Wednesday, March 29, 2017

A Day on the Hill: Lutherans #StandforWelcome

Lutheran Prayer breakfast: also the room for Watergate hearings
and formation of the ACA, among other historic events
Yesterday we arrived in Washington D.C. for a two day visit (the Lutheran Immigration Leadership Summit) on Capitol Hill. The first day, we spent time with clergy, bishops, community leaders and staff from three Lutheran denominations--the ELCA, the LCMS, and the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America--centering our message for visits with congresspeople and senators.

We brought two core asks:

1) Maintain the United States' position as the world leader in protecting the most vulnerable: ensure the full and continued operation of the refugee resettlement program.

2) Support compassionate policies that provide immediate protection for Central American children and families, and faithful solutions to the conditions that cause people to flee.

The facts get complicated at some points, but essentially we had the job of disambiguating refugee resettlement from immigration. As people of faith, we advocate for welcome and safety for both refugees and immigrants, but the policies and appropriations are different and distinct, even if in popular media they get confused.

Our concern remains that in 2017 the federal government (as a result of Executive Orders from the president) reduced the target for admission of refugees from 110,000 to 50,000. We believe this is far too low, harming refugees who were already prepared to come here, and undermining the work of refugee resettlement agencies. So our target ask was for our elected officials to aim for at least 75,000 admissions in 2017.

In addition, we are concerned that elected officials spuriously imply that refugees are an unsafe population that need even more vetting (thus the call for a 120 day "pause"), when in fact refugees are the most vetted population of people coming into the United States, and historically are the least violent population of people in our country.

One result of this spurious targeting of the most vulnerable is our own practice as a nation (a widespread practice of DHS) of separating families who arrive at our border as a "Consequence Delivery System" in order to supposedly deter more families from seeking safe-haven at our borders. The problem with such practices of family separation are manifold. First, they don't deter immigration. Second, they harm children. It's a heinous practice. We incarcerate children, separate them from their families, and they do not supply them with lawyers to help them navigate the legal system that can free them. To read more:

In addition, we are increasing laws in our nation that make those seeking asylum in our country fearful of pursuing such asylum. We are a nation that has historically wanted those who need asylum to seek it with us. Now, we are establishing laws that might further harm them.

I could go on, but this gives you a taste of the magnitude of the issues and concerns. If you really want to take a deep dive to learn more, visit this list of resources.


Today, we visited four senators in their offices. Our delegation included Emily Crane Linn (the resettlement director for Canopy NWA), Michael Girlinghouse (the bishop of the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod), a staffer from LIRS, and myself. Tom Cotton met with us personally, as did John Boozman. The senators from Oklahoma scheduled time for us with some of their legislative staff and aids.

In our meeting with Tom Cotton, although he was (as are all our elected officials) supportive of us and our work on an individual level, he mentioned a number of resigns why he wants to reduce immigration levels by half, and refugee admissions down to 50,000. His main one is supposed wage suppression. He believes immigrants depress low-income wages.

The problem: the facts aren't in his favor. As just one example, you can read this fascinating study from MIT, which analyzes the long-run impact of immigration on employment, productivity, and its skill bias. Using "the existence of immigrant communities across U.S. states before 1960 and the distance from the Mexican border as instruments for immigration flows. [They] find no evidence that immigrants crowded out employment. At the same time, [they] find that immigration had a strong, positive association with total factor productivity and a negative association with the high skill bias of production technologies. The results are consistent with the idea that immigrants promoted efficient task specialization, thus increasing TFP, and also promoted the adoption of unskilled-efficient technologies."

In other words, immigration has a net positive effect on wages AND on the diversification of low-skill and high skill employment. And here's a fun story. While we were at a banquet last night, a lobbyist for BPS (one of the meat packing giants) stopped in to chat. I took notes, because he really knew how to do his job. Inside of five minutes, he'd established a rapport with all of us, including mentioning his wife was originally a Lutheran from Lanesboro, MN. 

He told us the same thing the poultry industry has been telling us all along: employers are DESPERATE for entry-level workers. Nothing in our economy supports Tom Cotton's theory on wages and immigration, which does make you wonder why he continues to hold to his opinion in spite of the evidence.

Our meeting with Senator Tom Cotton, Arkansas

Senator John Boozman, Arkansas
The staffers with the Oklahoma offices were incredibly kind, listened to our asks, and took our packets, promising to follow up and talk with their senators. It's hard to say how much change or movement we might see out of those conversations, but it did open a door with senators who I believe haven't had many direct visits from advocates for refugee resettlement.

Finally, we met with Senator Boozman. Boozman was far more focused on the appropriateness of the travel bans on the six countries, and the 120 day pause on resettlement. Again in spite of all evidence to the contrary, he holds to the belief that refugees may pose a security threat. Although we have many counter-arguments to this claim (just talk to UNHCR staff about the current vetting done with all refugees using highly advanced biometrics), one of the least remarked seems to be the security threat we cause to ourselves by NOT resettling refugees.

Not only do we weaken our allies by not taking in the refugees we have promised to resettle: we also perpetuate, both abroad and at home, the conditions for radicalization, perhaps especially in this nationalist climate radicalizing white supremacists in particular.

After these meetings, just for fun I jumped in on one more meeting, a delegation who met with Chuck Grassley. Grassley has been a senator for decades. Back when my grandfather was a state representative in Iowa, I used to visit Senator Grassley in his office, and see him on the campaign trail. Stopping in today was really nice. He asked about my family, whether they still farm, etc.

I disagree with Chuck Grassley on virtually every single political issue I can think of, but it did remind me that in the end, politicians are simply people. They play a rather strange game in D.C., and they live in an odd political rally, but they are people.

Some additional notes from the day. First, a staffer from Representative Steve Womack's office went out of her way to come sit with us during the opening Lutheran Prayer Breakfast. That was a promising. Second, I took a quick trip over to the Folger Shakespeare Library during our lunch break. Amazing! Had the chance to read some pages from an original copy of The Canterbury Tales, some ancient copies of the Erasmus translation of the Bible, an early copy of Piers Plowman, and much more.

It was nice, in the midst of a political day, to relax for a bit under the guidance of an historically informed docent, who told us everything we'd ever want to know about Shakespeare folios and quartos.

If you're ever in D.C., I recommend this museum.

Oh, and some very cool people things. I hung out with my former youth pastor, Mike Rinehart, who is now the bishop of the Gulf Coast synod of the ELCA, and a former camper of mine, Paul Bailie, who is now a pastor at the border in Eagle Pass, Texas. Many generations of Lutherans advocating to #StandforWelcome.

On the way back to my apartment, stopped in at Kramer Book Store. Very well curated. Found a couple of books I've been wanting to read, so I end by providing links to them.


  1. Thank you for this report. We'll publish it in our newsletter this week.

  2. Thank you for sharing. I am grateful to you and your group for taking on the tough task of negotiating for our Refugee population. I will continue to pray for all involved.