Opinion: I Prayed With Migrants. Now The Government Is Tracking Me.
When I see DHS’s photograph of me, with a yellow X like a crosshair across my face, my emotions swing between fury and terror.
I recently learned that the Department of Homeland Security has put me on a political hit list — part of something called “Operation Secure Line.” About 60 people, myself included, have been targeted for surveillance, travel restrictions, and who knows what else by the most powerful government on earth.
I am a minister at the Park Avenue Christian Church in New York City. Others on the DHS list are journalists, organizers, and lawyers. Apparently, our “crime” was fraternizing with migrants seeking refuge in this nation as part of the administration-reviled “caravan” fleeing violence in their home countries.
“Why are you surprised?” my father asked when I called him in shock. “This goes with political activism in America.” He would know. My mother, Karen Edmonds Spellman, worked with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s, doing the dangerous work of organizing African Americans to register and vote throughout the Jim Crow South. News of the DHS list reminded her of COINTELPRO, the program that Hoover ran at the FBI targeting groups deemed subversive. “Their mission was to destroy the movement,” she said.
When I see DHS’s photograph of me — a native-born US citizen, and president of the alumni board of the Yale Divinity School — with a yellow X like a crosshair across my face, my emotions swing between fury and terror.
I visited migrants in Tijuana twice late last year, representing the New Sanctuary Coalition, which I cochair. I was part of a “Sanctuary Caravan,” a faith-based mobilization of US citizens who felt morally compelled to meet, witness, and accompany these migrants.
Along with a group of clergy, I met with migrant families and heroic people providing humanitarian aid to them. Much of our time together was spent in prayer, as I sought to offer a balm against some of the most extended trauma of their lives. I even solemnized marriage ceremonies for young parents who had never been able to have a church-blessed wedding.
What I did not do was engage in any illegal activity. None.
So how does DHS claim that everyone on its Operation Secure Line list, including me, was involved in protests at the border that became violent? Like millions of Americans, I saw the horrifying images of mothers shielding their children as they ran from tear gas and rubber bullets. But I was not in Tijuana at the time. If anybody at DHS cares to look, they can see I was on Delta flight 2246 from New York to San Diego the following day.
The reality is that DHS doesn’t like my work with immigrants. As a key aspect of our organization’s mission, I often assist asylum-seekers whom the authorities have targeted. My faith compels me to do so as I remember that Jesus, the Christ, was both a migrant and a refugee at points of his life. Sometimes this work has been successful, apparently frustrating DHS to the extent that it decided to punish me.
But I claim this government, even DHS. I also claim the Constitution that binds it. They are mine. The same law that governs me governs them. I will not be silenced from praying with migrants or giving them a Christian marriage.
Being on lists like Operation Secure Line has consequences. Some activists have been deported. Many, like me, have alerts on their passports. On January 2, as I attempted to cross back to San Diego from Tijuana for the evening — a trip I have taken countless times — I was detained and then interrogated by two men I believe are members of the Homeland Security Investigations squad, which DHS describes as “a vital US asset in combating criminal organizations illegally exploiting America’s travel, trade, financial and immigration systems.” It was clear my interrogators knew a lot about me — a suspicion confirmed by an NBC report.
This DHS operation is clandestine; we do not know its scope. We do know that this administration consistently has beaten at the walls of restraint on governmental authority as it attempts to censor speech critical of it, primarily in the press, and now, apparently in the pulpit as well.
Programs like Operation Secure Line cannot be allowed to stand. As the leaders of my denomination, the United Church of Christ, put in a letter published recently, “we will not bow.”
In this time, I turn to holy scripture, for the bible says, “no weapon formed against me shall prosper.” Even if that weapon is wielded by the most powerful government in the world.
If the US government can punish Americans for praying with migrants, writing about their travails, and helping them learn their rights, then America can stop calling itself the land of the free. I shudder to think what it should be called.
Congress must investigate this egregious attack on the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and my free exercise of religion.