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By: Robert Scott
At first glance, Epiphany and the Federal Shutdown don’t seem to be closely related. But they are tied together by a single word: asylum. That word has several definitions; Dictionary.com provides the most applicable one: “a refuge granted an alien by a sovereign state on its own territory.” There can be many reasons a refugee requests asylum. One of the most common is trying to escape from an imminent threat of violence.
In liturgical Christian churches, the season of Epiphany harkens back to the second chapter of St. Matthew’s gospel. That is the chapter that starts with the story of the Three Wise Men who sought and found the infant Jesus. And the chapter ends with Herod’s sending out his men to kill all infant boys in and around Bethlehem. To escape that violence, Joseph took Mary and the infant Messiah to Egypt, where they were granted asylum until Herod’s death removed that threat from their lives. Even so, they could not return to Bethlehem because of the continued cruelty of Herod’s son Archeiaus; instead they again sought asylum, this time in the neighboring jurisdiction of Nazareth beyond the reach of that second generation madman.
Today, in 21stCentury America, we are witnessing thousands of refugees from violence seeking asylum in our country. The “Herod” whom they are escaping lives and rules locally in their towns and villages in Central America. While not threatening their lives as Herod and then Archeiaus did, President Trump’s policies are making it difficult for refugees to be safe even here. Our laws require America to process and to adjudicate every legitimate request for asylum, and ascertaining which refugees have such legitimacy is left to immigration courts. Those courts are underfunded in the best of times; a recent set of articles in the Arizona Republicreported an astounding case backlog that has grown from 629,000 in 2017, the first year of the Trump administration, to over 809,000 today.
What does that have to do with the present partial federal shutdown? One effect is that the immigration courts are now closed, and they will not reopen until the shutdown ends. The backlog is growing. Increasing numbers of asylum seekers have been allowed into the country pending their cases being heard; USA Todayreported 6,000 of them since October in Arizona alone. With more coming in and none being processed by courts now shut down, the ironic result is that President Trump’s policies to crack down on undocumented immigrants have instead greatly increased their number. The backlog of cases means that today’s asylum seekers will be here awaiting hearings to be scheduled no earlier than 2021 – two years from now.
In Matthew Chapter 2, Joseph and Mary remained in Egypt for two years and then went to Nazareth, seeking asylum from the regime in power in Bethlehem. Asylum was granted and their child survived, a blessing we celebrate every Sunday. Our hopes and, yes, our prayers are with all the families seeking asylum in our own country today, and for years to come.