The story of Anne Frank is well known. Anne was a Jewish girl living in the Netherlands. She went into hiding in a concealed apartment during World War II with her family to escape from the Nazis. Hidden by a friendly Dutch family for two years, the family was eventually discovered and deported to concentration camps. Anne died of starvation and disease in Bergen-Belsen, a German death camp. Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was the only family member to survive. The diary kept by Anne Frank while in hiding has become a world classic.
What you might not know is that Otto Frank made repeated attempts to immigrate to the United States with his family. This chapter of the Anne Frank Story was recently told by the Washington Post in a November 2015 article by reporter Elahe Izadi. Despite having high-level connections within the American business community and some political contacts, Frank was unable to secure safe passage to the United States for himself and his family. In a letter dated April 30, 1941, Frank wrote to his college friend in the United States, Nathan Straus, Jr.: “I am forced to look out for emigration and as far as I can see U.S.A. is the only country we could go to…Perhaps you remember that we have two girls. It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance.”
Straus was a connected man. He was the son of a Macy’s co-owner, the head of the U.S. Housing Authority and a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. Appeals were submitted by Strauss and his wife to the State Department, the Migration Department and the National Refugee Service supported by affidavits from employers of Frank’s family members in the U.S. vouching for their financial ability to provide for Frank and the family. But unfortunately for the Franks, U.S. refugee policy reflected growing American anxieties over foreigners from German-invaded countries forming a “fifth column” made up of disloyal elements in European territories. In short, the Franks were denied refugee status in the United States due to “national security concerns.”
The Franks were neither the first nor the only victims of this policy. In June of 1939, the German ocean liner St. Louis and its 937 passengers, almost all Jewish, were turned away from the port of Miami forcing the ship to return to Europe where more than a quarter died in the Holocaust. The brutal fact is that the Franks and thousands of other Jewish refugees denied sanctuary in the United States were as much victims of U.S. policy as they were of Nazi violence. If you think that’s a stretch, listen to what Martin Luther says concerning the Fifth Commandment (Thou shalt not kill):
“…under this commandment not only he is guilty who does evil to his neighbor, but also he who can do him good, prevent, resist evil, defend and save him, so that no bodily harm or hurt happen to him, and yet does not do it. If, therefore, you send away one that is naked when you could clothe him, you have caused him to freeze to death; if you see one suffer hunger and do not give him food, you have caused him to starve. So also, if you see anyone innocently sentenced to death or in like distress, and do not save him, although you know ways and means to do so, you have killed him. And it will not avail you to make the pretext that you did not afford any help, counsel or aid thereto, for you have withheld your love from him and deprived him of the benefit whereby his life would have been saved.” Luther’s Large Catechism, “The Fifth Commandment”
Now unless you have been living under a rock for the last week, you know exactly where I am going with this. On Friday, January 27th, which just happens to be Holocaust Remembrance Day, President Donald Trump signed an executive order halting all refugee resettlement in the United States for 120 days and resettlement of Syrian refugees indefinitely. The rationale for this wide ranging ban is the same one used to justify denial of sanctuary to the Frank family. National security is once again being invoked to deny innocent victims of genocidal violence the opportunity to live. It is not enough that we have on our hands the blood of the Holocaust. Now the current administration would add to that the blood of countless refugees seeking asylum from the carnage in Syria and other nations. In my view, this is not, in the main, a “political” issue. The command to care for the foreigner and the resident alien are as old as the Hebrew Scriptures and expressed with crystal clarity in the gospels. National security, however important that might be, cannot be invoked to ignore the call of Jesus Christ to love one’s neighbor. Last I checked, there is no exception in the scriptures for Muslims.
