border cities, to go across, we bought like all of our furniture—you just went back and forth a lot. So American US citizen stopped going into Mexico in big numbers when I was in college. The border is still very fluid for people who work in one city or the other—you see this best in El Paso and Juárez—people commute like it's nothing. So, in that way there's still fluidity, but it is more about necessity. It's more about you work on one side, or you're taking care of a family member on the other side, or something like that. It's not as footloose and fancy-free, shall we say, going back and forth.
Morgan Lee: So, I wanted to just also talk about anything else that you think people who do not live in Texas in particular, or any other border states misss when they are trying to understand what's going on with immigration.
Bekah McNeel: So, let me put it this way: one more change that has happened, I was going to say, since I have been covering immigration what has changed is that it's become a political—it's something that you'd like talking about more politically, and the fear—like actually our managing editor Andy Olsen and I were talking about this the other day, that it used to not be so hard to get people to go on record.
Years ago, people didn't mind telling you that their documentation status was in jeopardy, or that they were undocumented, and getting interviews with border patrol and government officials was actually not as difficult either. And so now pastors who are talking about their churches having undocumented people in them, people who have distant relatives even, no one wants to go on record because they are just so afraid. And everyone I've talked to who works in this area every day talks about like the massive increase in fear that has come about with it being so politicized.
People are very much afraid of becoming—even in our school district here in San Antonio, there was pressure on them to put out like a hard stance on we will not allow ICE on our campuses to get the kids who are undocumented. We have tons of undocumented families. And the school district said we don't even really want to make that big statement, as much as we want our families to feel safe, they were afraid of drawing the attention of government officials who might want to make a point. So, it's escalated to a place where I would say the entire conversation on both sides is pretty much ruled by fear, which makes it really difficult to report. It makes it very difficult, and you don't want to convince somebody to go on record and then have their worst fears come true, because we just don't know.
Mark Galli: A story from CT related to that is I remember, we had a young man who was undocumented who actually lived with us for a few years, and he was in the process of trying to get documented, working with lawyers in downtown Chicago. And one of our editors decided that would make an interesting story. So, they featured him in a story about his situation, and how hard it was to get papers, and he was featured in a full-page picture of him, and I just can't imagine that happening nowadays. He was basically saying, "Yeah, I'm here illegally. I mean I'm trying to get legalized, but I'm here and here's my picture!" That would’ve been late 90s, late 1990s. Completely different atmosphere than it is now.
Bekah McNeel: Yeah, I have people saying, "Well, please don't put, you know, the city that my church is in because I'm afraid they'll be able to trace it back." And sometimes I think, you might be giving these government agencies a lot of investigative credit. It's harder to find you than you think. On the other hand, you know, especially I've realized when I'm working with pastors and people in ministries is that in some ways they feel conflicted because they want to help me out, and like put me in touch with sources, but on the other hand their main priority is to minister to people and like love them. And it's not necessarily loving to be like here, I want you to talk to the reporter and you're going to have a bunch of sleepless nights for the next, you know, year wondering who's read that story. And so that is actually brought up a lot of tension for pastors and ministry leaders.
Morgan Lee: So that actually kind of transitions to the next question I have for you, which is maybe you could tell us some of the different ways in which you've met and encountered Christians in this immigration beat. I'm talking about anyone from the migrants who are coming up from Central America, those that are trying to advocate for immigrants, people who work in border control, ICE.
Bekah McNeel: Christians are all over the place in this. First of all, in the immigrant community, I think that like World Relief gives great numbers and explains that so many refugees from around the world are Christians. They're either fleeing places where Christians are persecuted, or they, you know, have a religious sponsor getting them here. And then just statistically speaking, the numbers, right now for instance on the southern border we're seeing mostly Central Americans coming in, and those folks are actually like large—there's huge numbers of evangelicals and that group. And then when you look at countries like Mexico, you have more Catholic immigrants. It's a huge segment of people.
Another interesting thing about immigration being kind of a sleeper issue up until recently is that the government doesn't have a super robust—as we are witnessing right now—they don't have a plan really for what to do for these people, these folks, and there's not a bunch of—it's not a public school, you know, where there's the government-run schools. Remember the government doesn’t run refugee resettlement stuff. They contract that out, and most of the people taking those contracts have been Christian organizations. And they come under some fire for that because that also meant that they were the ones who are contracted to say receive the children who'd been separated from their families, and there's those who believe in that Christian organization shouldn't have agreed to do that. The Christians I met who did take those kids, and who did go ahead and uphold their contracts with the office of refugee resettlement, said that they wanted to ensure that those children, who are in a traumatic situation, are being cared for and were being loved in accordance with their Christian values. And that they were being protected and cared for. And so, you have Christian organizations and you also have people who are deeply compelled by their personal faith.
