Ethical Decision Points in the History of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

[1] Having been at the helm of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service for nearly two decades now, I’m often asked to speak about LIRS, its mission and history. In telling the story of this arm of the great Lutheran ministry of “welcoming the stranger,” I find myself drawn more and more to key decision points. These were times when LIRS had to grapple with ethical issues as it determined how to move forward: What’s the right thing to do? What is God’s calling at this time? Learning from our history helps us as we address the ethical issues of today.

1939: The Founding
[2] After the Nazis came into power in Germany in 1933 and began enacting their hateful laws against Jews, political opponents, and others, a number of Lutherans began fleeing to America. Most of these were Lutheran by confession but considered Jewish under the Nazi race laws. By 1939 the numbers had grown to such a level that U.S. Lutherans determined that an organized welcome was needed, rather than just relying on informal networks. A Lutheran refugee office was set up within the National Lutheran Council. 522 refugees were helped the first year.

1946-47: Advocacy to Open America’s Door
[3] At the close of World War II in 1945, one out of every six Lutherans in the world was a refugee or displaced person (DP), and one-third of the DPs were Lutheran. Within a couple years, homes were found within Europe for most of them. However, it became clear that several hundreds of thousands who were still in camps were in need of resettlement. American Lutheran church leaders joined their counterparts from other Christian and Jewish faith communities in appealing to President Truman to open America’s door to displaced people coming from countries that had been our enemies just a few years before. As a result of this advocacy, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act. Lutheran advocacy for refugees and migrants continues to this day.

1948: Choosing a Woman to Lead
[4] With the doors of America opened to the DPs, the Lutheran Resettlement Service needed to scale up its work and find its first full-time director. A pioneer social work educator, Cordelia Cox, was chosen. She was the first woman to head an American Lutheran church agency. (I had the privilege of meeting Ms. Cox toward the end of her long life. She recounted how the church leaders looked and looked for a man for the job but finally realized they had the right person in her. And even then, she said, they didn’t pay her as much!) In her decade of leadership, U.S. Lutherans resettled some 57,000 refugees, without any government financial support.

1950s: The Lutherans Have Been Cared For—Is Our Work Done?
[5] By the mid to late 1950s, it became apparent that homes had been found for nearly all the Lutheran DPs. The question was asked among Lutherans both internationally and in the United States: Is our work done? With the leadership of people such as Paul Empie, the answer was a resounding no. Relying on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Lutherans decided that they were called to respond to the need of the neighbor without regard to religious affiliation. Lutherans had been equipped with skills and experience in working with refugees—those gifts needed to be used in service of others. Since then, the Lutheran World Federation’s department for World Service became one of the leading partners of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and in the United States LIRS has resettled non-Lutheran refugees from many countries around the world.

1975: Will We Work with the Government?
[6] After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, refugees began fleeing from Southeast Asia in their tens and hundreds of thousands. Despite it initially being extremely unpopular politically, President Ford took the courageous decision to promote resettlement for those on whose side the United States had fought. Furthermore, the Ford Administration decided that, rather than try to resettle through the government, the refugees would be better received and integrated if there were a public-private partnership with voluntary agencies representing a cross-section of American society. The question then for LIRS was whether to accept the government’s invitation to work together, knowing that money and guidelines coming from the government would change the way Lutherans do resettlement. LIRS accepted the invitation and for the past 30-plus years has been a leading resettlement partner with the federal government.

1975: Will We Work through Lutheran Social Ministry Organizations?
[7] The work of LIRS expanded dramatically with the arrival of the Southeast Asians. National staff went from four to over a hundred. LIRS staff sat at desks in New York City with church directories, cold calling congregations to ask them to take in refugees. With the leadership of Sister Betty Amstutz and others, the question was asked in the LIRS board whether LIRS and the refugees wouldn’t be better served by working in partnership with the Lutheran social ministry organizations around the country. Those organizations know their communities and can bring a broader array of services and contacts to help the resettlement. While the decision was controversial—the then LIRS director felt that LIRS would be giving up its public visibility and scope of action—history has proven the LSMO partnership to be a blessing.