Since 1939 Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) has been answering the call of Jesus by advocating for the acceptance of refugees from all over the world into our neighborhoods, sponsoring them through our churches and assisting them with the provision of education, job opportunities and integration into our communities. In the wake of World War II, LIRS resettled thousands of refugees displaced by that carnage, many of whom went on to become leaders in church and community. After the fall of South Vietnam, LIRS resettled thousands of displaced Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian families within our borders whose communities have enriched our culture and contributed to our economy. We are doing absolutely nothing different today and, God willing, we will be doing nothing different in the years to come. Caring for refugees lies at the heart of being a discipleship of Jesus. As the GEICO commercial says, “It’s what you do.” This is not Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. It’s just Jesus.
But what about national security? What about the possibility that we might be letting into our country people who are dangerous? Shouldn’t we be concerned about that? The answer is that, of course, the government should concern itself with the safety of its citizens. Vetting is and always has been a part of refugee resettlement in the United States. Anyone working at LIRS can tell you that vetting already is extreme and that it is hard to imagine how one could make it more extreme. Background checks with every nation in which a refugee has ever resided, iris I.D.s, fingerprinting and numerous exhaustive interviews at the international, national and local level are all part of the cumbersome process of resettlement. The government also requires proof of sponsorship for refugees by local agencies, churches or other non-profit groups before allowing them into the country. The repeated claim that there are millions of anonymous, unvetted and potentially dangerous refugees flooding into our country does not square with what those of us in the business of resettlement for the last seven decades know to be true. The oft repeated threat of an uncontrolled refugee influx is what we have now learned to call an “alternative fact.” (Back when I was a kid, we called it a lie).
But putting the truth aside for just a moment and assuming, for the sake of argument, that the “alternative fact” about the dangerousness of refugees is a “fact fact,” that is, a real fact, the picture does not change. Jesus never promised that loving your neighbor would be safe or easy. The term “neighbor” includes the “enemy.” Loving your enemy can get you nailed to a cross. Jesus said in no uncertain terms that “where I am, there will my servant be also.” Very simply, to be a disciple of Jesus is to follow Jesus in doing what Jesus did-loving the enemy that nails you to the cross. If you identify as a Christian, you can’t justify refusing to welcome refugees into your community with the argument that they might hurt you or your family-even when you dress it up with lofty sounding titles like “national security.” You follow Jesus by embracing your neighbor and any cross that might come with him/her, or you decide that following Jesus is too dangerous and decide to play it safe. Follow or don’t follow him. Simple, but not easy.
Enough talk. Now I am going to ask you to do something; to take a step in your discipleship with Jesus. I am asking you to speak up for your neighbors in Syria and refugees all over the world caught between death threats to themselves and their children on the one hand and a closed border on the other. Please, please. please take a moment and write a letter in these or your own words to your representatives whose names and addresses appear below. Alternatively, you can go directly to the LIRS website and send them an e-mail or make a phone call. However you do it, let your representatives know that refugee lives matter to you. Let them know that you welcome these endangered neighbors in your community-just as Jesus has welcomed us under his gentle reign. As the great British philosopher and statesman Edmund Burk once said, “all that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.” Don’t do nothing.
I’m your constituent from [your town], New Jersey, and I am appalled by President Trump’s decision to pause the refugee resettlement program for any period of time. I also support the resettlement of Syrian refugees and other Muslim refugees fleeing terror. I believe the United States needs to continue to be a global leader for refugee resettlement and we should honor our commitment to resettle the most vulnerable.
I am also strongly opposed to President Trump’s decision to expand detention and prevent asylum-seeking Central Americans women, children, and families from seeking protection in the U.S.
These discriminatory announcements run contrary to what Christ called us to do and who we are as a nation. It does not reflect the welcome for refugees and migrants I see in my community every day. I urge you to do everything in your power to see this announcement reversed.
Rep. Josh S. Gottheimer
65 Harristown Rd
Glen Rock, NJ 07452
Sen. Corey Booker
One Gateway Center
Newark, NJ 07102
Sen. Robert Menendez
One Gateway Center, Suite 1100
Newark, New Jersey 07102