I've met Christians in law enforcement— police force and fire departments— and those folks will tell you they got into their job because they want to help people, and this is it seemed like a really practical way to help people. But with law enforcement, in addition to helping people, they also have to sometimes, like one of them put it to me, you have to be with people on the worst day of their life. I'm actually working on a story about that. About how do they represent Christ to the people who see them as the enemy, and how do they see their loyalty to their job and their loyalty to Christ. And then the churches who are tasked with—not tasked with—but who get to care for these people, how do they minister to them and they're unique needs, and their unique hurts, because they see a lot of really sad stuff. And I think there's been calls lately for more mental health and more staffing for that sort of thing.
Morgan Lee: Specifically, for law enforcement?
Bekah McNeel: Yeah, because they are—first they're overworked, and they are—they find folks who have died on the journey often. The South Texas desert, Arizona desert, Southern California desert, you don't mess around. It's dangerous territory, and I think a lot of times by the time they get here, people are already fatigued, they're already pretty compromised in their health, and they were not bargaining for the Sonora desert of the Chihuahua desert. And so yeah, Border Patrol does a lot of emergency care. Anyway, I will say to that churches—like right now, San Antonio is one of the cities that is having this massive influx of Central American families, and my friends in town who are pastors are opening up their congregation, opening up their doors, their sanctuaries, and housing people, and, you know, finding showers for people to use, and that kind of stuff. It's an all-hands-on-deck right now.
Morgan Lee: So, I wanted to go back to a story that we mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, and that's about the family separations at the border. Could you give us an update on that Bekah, about whether families are still being separated at the border?
Bekah McNeel: Sure. So, it is no longer the official policy to separate them automatically. However, there are still a hundred different—I don't know exactly how many—but there are still numerous ways that families can be separated. A lot of it has to do with the detention facilities and how those are broken down. They separate men and women, and the children go with the women. So, if a child is traveling with their father, it becomes very difficult for them to stay together. It's possible—I believe there are shelters that allow that. So, some of it is like a logistical hurdle of, well, we don't have a category to fit you in. And then if there's any reason to believe that the parents are part of a drug trafficking organization or basically are going to need to be immediately deported, they will take the kids away and the kids go into ORR, these children's detention facilities. Those having existed for forever. Unaccompanied minors, children who are taking out of dangerous situations as they cross the border, that kind of thing, that has always happened. And so it's going to be very difficult to root out all the different—like to go through and on a case-by-case basis decide does this count as like a family separation of the type that we saw last summer, or is this the kind of separation that we've been seeing in practice for forever?
Morgan Lee: Yeah, it seems like there's a lot of different exceptions and caveats and programs and loopholes and all the things that just kind of make this type of stuff super complex when you're trying to build a more nuanced policy. But it does not always work out like that.
Bekah McNeel: Absolutely. I think that is what makes immigration so difficult as a subject. And why there's so much fear. It's because it's really hard to understand. And if you look at the timeline of laws that have been passed and the efforts at reform, it's just this kind of rickety crazy system. It's hard to understand. And you were asking earlier, is the view from Texas any different? And I will say that covering immigration here, there would be this kind of funny recurring thing that would happen. It happened with family separations, with the smuggling incident that tragedy where the guys were in the truck. All of the sudden immigration, there's some big event that's makes national news and all of the national news organizations come into town. People would kind of fly and try to understand all of this at the moment in light of this tragedy, and because we didn't have this deep understanding of the context, the coverage was always really jarring. You don't understand how normal it is for people to come and go. And so, like the thought that a truck full of 18 guys could get as far as San Antonio just seems like, what? And obviously, we've seen people misunderstand the geography of like where San Antonio is, and where Houston is, and those kinds of things. And so, the whole thing seemed bigger and scarier because you didn't have a context.
Morgan Lee: A base line. I mean, I think that that happens in almost every different type of reporting. Obviously, it happens in religion reporting all the time. Where you don't spend a ton of time in the faith community, you drop in one Sunday, and you're like, what is going on?
Mark Galli: Right, and there's also the dynamics of how things get edited when they get back to the New York office. I remember when I lived in Mexico City, I knew the Time reporter there. He said he was always stunned with the difference between the story he turned in to Time and the story that got printed in Time magazine. Because the editors there had no sensibilities about some of the things he was saying, and they would try to simplify things to make it easier for readers and ended up misrepresenting the story. So, you got different layers of misunderstanding going on that makes it difficult to know what's going on a lot of times.
