In December, Florida governor Ron DeSantis issued an “emergency rule” blocking the issuance and renewal of state licenses for organizations that serve unaccompanied migrant children, including many faith-based organizations.
Recently, Floridian evangelical pastors joined other religious leaders and laypeople in urging the governor to reconsider this decision, which both puts vulnerable children at risk and impinges on the religious liberty of Floridians.
Governor DeSantis’s stated rationale for the order is focused on preventing the resettlement of “illegal aliens” to the state, but the reality is that the unaccompanied migrant children at the center of this debate are being treated precisely how US law requires.
The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act is a law that President Bush signed after significant advocacy from evangelical leaders in 2008.
It states that when the Border Patrol identifies a child from a noncontiguous country seeking protection at the US-Mexico border without a parent or legal guardian, the patrol is to transfer the child to the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to ensure the child is kept safe.
From there, HHS works with a network of childcare providers—which are required to be licensed by the state to ensure they meet appropriate standards. These providers care for the kids until a sponsor is identified, which is usually the child’s mother or father who already lives in the US, or another relative.
The child is eventually required to report to an immigration court to determine whether he or she lawfully qualifies to stay in the US.
Christians may agree or disagree with whether this is the best process for responding to these uniquely vulnerable kids, but it is the law of the land—and the federal government is not doing anything illegal or nefarious by complying with its mandates.
Faith-based organizations like Bethany Christian Services, Lutheran Services, and ministries of the Catholic Church have agreed to partner with the federal government to provide care for these children. In many cases, that includes Christian foster parents who partner with them by opening their homes to help the kids.
In doing so, such Christian individuals and organizations are being faithful to the Biblical command to care for foreigners who reside among us (Lev. 19:34).
Pro-life Christians who believe that every human life is made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27)—and therefore possess inherent dignity and worth—have a clear direct scriptural directive to ensure that such children are protected from harm. Jesus reserved some of his harshest words of judgment for those who would cause children to stumble (Matt. 18:6).
In fact, is a very practical application of the Golden Rule to care for someone else’s child the way I would want a brother or sister in Christ to care for my child if he or she ended up stranded alone in a foreign country (Matt. 7:12).
That’s why Gov. DeSantis’s policy presents a startling threat to religious freedom.
By withdrawing a required state license, foster parents cannot care for unaccompanied children and ministries cannot operate a temporary shelter while they search for the child’s family. Therefore this new policy actively blocks Christians (and those of other religions) from exercising their freedom of faith.
After all, religious liberty is more than just the right to worship in a church building on Sunday. It is the freedom to follow and obey all the tenets of one’s religion, including caring for vulnerable children.
Gov. DeSantis also said that the policy is designed to prioritize the care of Floridian children. But he knows very well that the unaccompanied migrant program is fully paid for by federal (not state) funds—and therefore does not divert from the care of local children in need of foster care.
In fact, many of the organizations that partner with the federal government to care for migrant children also partner with the state of Florida to care for domestic children in need. Which means that withdrawing these licenses could end up harming many vulnerable US citizen children as well.
The governor’s decision is part of a troubling national trend of politicians one-upping one another to demonstrate how heavy-handed they can be toward particular immigrant populations. It apparently banks on the assumption that doing so is more politically salient than standing up for religious freedom and the dignified care of children.
What’s particularly troubling to me as an evangelical Christian is when such politicians seem to think these kinds of measures will appeal to a voter base that is largely composed of fellow evangelicals.
In this case, I hope Governor DeSantis’s political calculations are proven wrong—and that evangelicals in Florida and beyond will speak up forcefully against his recent actions.
Whatever their views on immigration policy more generally, American Christians should agree that innocent children waiting for a decision on their immigration case should be protected during their stay in our country.
Moreover, no government should interfere with the ministries and individuals who are obeying a biblical mandate by providing compassionate care for vulnerable kids.
Matthew Soerens is the US Director of Church Mobilization and Advocacy for World Relief, the national coordinator of the Evangelical Immigration Table, and coauthor of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate and the forthcoming Inalienable: How Marginalized Kingdom Voices Can Help Save the American Church.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
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