Fresh from U.S.-Mexico border, Andy Levin meets with interfaith group

Evan James Carter
The Detroit News

Correction: The Birmingham Temple Congregation for Humanistic Judaism is a non-theistic organization that is sponsoring a Syrian mother and her children who have their own residence.This story has been updated to reflect the role of the organization.

Royal Oak — U.S. Rep. Andy Levin asked a group of local congregation leaders for their partnership in opposing the mass deportation of Iraqi-born nationals who have been ordered removed from the U.S.

The Bloomfield Township Democrat had just returned from a trip where he and 18 other Democratic members of Congress visited Department of Homeland Security facilities in McAllen and Brownsville, Texas, to review border facilities. Levin and the others also crossed over into Mexico, touring a Mexican customs facility and serving meals to those attempting to apply for asylum in the United States.

"I stand before you looking for your partnership to stand against what I feel like are violations of my most basic values, my faith values, my American values," Levin told the group of about 25 Christian, Jewish and other faith leaders from Macomb and Oakland counties.

"If it ends up only being political in the sense of we just vote out the people here doing this in, what, 15 months, OK, but can we wait? We can't wait, we need to act."

Rep. Andy Levin D-Bloomfield Township reflects on his recent trip to the United State’s southern border at the Rio Grande Valley to an interfaith group meeting at Royal Oak First United Methodist Church on July 14, 2019.

Levin spoke about the the issue as President Donald Trump ordered Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents beginning Sunday to target families with orders to leave the country, mostly predominantly Central Americans who recently arrived at the U.S. border in unprecedented numbers.

But his Royal Oak First United Methodist Church meeting, he said, was aimed at efforts to stop the mass deportation of Iraqi nationals, which is his focus on immigration issues, he said. Michigan's 9th Congressional District, which Levin represents, has more people born in Iraq living there than any other congressional district in the United States, according to census data. The Trump administration has also targeted Iraqi nationals for detention and deportation.

Rabbi Jeffrey Falick of the Birmingham Temple for Humanistic Judaism said his organization is a designated sanctuary congregation for migrants, though the congregation does not currently house anyone under threat of deportation.

The non-theistic Jewish group has "adopted" a Syrian mother and her children who are not under threat of deportation and who have their own residence. 

"My congregation is involved in issues of immigration rights and reform," he said. "We are unwilling to turn our backs on these people."

When the U.S. began deporting the first wave of Iraqi-born nationals two years ago, many Chaldeans — an Iraqi Christian minority group — protested at the McNamara Federal Building, fearing persecution if sent back to Iraq. Falick said his congregation joined them. 

"For an administration that claims they want to protect the rights of Christians in dangerous countries, it does not make sense to remove Christians from the United States and force them to return to where they are most persecuted," Falick said. "I am shocked beyond belief." 

Falick said some area congregation leaders have discussed issuing a statement opposing deportation and the mistreatment of migrants. 

"It takes voices raised in unison to make this happen," Falick said. 

Levin, along with Republican Rep. John Moolenaar of Midland, introduced a bill in May to grant Iraqi-born nationals with orders of removal two years of relief from detainment and deportation while they await individual hearings.

"All we're asking is that every one of these people simply have that most American of things: your day in court," Levin said.

Levin said the meeting was called to ask the clergy to stand with him and use their collective voices to speak out against the Trump administration's immigration agenda.

"The Trump administration's treatment of immigrants is one of the most immoral policies I've seen as an adult ... It's absolutely racist and xenophobic," Levin said in an interview after the event. "If that's not true, then that's not the America I know."

Levin recounted women and children crowded into fenced-in areas as well as men crowded into cells as the facilities he visited in the United States. The descriptions were similar to those offered by Vice President Mike Pence, who toured two detention facilities on the Texas border Friday, including a Border Patrol station where hundreds of men were crowded in sweltering cages without cots.

Some of the men said they were hungry and had been held there for 40 days or longer.

“Look, this is tough stuff,” Pence acknowledged at a later news conference. “I knew we’d see a system that is overcrowded,” he added. “It’s overwhelmed and that’s why Congress has to act.”

Trump said Friday that he had dispatched Pence to the border to dispel reports of dire conditions at the migrant detention centers.

“They’re crowded because we have a lot of people, but they’re in good shape,” Trump said. He complained about “phony” reporting on conditions by the New York Times.

In June, Levin voted against a $4.5 billion emergency aid package to provide humanitarian aid to the U.S.-Mexico border. That package passed for agencies handling border security.

"I voted against it ... because I just cannot trust the Trump administration," Levin said. 

White House representatives and GOP strategist Stu Sandler in Metro Detroit did not return phone calls or text messages seeking comment.

Staff writer Alex Nester and the Associated Press contributed.