Bekah McNeel: And what's newsworthy. Like it seems like, "What?!" When really it happens frequently. I think when people first hear about students crossing the border to go to school, I mean, I know the first time I heard about it, I was like, oh my gosh, are you? That's a huge story. And then about five seconds later they were like, yeah, lots. It happens all the time, supernormal, always this has happened, not a big deal. And so, the story went from being, "oh my gosh, these students cross the border every day" to "wow, well what's life like when you do that?" What's life like for this huge group of kids? And so that nuance makes the story, I think it takes it out of the sensational and puts it in the let's try to understand our fellow humans and what they're going through every day.
Morgan Lee: So, when we talk again about Christians being in all different sectors of this issue, or parts of this issue, have you witnessed people's Christian faith giving them a unique ability to connect or ally with each other help each other out?
Bekah McNeel: I think there's definitely a role in the trust factor for immigrants who are coming over here who are people faith. They are so relieved to find a church. Whether that is a Catholic Church—the Catholic church down here are extremely active in immigration, but a lot of the Protestant churches and Evangelical churches as well are starting to want to do the mercy ministry and outreach type stuff. Meeting people down at the bus stations and making sure that they have a tooth brush and shoelaces and medicine for their kids that they needed or something like that. There's become a lot of opportunity for mercy ministry. And so, the immigrants themselves are very comforted when they encounter people of faith, I think because it's a little softer. It's a lot softer, than—I mean the border patrol and ICE and those folks, they're not going to, they can't legally do a lot of like softer human care stuff, but they also often don't for other reasons. And just the little human kindness is of like, "Here, use my cell phone to call your sister," or " Are you hungry? Do we need to stop and get you some food?" The churches don't have all the rules and regulations, and they're able to do a lot of that humane stuff.
Morgan Lee: What are the ways in which you are seeing Christians talk past each other, or kind of use their faith in a way to maybe justify what they're doing, but it's not necessarily speaking the same Christian dialect as their brothers and teachers are?
Bekah McNeel: Well, I mean the funny part about the whole thing is that you really do have Christians on the leading ends of both poles on this issue. You have got the churches that are taking blankets down to the people waiting on the bridge in Matamoros, Mexico, and doing it in the name of Jesus. And you have people who are Evangelical churches where they are not open to having undocumented immigrants in the church because they feel like that is living in sin. And so, you've got the whole gamut. And I want to be very delicate in how I say that, in that there are Christians who are deeply concerned about this issue as a national security issue, and there are those who are deeply concerned about it as a mercy and humanitarian issue.
Mark Galli: I'm wondering if you've seen what I've seen in some communities in California, one community up in Wisconsin, that is to say where we have Christians and churches who have very conservative immigration policies. That is to say they want to build a wall; they want to let fewer immigrants in. And they're also, in their church, part of a committee that helps settle immigrants that are already here. In other words, they're living in both zones. So, they politically have one view, but if we have immigrants among us, the Bible calls us to be helpful toward them. Do you have people like that at the border?
Bekah McNeel: Absolutely. I would say that that's where—in the cities on the border, that's like a huge, a hugely, that's a very common stance. It's "I don't like it, but I'm certainly not going to turn away somebody who's like dying of thirst on my front porch." And then you see also a ton of compassion for refugees and asylees who are part of the legal processes by which the people get here. Because Asylum Seekers are following the law, if you find someone who's wearing the ankle monitor and waiting for their day in court like they are they are following the law. And there's a lot of compassion for those people. Like even if the person takes it pretty hard line stance on legal as legal, and illegal is illegal, the same people often are like, "Okay, well once it is legal—game on. I'm ready to come and help you and serve."
Mark Galli: So, there you go. That's the border for you right there.
Morgan Lee: It seems like it's actually a little bit less angry there then maybe the national discourse around this topic is.
Bekah McNeel: Yes—well, no, that's not true. It is less angry in that everyone is talking about it, not just the angry people. The angry people are still here, and people are angry, and people are scared, and those emotions I don't want to say that like down here it's just like whatever. However, it is such a reality, it is so prevalent, and it is such a practical thing of like we don't have time to be angry. We're bringing blankets. We're bringing yoga mats for people to sit on the ground. You know, that kind of thing. We're trying to help. Or, how could I be angry? Seven people I know are in that situation and all of them have different stories and I love them. You know, you know people, you know people who do the work, you know people in law enforcement, CBP [Customs and Border Patrol] hires within the community. So, like those guys grew up with undocumented people. And it's so common that it's not so much that people aren't angry or aren't afraid, it's that they're also everything in between.
