Fitzpatrick Gives Context to Refugee Issues

After the the February migration conference, Bagpipe reporter Roy Uptain sat down with Christiana Fitzpatrick, Covenant’s Director of Global Education, to discuss why refugees and the issue of immigration matter and how students can respond to these issues. We have edited some answers for brevity and clarity. 

Roy Uptain: How are the issues of immigration and refugees different? 

Christiana Fitzpatrick: One of the things that I should mention is that talking about current issues in immigration and refugees is a piece of the coursework in Global Trends class. Refugees are actually a pretty small segment of the larger group of immigrants to the United States. “Refugee” is a specific category that is designated by the United Nations. Refugees undergo a very different vetting procedure than any other visa or immigration process.

A person is designated as a refugee if they are fleeing or have fled their home country because of war, natural disaster, or persecution; that is quite different than someone who immigrates from Germany or Guatemala. Refugees can be from anywhere, but most recently we hear a lot more about Syrian refugees because of the crisis there. But they have not been the largest number of refugees resettled in the United States in the past number of years.

RU: Tell me about how the discussion has evolved while you’ve been at Covenant.

CF: So there is the ongoing conversation that’s happening in the classroom, and then certainly in other classes – if you take American Urban History with Dr. Green, you are going to learn about the implications of immigration during the 19th and 20th centuries on our system today. In international studies and politics courses you would get some of that as well.

Then the Fall of 2015, when the Syrian crisis was heating up, [Community Development Internship Coordinator] Anna Rannou – who was very much a part of the events happening this spring—and some folks in the community development department put together a panel discussion on the refugee crisis in particular.

We also had Jenny Yang from World Relief, I believe that same year, talk specifically about immigration and a Christian response, if there is one single Christian response – there typically isn’t because Christians are a broad group of people. But World Relief has done a lot to educate the church by helping them understand the different categories of immigration, the conflict between Christians’ responsibility to our fellow humans and our responsibility to the government, and the church’s responsibility to care for those who are vulnerable.

Certainly refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the world – they have been designated as such – so how should the church respond to that? In that context I had gotten in contact with Pat Hatch through some former Covenant students who had worked with her. We just talked about ways to get her on campus and eventually decided to make it more than just Pat by having some other voices who were working with refugees. Then the election happened, and the executive orders, so it became even more timely. 

RU: What do you think motivates Covenant's heart for and desire to understand immigration issues, especially refugee issues?

CF: I think that as believers, we are called to care for those who are vulnerable, who aren’t being cared for, who are strangers. Whether they are believers or not, we have a duty to take care of those who are in the most need of care – orphans and widows. Woman and children are the highest percentage of refugees. In some ways I would say it is living out what scripture tells us to do in really practical ways. So we want to help students think about refugees not as some mass of humanity but as individuals made in the image of God, with real needs, real gifts and real ways to contribute to how we understand God and the World. Particularly refugees who are our Christian brothers and sisters who have been persecuted for their faith. The Bible tells us we have a special duty to pray for those who are persecuted, and to look for ways to alleviate their suffering as well.

RU: What would you say to the body of Covenant students who come from conservative and probably pro-Trump families and communities, who come back to Covenant and it seems like there is a bit of a disconnect between those two worlds? How would you hope that they processed some of that contradiction in their lives?

CF: A couple of things. One, when the US began taking in refugees in large numbers in the 70's it was not controversial in the church. There was not this kind of “there is a conservative way to look at it and a liberal way to look at it.” It was more like “oh, they are refugees in need, how can we help?” So I might point them to that, I might say that there hasn’t always been a cognitive dissonance.

In fact, there have been churches of very conservative and very liberal stripes that have cared for refugees for decades. So to have them ask “what's making the difference?” is a helpful question. There is a historian coming next week, Dan Williams, who has written  on “The Rise of the Religious Right” and the ties between conservative Christianity and the Republican party, and how that has happened. That is an important conversation to listen to and ask, “how has this happened? What are we holding on to that maybe is not helpful to be holding on to?”

And then I think Trump has certainly seized on fear as a motivator. If you can make people fearful of others, whether or not that fear is founded, you can wield additional power. And so I think good questions for those students to ask is “do they know the refugee process?” If people are fearful of refugees coming in, do they understand what refugees have to go through to get into this country? Do they know how refugees contribute once they are here, and how quickly they move from having very little to contributing?

I mean, they have to have a job in three months and start paying back some of what they have been given. So they are looking for work immediately and they are often taking jobs that nobody else wants. And then they tend to move from that job with very low pay to a higher wage job, so they can better their families. They are not often  in generational poverty. It’s kind of one generation, and then they are almost always moving out of a situation of poverty. They tend to be very entrepreneurial – looking for ways to contribute – so in some ways they are some of the most flourishing members of our country.

I would encourage people who are really feeling that dissonance to look for an opportunity to meet a refugee or get to know an immigrant family. I think when you know people and have a relationship with them you are able to see things from their perspective.

RU: You mentioned that fear is a motivator and that fear towards refugees may be misplaced. What is Covenant doing to address those fears?

CF: I think we always want to call our students to discomfort and to not having their end goal be their own comfort and security. I hope that’s not a new thing at Covenant. Not that we are saying you have to live a life in a monastery or become a martyr. But is the end goal of the Christian life your comfort and security, or is it for you to glorify God? And if glorifying God and enjoying him forever is your ultimate goal, how could you be glorifying God now through the way you give up some of your comfort, or the way you structure your life that is not all about your own security?

The other thing is that if you look at terrorist attacks on American soil, there have been no fatal attacks by a refugee since the Refugee Act of 1980. So in some ways this is a fear that is unfounded. But that’s not the rhetoric that’s heard: “We are preventing refugees from getting in because they are bent on destroying our culture by bringing in Islam and terrorism.” That just doesn’t seem to be who is coming in and why they are coming in through the refugee process. Terrorists are more likely to come in through one of the easier ways – a family visa, or a tourist visa, or a student visa – and overstay. And there may be reasons to look at those systems. Certainly national security matters, but is that the most important thing for a Christian? 

RU: Do you think that valuing security and comfort is a product of the christian worldview? If not, where would you say those values come from?

CF: They don’t seem to be a product of the Christian worldview as I read scripture. They may be a product of the American-Christian worldview, which might not be that Christian. It may be that we have tied American nationalism and the American Dream to Christianity somehow. Parents want their kids to be successful and to have better jobs and bigger homes than they had. Not that they aren’t faithful believers – and I don't think anyone would actually say that – but is that really what the underlying belief is? Maybe as we get more successful we become less and less aware of how much we are dependent on the Lord. So we start to think that we have control of our lives, of our safety, of our comfort instead of realizing that everything we have is a gift from God. It is a gift from God that we were born where we were born – for everybody in this world. It is a gift for the Colombian that they were born in Colombia. It was a gift that I was born in Pennsylvania. It was a gift that someone else was born in Sudan. And that's not something that we can control if we truly believe in God’s sovereignty.