Presbyterians seek ways to address anxieties amid a harsh immigration culture  

If enacted, the Texas ‘show me your papers’ policy would follow a similar national trend.

Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

As Texans await a final judicial ruling on Senate Bill 4, a “show me your papers”-style bill, a culture of anxiety builds among immigrant communities in the state.  

“People are scared — and that’s an understatement,” said Ezequiel Herrera, who ministers in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley on behalf of Mission Presbytery. 

The policy would allow any law enforcement official in Texas to request an individual’s documentation proving they are legally permitted to be in the state and initiate deportation proceedings if they cannot do so. Constitutional lawyers say SB 4 disregards decades of clear precedent on the federal government’s role in managing immigration policy.  

Despite that, policy against immigrants is trending. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill similar to SB 4 into law in early April, and Louisiana is considering one, too. Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has signed a different bill into law that empowers more proactive immigration control efforts by state law enforcement. 

In January, the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) issued a notice that SB 4 would trigger a policy within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to avoid hosting national meetings in states with immigration policies that would make people of color and non-citizens feel unsafe to participate.  

Acting Stated Clerk Bronwen Boswell. Photo by Rich Copley.

Acting Stated Clerk Bronwen Boswell said this has been received with thoughtfulness by national bodies and mid councils, and she knows of one meeting that did relocate considering the issue. However, that doesn’t mean Presbyterians aren’t going to Texas — national partners like the Ministry Engagement Support team have visited the border for meetings and ministry. 

At the congregational, mid council, and national level, Presbyterians are seeking to address the harsh realities of an immigration system that fails to receive and support people coming to the U.S. seeking economic opportunities or political asylum. 

“We’re grateful for courageous conversations,” Boswell said. “We are centering those individuals who would be placed in harm’s way, which pushes us to act differently, be involved differently, and consider how we engage in political structures differently. In a political environment where we’re asked to be more divided, how do we speak into that with a lens of justice front and center?” 

Even though SB 4 has not gone into effect, people in Herrera’s community are already adjusting their behavior to reduce risk. 

“It has been extremely harsh and detrimental to people,” he said. “It is discouraging people to try to seek relief because they might be exposed [to the legal system], for example, by applying for political asylum or whatever remedy they might qualify for.” 

Susan Krehbiel
Susan Krehbiel

At the national level, it seems that there is more political will to dismantle processes for legal immigration rather than creating more functional ones, said Susan Krehbiel. She’s the associate for migration accompaniment ministries with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, where she has worked for a decade. Efforts like SB 4 are linked to larger trends in the policy realm and can have catastrophic effects on peoples’ lives. 

“Texas says any local government can affect a deportation. But do [local governments] understand the complexity of our immigration laws? I doubt the average sheriff or police officer knows the details,” said Krehbiel, noting cases where even specially trained immigration officials have wrongfully arrested and deported citizens. “It creates a chilling effect of fear.” 

She also worries that laws such as these encourage vigilantism like the standoff earlier this year in Eagle Pass, Texas. It will take a concerted effort across the U.S. to stem the tide of xenophobic messaging and action that is gaining steam in Texas, across the U.S., and around the world. From prayer vigils and moral witness to political advocacy and policy development, Christians concerned for immigrants’ rights have a role to play, Krehbiel said. 

“We need people willing to stand with the immigrant community, which is more at risk now than they have been in a long time,” she said. “We need strong allies. When policies come out, we need to take the time to understand it. And we need to do this in a trauma-informed way.” 

Amanda Craft
Amanda Craft

In an election year, it’s critical to stay attuned to local and national policy moves related to immigration, since anti-migrant rhetoric has been leveraged in previous campaigns to mobilize some voters, said Amanda Craft, who manages advocacy priorities and actions for the Office of General Assembly’s Immigration Issues office. 

People of faith have a responsibility in response to escalating xenophobic ideology and policy, including collaborating with people who are working, living and serving in the most impacted communities, Craft said. Local presbyteries, along with ecumenical and interfaith partners like Texas Impact, help OGA keep track of where to focus their attention. PC(USA) history, meanwhile, can help OGA keep an eye on the tradition’s values. 

“The Presbyterian church has a long history of being involved with reception and accompaniment of immigrants, migrants and refugees,” Craft said. “We have centuries of policy that really encourage us to be involved in this.” 

Boswell noted the importance of examining how Presbyterians will engage when state actors try to interfere with Presbyterian ministries and partners, as in the case of the lawsuit against PC(USA) partner Annunciation House in El Paso. In that instance, OGA collaborated with mid councils in Texas to write a letter to the attorney general’s office raising concern about the state’s interference with religious freedom. 

Ezequiel Herrera
Ezequiel Herrera

Herrera urges people concerned about immigrants’ rights to build relationships with people who have lived experience immigrating to the U.S. and navigating the various systems involved. That’s crucial for people to have the necessary perspective to form opinions and act. 

“Many times, when we start arguing or disagreeing about issues without getting to know the people, we create wedges and barriers,” he said. “When you listen and are able to build bridges, people will listen to you — when you have earned their trust.”