Morgan Lee: So, Bekah, I'm curious, what are ways that either you're seeing Christians helping others listen—yeah, helping each other listen to the other side, or what are ways that Christians ought to be helping each other listen to the other side?
Bekah McNeel: So, there is a pastoral effort, I think among pastors who begin to engage this work. Basically, once a pastor opens up their doors to asylum seekers who've just been let out of detention, or refugees, once they start getting involved in like the refugee welcome program. Once you open your doors to these people, often then they stay open and they realize like how rich, so work is, and they enjoy doing it. And their congregations get really into it. And so those pastors have been increasingly making public statements, and producing videos, or speaking at public events and that kind of thing, to help soften this discourse a little bit. And to say like here's how I understood it, let me tell you these stories, and kind of take people along the journey that they went on. That is what pastors are doing. A lot of people are saying, I'm not going to try to solve immigration, I'm just going to love the people in front of me. And there is definitely a need for more of it.
Mark Galli: More of what? More conversation between people who disagree about this politically?
Bekah McNeel: Yeah, I think that it needs to not be—a lot of times, it's put out there in articles or videos or a sermon or a talk, and people don't get to engage. And there's not really a safe place.
Morgan Lee: It's a monologue, basically. Right?
Bekah McNeel: Yeah, and you can accept or reject what you want. The dialogue aspect needs to be fostered because that's really where people can humanize the other side. And I've seen it in places where people are like, I know I have an unpopular opinion and if I say that out loud, if I ask this honest question, I'm just going to be booed out of the room, you know? And that's in church, that's in Sunday School.
Part of the reason I'm so excited about doing like this immigrant communities work is because if we can get people to know and volunteer or get just get to know the immigrants around them, it increases more dialogue. It needs to be something that people can talk about over lunch with someone who disagrees, and it not be inflammatory because they're more informed, they have more interaction to call on. And like one pastor said, the most effective way to combat all of this fear and misinformation is to say, well here's what I've seen in the immigrants that I know. And the reality is that if you're living in or near a major American city, there are immigrants to know.
And if the Church can find ways to highlight their stories and help people know them by inviting, that will increase this human exposure so that the conversations can sit around something other than policy. Cause as long as the conversations are centered on policy, you know, you can only agree or disagree. But when they're centered on human interactions and human stories, you can go, "oh that just it broke my heart," "oh that makes me so happy," and then you start getting into the human part of it. And I think that that's a really messy, convoluted answer as to what we need more of. It's the same thing we need around every hot-button issue, which is to remember that there's people involved and to get to know those people. And Christians should be the ones introducing you to those people.
Mark Galli: I remember we had a Catholic nun on a few months ago—
Morgan Lee: Last year.
Mark Galli: And I had met her at a conference and thought she would be a good guest for us. But the one story that made me impressed with her was she was doing the type of thing you're talking about, Bekah. Her job was to aid and comfort people who are coming across the border who were desperate. She also was good friends with the border patrol, the head of the border patrol in her area, and she understood that he had a job to do. And his job was to secure the United States from criminal types or whatever. And they would often have conversations together about how they could help one another in each of their jobs. In other words, they each understood that it was immaterial what their political views were, they each had a job to do in regard to this specific issue, and they wanted to work together as much as possible so they each could be successful in the areas that they were supposed to be successful in. And that struck me as a really good illustration of how while we're deciding what the policies should be, we could still be humane and generous toward one another, and toward the people who are suffering.
Bekah McNeel: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think my great hope would be that if somebody ever would have thought of, I really feel like I need to know the people, or I really need to understand this better, that the first place they would look would be the Church. And right now, honestly like the Church is so in the mix, as far as the mercy and compassion, that they could really do that. Like when people say, I want to understand this better, I want to meet these people, I send them to churches who are doing the work, and I hope that there's more and more of that. As opposed to sending them to an immigration lawyer, or an advocacy organization, I love sending them to the Church because I know that they're going to just meet the people and see the human to human interaction.
Morgan Lee: Well, thank you so much for this rich discussion, sharing your own approach Bekah, and giving us some of your analysis. Anyone who has feedback for this can tweet at us. We're @CTpodcast, or they can send us an email at podcast@ChristianityToday.com.