1981: Who Defines Who Is the Neighbor in Need—the Government or the Church?
[8] In the early 1980s, Central America was aflame. Refugees began fleeing through Mexico to the United States, especially from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. For foreign policy reasons, U.S. Government policy was not to recognize them as refugees and to send them back. The Sanctuary Movement arose in the United States, using civil disobedience to seek to protect refugees from being deported back to life-threatening danger and to protest U.S. policy. What should LIRS do? First off, referring again to the parable of the Good Samaritan, the churches and LIRS board decided that we are called to serve the neighbor in need, regardless of whether the government has invited that person to enter the United States. Next, the board decided that LIRS would affirm those congregations and individuals who take the serious decision to engage in civil disobedience, but that LIRS itself would operate within the law while advocating for a change to the law. Finally, LIRS established a program of assistance for asylum seekers, working through a network of legal and social service providers along the borders and in the major cities. This program continues to this day. It has led LIRS to extensive involvement with asylum seekers in immigration detention, to the issue of immigration detention in general, and to the reform of our broken immigration system in general.

1990: Children Should Not Be Detained
[9] Already in the late 1970s, LIRS began a specialized program of resettlement and foster care for unaccompanied refugee minors—children who do not have their parents or another adult to watch over them. By the late 1980s, it became apparent that among those fleeing from Central America were other unaccompanied children. If they were apprehended by the Border Patrol, they would be held behind bars in juvenile jails or immigration detention facilities while their cases were being adjudicated. To LIRS, this made no sense either from a child welfare perspective—the vast majority of the children were neither criminals nor posed a threat to anyone—or from the taxpayer’s perspective—it is much more expensive to imprison a child than to care for him or her in foster care or a group home. Using church dollars, LIRS hired a staff member to plan an advocacy effort to change this policy. Finally in 2002 this effort bore fruit when the Homeland Security Act switched the custody of undocumented unaccompanied children from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. ORR in turn works with LIRS and our Catholic counterpart to treat the children in a more child-welfare-friendly manner.

1994: Reviving Resettlement as a Durable Solution
[10] In the late 1980s and early 1990s, resettlement as a durable protection solution for refugees had fallen into disfavor within the UNHCR. It was seen as a veil for the migration of Southeast Asians to the United States, as diverting attention and resources from more urgent life-saving efforts, and as promoting a brain drain, especially from African countries. LIRS seconded its Washington representative, John Fredriksson, to UNHCR to do a thorough internal assessment of resettlement. The result was a shift in UNHCR’s protection doctrine that led to the revival of resettlement as a durable solution, along with repatriation and local integration.

1998: Reviving the Resettlement of Unaccompanied Refugee Minors
[11] The resettlement of unaccompanied refugee children has been a special part of LIRS’s work since the late 1970s. Through this partnership with the federal government and Lutheran social ministry organizations, thousands of children who found themselves separated from their parents have been given new hope and new life in loving homes. However, after the Southeast Asian resettlement wound down, the U.S. program for resettling minors almost died. In federal fiscal year 1997, only one minor was resettled. LIRS and our Catholic partners worked with UNHCR and the U.S. government to revive the program, sponsoring a conference in 1998. As a result, the so-called Lost Boys (and girls!) of Sudan were resettled in 2000-01 and today the unaccompanied minors program is growing again.

[12] As LIRS has struggled with each of these questions, weighing issues of mission, politics, service capacity, and ethics, the agency’s self-understanding has been refined. LIRS works closely with government when our missions coincide but at base we are the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, not the government’s. We work better in partnerships than on our own. Our advocacy is informed by our experience in service, and when the advocacy is successful it often gives us expanded opportunities for service. We try to be faithful to our mission and stand up for what is right. It meant a lot when, in 2007, one of the leading immigration advocates in Washington publicly described LIRS as the “moral compass” in the immigration debate. We ask God’s guidance to give us discernment as we face new ethical questions.