PC(USA) discourages certain gatherings in Texas

Texas’ immigration bill targeting immigrants and asylum seekers could also put others at risk.

Presbyterians in Texas and nationally are seeking ways to respond to Senate Bill 4 (SB4), which would make border crossing from Mexico without required documentation a state crime and not just a federal one. It is the latest legislative effort to criminalize immigration, and members of the denomination wish to respond in ways that align with the values of their faith and the policies of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The issue of SB4 first came to the attention of many in February when the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) released an update discouraging PC(USA) organizations from holding national meetings in the state of Texas, except for those planned at Presbyterian sites such as schools and conference centers. Acting Stated Clerk Bronwen Boswell clarified that OGA is not advising a boycott but is asking national committees and other groups to “take care when meeting.”

“We’re asking that we refrain from national meetings where people would be coming from a variety of areas and backgrounds to be in Texas at this time,” Boswell said. She hopes the advisory is a way of “shedding light on the injustice that is being raised in Texas about all of this. For us, the story was able to raise once again the policy that we have as Presbyterians.”

This council from OGA draws on a policy passed at the 219th General Assembly in 2010, which indicates PC(USA) organizations should “Refrain from holding national meetings at hotels or non-PC(USA) conference centers in those states where travel by immigrant Presbyterians or Presbyterians of color or Hispanic ancestry might subject them to harassment due to legislation similar to Arizona Law SB 1070/HB2162” the notorious 2010 legislation known as the “show me your papers law.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against that law in a 2012 decision declaring states may not implement their own immigration laws,” according to Ballotpedia.

Ministers and advocates in the state of Texas are working to make sense of the SB4 and discerning how to respond. Ezequiel Herrera, for one, is glad the national church is drawing attention to the crisis facing the communities he serves. Herrera works as the Rio Grande Valley evangelist for Mission Presbytery, which includes Central Texas and much of the border region, and he pastors a new worshipping community called New Life Faith Community/Comunidad de Fe Nueva Vida.

“It seems it will be very difficult to be a law-abiding citizen in Texas complying with SB4 and also being a disciple of Jesus Christ and living into Matthew 25,” he said. “How can you reconcile the two? How can you bear witness and extend a helping hand to a person in need if by doing so you might find yourself violating the law and potentially being charged with serious crimes?”

Texas SB4 is just one aspect of an increasingly complex set of federal and state policies facing immigrants, asylum seekers, and the people who serve them.

And, he noted, SB4 is just one aspect of an increasingly complex set of federal and state policies facing immigrants, asylum seekers, and the people who serve them. There are even two SB4s in Texas right now, passed in different special legislative sessions in 2023. The second one, signed in December by Gov. Gregg Abbott, also deals with state immigration law, and it increases the “minimum sentence from two years to 10 years for people convicted of smuggling immigrants or operating a stash house,” according to a story in the Texas Tribune.

The OGA advisory about SB4 in Texas comes at a time when many states are passing laws that criminalize people based on characteristics including gender expression and pregnancy status. Valerie Young, synod executive and stated clerk for the Synod of the South Atlantic, which includes Florida, hopes to not see additional OGA policies discouraging travel to these states. In a state where immigration and the rights of transgender people are both contentious legislative issues, Young has other thoughts about possible responses.

“Personally, I would rather the denomination lean into having meetings in these places and taking that opportunity to have our voices heard about the policies and treatment of people of all kinds,” she said. “There is much work to be done in advocating for humane policies of all kinds. Not meeting people where they are and joining in that important work means that we miss an opportunity to speak love and truth in the world.”

Boswell said OGA won’t stop at this advisory. Her office has meetings set with presbytery and synod leaders in Texas to learn more about how they are responding to SB4 and other legislation that targets immigrants, as well as what support they need from the national church, Boswell said. She added: “If a Texas presbytery said, ‘We’re having a big protest,’ we’d say, ‘We need to be there with you.’

Though the legal tangle creates numerous, complex challenges, some responses may be deceptively simple.

“We can all be preaching about loving the stranger, the sojourner, the wanderer, and putting that back at the center of our faith. That is not negotiable,” said Jim Rigby, pastor at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Austin.

For eight years, St. Andrew’s has been a sanctuary church, housing a mother and son from Guatemala in the church building to protect them from potential deportation. Rigby reflected on the power of liturgical arts, casting the image of Jesus wearing a crown of thorns made of razor wire in reference to the dangerous material used to enforce the border which often sinks below the water, creating an invisible and deadly risk for people crossing.

Texas Impact highlighted the status of houses of worship as exempt from immigration enforcement in a recent call to action. Texas Impact, which “exists to put faith into action,” also operates Courts and Ports, a two-day immersive program designed to help people understand the immigration system more deeply — and which Herrera helped found.

Texas Impact Executive Director Bee Moorhead said other courses of action include attending “Know Your Rights” trainings, getting to know the immigration court system in your community, and contacting your congresspeople to ask for comprehensive immigration reform. Whatever route you choose, she said, people of faith have a responsibility to identify the levers of power they can press to alleviate the suffering of migrants.

“People are not coming [to the border] because they love to travel, they are coming because they could not stay where they were,” Moorhead said. “And when they get here, we should welcome them.”