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With Texas’ Deportation Law on Pause, Migrants Turn to the Church

“We’re not being political. We’re just trying to get you what you need.”
With Texas’ Deportation Law on Pause, Migrants Turn to the Church
Image: Houston Chronicle / Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images / Contributor

Palm Sunday looked different this year for a small majority-immigrant church in Fort Worth. For part of the service, the pastors invited an immigration lawyer to speak about what to expect if Texas enacts a new law that authorizes the state to arrest and deport migrants.

“There is a lot of fear in our church in regard to this law and a lot of uncertainty. … What does it mean? How does it affect their cases?” asked Anyra Cano, one of the pastors.

The congregation, mostly first-generation immigrants from Latin America, “knows they can come to us when they have those kinds of questions,” she added.

Texas’ Senate Bill 4 (SB 4) comes as the latest salvo amid long-standing tensions between Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the Biden administration over the nation’s immigration enforcement.

Last year, over 2.4 million people sought to cross the US-Mexico border. Texas (like other Republican-governed states) has tried to respond by taking matters into its own hands. Abbott signed SB 4 into law in December, making illegal border-crossing not just a federal offense but a state crime.

Currently, the bill is tied up in court—a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that SB 4 will remain on hold.

The law would allow Texas police to question and detain anyone they suspect of illegally crossing the US-Mexico border. Though SB 4 doesn’t allow arrests in schools, places of worship, or health care facilities, even the possibility of brushes with police officers with deportation power has raised concerns for immigrant communities in Texas—and for the Christian leaders who serve them.

Many of the attendees at Cano’s church do have some kind of status, albeit perhaps not a more permanent one like citizenship. Some are on humanitarian parole, while others have temporary protected status or are recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

But they all know someone who isn’t documented. “If they see a police car at the church they will be worried,” Cano said. “There’s that distrust of [wondering], Will I lose my papers?” (She asked that her church not be named due to concerns that its immigrant congregants could be targeted.)

Leaders in immigrant churches and communities worry that SB 4 will exacerbate that distrust. Cano recalled a family who used to attend their church and declined to press charges in a domestic violence case because they didn’t want either parent to be deported.

“That’s the worry sometimes with laws like these—what will happen is that instead of seeking the help they do need, they’re afraid about these other issues,” Cano said. “That’s what happens with these kinds of laws, is that injustice continues.”

Texas ministries play an important role in serving newly arrived asylum seekers, particularly since a caravan surge a few years ago. What started as a short-term response by the ecumenical nonprofit Fellowship Southwest has developed into a long-term project.

The group, launched by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, works to support churches and ministries involved in mercy ministries. They help buy food, pay rent for shelters, and support churches that do ministry on both sides of the US-Mexico border.

“We’re sort of a conduit, where we have these long, trusted relationships with people serving migrants directly on the border,” executive director Stephen Reeves told CT. “They do this really intense work with a population that suffered so much trauma and, in some cases, pretty dangerous situations, given the cartel activity in Mexican border towns.”

Reeves, who has a background as an attorney in religious liberty law, has also fielded questions from churches and ministry leaders in Texas wondering what SB 4 means for their work.

“I would think someone at church following the dictates of their conscience and their faith, exercising their religion by serving those they feel Jesus called them to serve, has a pretty good case to make that this is within their religious liberty to serve them,” Reeves said. “But most people don’t want to be in a court case.”

The law is geared toward recent crossers, not longtime residents, as Texas’ statute of limitations prevents misdemeanors being adjudicated two years after an offense has taken place.

In many border-town churches, Reeves said, Border Patrol and police officers occupy the same pews as migrants and asylum seekers.

At a church in Brownsville a few weeks ago, Reeves met lots of migrants, including recently released asylum seekers. He remembers the pastor at one point in the service asking a Border Patrol agent to stand up so the congregation could “thank him for his work.”

He hopes SB 4 doesn’t undo the tenuous trust that church leaders are working to build. Though the law bars arrests on church property, people have to leave the church at some point, he said, so “it’s just another thing [pastors] have to worry about. … Who might show up outside their church? Will the police come as they’re ministering to folks?”

In response to an influx at Texas’ border with Mexico in recent years, Abbott has bused new arrivals to cities under Democratic control—like New York and Washington, DC—and in 2021 deployed Operation Lone Star, sending state troopers to arrest migrants on charges of trespassing.

Some of these efforts have landed the state government in court: An appeals court recently ordered Texas to remove a 1,000-foot buoy barrier in the Rio Grande river near Eagle Pass, Texas, but the court is rehearing the case in May.

For SB 4, the law faces both local and federal challenges. The county of El Paso and two immigrant rights organizations sued to stop the law, and the US Justice Department challenged the constitutionality of the law on the grounds that immigration enforcement belongs to federal, not state, authorities.

The Biden administration argued that the law violates the supremacy clause of the Constitution, which holds that federal law is “the supreme Law of the Land … Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.” The administration also argued SB 4 violates previous Supreme Court precedent. (In Arizona v. United States in 2012, the court held that the “removal process” of immigrants in the country illegally is “entrusted to the discretion of the Federal Government.”)

Currently, SB 4 is on hold while the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals considers arguments in the lawsuit filed by El Paso County and immigration rights groups. One dissenting federal judge wrote that Texas is “helpless” if it can’t pass laws regulating immigration and that “federal non-enforcement” is only exacerbating the situation.

The appeals court holds another hearing next month. Texas may appeal it to the Supreme Court as well. Abbott has made it clear the state isn’t backing down; Texas has already arrested over 40,000 people who have crossed the border on grounds of trespassing.

In the meantime, migrants, and the ministries that help them, remain in limbo.

“These politicians fighting amongst each other—it’s not a solution. And nobody’s offering a solution. What we need is comprehensive legal immigration reform. The asylum process is backlogged and we don’t have the resources,” Reeves said. “I’m going to keep working for comprehensive reform, but in the meantime, we’ve got people in our backyard literally down here that need a lot of help.”

Recent surveys have shown that evangelicals are becoming more concerned about high numbers of immigration to the US but still believe Christians should care for those who are in the country, even if they are in the country illegally.

Meanwhile, 80 percent of evangelicals support bipartisan immigration reform that would do more to secure the border while also creating a pathway to citizenship for certain groups of undocumented immigrants.

Though systemic reform remains elusive, Christians are finding ways to practically serve the people in their church and community, including those who are “hidden in the shadows” due to their undocumented status.

Cano’s church has offered help, such as connecting congregants with immigration lawyers, trying to mend distrust between immigrants and the police, and providing financial assistance to church members eligible for DACA. Their church is also discussing whether to hold a “Know Your Rights” workshop at some point, but they’re waiting to see if SB 4 comes into effect.

Cano remembers that when the church first opened its doors 16 years ago, Catholic women in the neighborhood would cross the street to avoid running into believers near the evangelical church. When members went on prayer walks and went door to door, most didn’t open up to them.

But over time, they’ve started to find common ground. Those same neighbors come to the church for Zumba classes and health and job fairs.

Cano says the church’s efforts to meet the tangible needs of the community have introduced the community “to a different kind of Christian faith, one that not only cares for their spiritual life but also for their life in a holistic manner, in a loving manner. We’ve had people tell us, I can’t believe a church does this,” Cano said.

“We’re not being political. We’re just trying to get you what you need, in a place that you trust. Our hope is people will know Jesus through what the church does, because we do it because of Jesus.”

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