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When Immigration Politics and Faith Collide

"The idea of aiding refugee communities is not a remote or optional part of the Christian life from a Catholic perspective."

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Under the domed ceiling of St. John's Cathedral in Boise's North End neighborhood, the teachings of the prophet Isaiah echoed during the Liturgy of the Word. In the passage, Isaiah tells the Jews to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and shelter those in need.

His message is a core teaching of Abrahamic religions from Judaism to Islam, and though recent political developments regarding immigration and refugees were not explicitly mentioned during mass, it was a pointed reminder that a recent ban on Syrian refugees and immigration from several Middle Eastern countries contradicted a calling within numerous faiths to practice charity toward the downtrodden.

"The idea of aiding refugee communities is not a remote or optional part of the Christian life from a Catholic perspective," said Catholic Charities of Idaho Executive Director Douglas Alles.

The controversy began Jan. 27, when President Donald Trump issued an executive order preventing Syrian refugees from entering the United States and barred immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. Days later, Rep. Greg Chaney (R-Caldwell) introduced House Bill 76, which would deny state sales tax funding to cities harboring undocumented residents.

For faith communities, many of which have immigrant members and serve refugees, these developments came as a blow.

Alles was unable to comment directly on immigration politics, but did say Trump's executive orders come at a time of "significant instability in the world." That sentiment was echoed in a Feb. 2 statement from Boise Bishop Peter Christensen, in which he affirmed the church's "commitment to accompanying and supporting the vulnerable in our society, including immigrants and refugees."

"It is my hope that our federal government focus its efforts on comprehensive immigration reform and humane refugee resettlement for [families split by immigration status], but also our entire country," Christensen wrote.

Trump's orders quickly became mired in the courts, but not before sparking widespread protests at airports across the country (including in Boise). The Boise City Council joined the fray, unanimously passing the "Welcoming City" resolution that underscored its commitment to making Boise immigrant-friendly, but fell short of declaring Boise a community that would stand up to federal authorities seeking undocumented residents.

"This is not a statement of Boise as a sanctuary city," said Boise City Councilwoman and Democratic Sen. Maryanne Jordan. "This is more personal. Sometimes you have to say something because it's the right thing to say."

During discussion of the resolution, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter said it was "a reaffirmation of who we are."

The immigration and refugee bans were designed to address what the administration sees as a terrorist menace coming from countries in the Middle East, but their effects have been felt keenly by those in Boise's Muslim community. Members of that community have come to Boise as refugees, and others as immigrants to work at Boise State University and the city's growing technology sector. Some, like Said Ahmed-Zaid, feel Trump's policies harken back to post-9/11 Islamophobia.

"In the early days right after 9/11, law enforcement agencies were casting these wide nets, looking at every Muslim with suspicion," he said. "I'm saddened that this administration is going back to those early days."

Speaking on behalf of the Islamic Center of Boise, Ahmed-Zaid said the congregation has strong ties to the city of Boise and Boise Police Department. For its part, the Islamic Center has worked to help members adjust to their new lives as Americans. Ahmed-Zaid worried, however, that legislation like HB 76 has its origins in the teachings of people like Shahram Hadian, an anti-Islam pastor who spoke at the Idaho Statehouse in January 2016.

"We're looking at a minority of legislators who are getting their information from anti-Muslim sources," he said.

In conjunction with Trump's executive orders, Ahmed-Zaid said pieces of legislation like Chaney's enable anti-immigrant sentiment and are pathways to roundups of immigrants. That would, in turn, "really push them into the dark," making them unwilling to seek services or communicate with law enforcement. ICB strives to be apolitical, but recent events have it "caught between a rock and a hard place."

"These orders are coming at us like a flurry of punches," he said. "We're actually exhausted."

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