Rev. Chris Cashen
by Rev. Chris Cashen, Pastor, Trinity Reformed OPC, Lanham, MD and Chairman of the OPC Refugee Ministry Subcommittee
Imagine the following scenario being presented at your next diaconal meeting: Mr. and Mrs. Strang Er just arrived at the bus station in your city. They have two young children, no car, no place to live, no money to speak of, and two plastic bags of clothes between them. They are not permitted by the laws of the land to work, they cannot speak English well, they have no family in the area, and they have no place to go. For the past six months, this family has been traveling from their war-torn country in search of peace and safety. The family is weary, worn, and fearful. They have never been in the United States before and have no friends. They can’t go home. Mr. Strang Er fears that death awaits them if they were to return. Here then is the diaconal question: do you help them? These are certainly not members of your church, and they are strangers and aliens: to you, to your church, and to the nation. Is it legal—in the civil sense? And is it right—in the biblical sense?
You may be thinking: “This is an unusual scenario. It is unlikely that our diaconate would be confronted with this type of need.” Not really. In the current State Department’s Report to Congress on proposed refugee admissions for fiscal year 2021, we read: “The United States anticipates receiving more than 300,000 new asylum claimants and refugees in Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 . . . the President proposes resettling up to 15,000 refugees under the FY 2021 refugee admissions ceiling, and anticipates receiving new asylum claims that include more than 290,000 individuals. This proposed refugee admissions ceiling reflects the continuing backlog of over 1.1 million asylum-seekers who are awaiting adjudication of their claims inside the United States, . . .”
Consider those numbers: 290,000 new individuals seeking asylum, along with 1.1 million people— already in the United States—waiting for their asylum claims to be heard. That’s a lot of people. Mr. and Mrs. Strang Er are clearly not alone, and their situation is not so unusual or unique. The 15,000 proposed refugee resettlements pale in comparison to the nearly 1.4 million asylum seekers (actual and anticipated). The truth is, world-wide, there are many, many more people seeking asylum than those who have already been classified as legal “refugees.” Who are these “asylum-seekers”, what are they looking for, and should the church help? In this brief article, we will ultimately focus our attention on that last question: should the church help asylum seekers?
To answer that question, we need to define some terms. Simply put, “asylum” is protection given by a government which is NOT the government of the seeker’s native home. Websters 1828 defines “asylum” as “any place of retreat and security”. A significant aspect of a grant of asylum is permission given to the seeker to remain in the country where protection has been sought. In short, the asylum-seeker is given refuge from the past and current persecution happening in his home country.
You may be asking, “Who is able to rightly apply for asylum in the US?” Surprisingly, the short answer is “all aliens”. The current law of the US, found in the United States Code, provides that any alien “who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States . . . irrespective of [their immigration] status, may apply for asylum.” There is no other criteria. If an alien is present within the geographic bounds of the US, the law allows him or her to apply for asylum.
A person seeking asylum in the United States is different than one who has been given the title of “refugee”. Each have technical legal definitions. But to make it simple, we might think of an asylum seeker as a “want-to-be” refugee. Both must meet the same requirements to receive immigration status in the US. However, a refugee is a person who applied for, and was given, legal refugee status when he or she was living OUTSIDE of the US. A person seeking asylum has entered the country (maybe with a visa, and maybe without) and asks for asylum protection while living in the US.
A significant question then for the diaconate will likely be raised: is this alien, this person or family, here legally? Is this asylum-seeker an “illegal alien”? We hear that title used often, especially as we see and hear reports of aliens crossing the southern border. The answer is three-fold. First, those who enter the country without immigration status, or documentation (such as a visa), and without the intent to seek asylum, are in essence “illegal aliens”. Secondly, some asylum-seekers enter the country with a visa, and then apply for what is called “affirmative asylum”. These have a legal right to remain as long as their visa is current. The third case is Mr. and Mrs. Strang Er. They do not have visas, and thus, had no documentation when they arrived at the border. Some might say that they are on US soil “illegally”—meaning that they have no valid document which grants them permission to be in this country. Indeed, as soon as Mr. and Mrs. Strang Er were allowed to enter the country, Customs and Border Patrol gave them a summons to appear in immigration court to answer the charge of being present without proper documentation. However, once they enter the courtroom and ask for, or claim, asylum, then they do have “permission” to remain (meaning that they are not subject to deportation) while their asylum case is being filed and is pending. So, once their case is filed, Mr. and Mrs. Strang Er are not in the US in violation of the law—but pursuant to the law of asylum. They must be permitted to make their claim of asylum before the proper immigration court.
Refugees who are resettled in the US have immigration status upon arrival as a result of being declared a “refugee”. And, upon arrival, refugees receive certain monetary aid and other helps from the federal government to get established and acclimated. Those seeking asylum do not receive any benefits from the federal government. Asylum-seekers are on their own as they pursue asylum through the immigration courts—which may take years.
Back to the question, or back to Mr. and Mrs. Strang Er: are you going to help? There can be no question that this family needs help. This imaginary family is seeking asylum—meaning that they have permission to stay while their case moves forward—and they need help—a lot of it. What does Scripture tell us? “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great and awesome who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe. He administers justice for the fatherless and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:17-19 (NKJV). The word of God appears abundantly clear.
Prior to regeneration, we who today follow Jesus were not merely strangers to God, we were enemies. And yet, He loved us: the ungodly, the filthy and unlovely. We didn’t speak His language, but He condescended and patiently worked in us to grant understanding. We were naked before Him, and He clothed us in the righteous robes of Jesus. We were starving and He nourished us with the bread of heaven. Is it biblically right to help Mr. and Mrs. Strang Er? Scripture seems to suggest an answer in the positive. “How to help?” is a different question, and hopefully one to be taken up in a future article.
 Please see our first article entitled Is it Safe for Christians to Refuse to Welcome the Stranger? to learn more about “refugees”.
 “Asylum is a protection granted to foreign nationals already in the United States or arriving at the border who meet the international law definition of a ‘refugee.’ The United Nations 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol define a refugee as a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country, and cannot obtain protection in that country, due to past persecution or a well-founded fear of being persecuted in the future ‘on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.’ Congress incorporated this definition into U.S. immigration law in the Refugee Act of 1980.” https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/asylum-united-states.
 “Any alien who is physically present in the United States or who arrives in the United States (whether or not at a designated port of arrival and including an alien who is brought to the United States after having been interdicted in international or United States waters), irrespective of such alien’s status, may apply for asylum in accordance with this section or, where applicable, section 1225(b) of this title.” 8 USC Section 1158(a)(1).
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