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Jenny Yang

DAVID ADAMS speaks with Jenny Yang, head of advocacy at US-headquartered humanitarian organisation, World Relief, about her work to help Christians see immigration as a matter of faith…

To say that it’s been a tough couple of years for refugee advocates in the US is probably something of an understatement.

“It’s been challenging, to say the least,” admits Jenny Yang, head of advocacy at World Relief (her official title at the organisation is senior vice president of advocacy and policy).

“It’s been crazy, I think to see what has happened in the US and also the ramifications to the people we serve…” she told Sight during a visit to Australia last month where she was one of the speakers at The Justice Conference in Melbourne. “I don’t think anyone really anticipated the drastic nature of what this [Trump] administration would do.”

Jenny Yang

Jenny Yang speaking at The Justice Conference in Melbourne last month. PICTURE: Courtesy of The Justice Conference.

Those actions have included announcing a travel ban on people entering the US from a number of countries – the so-called ‘Muslim ban’, moves to construct a new ‘wall’ on the border with Mexico, the separation and detention of immigrant families in the US – an initiative which resulted in scandalised headlines around the globe, and recent moves to put limits on the right to asylum in the US.

Yet, Yang, who is also co-author of the book Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate and was named one of Christianity Today‘s “50 Women to Watch”, says World Relief does have an advantage in addressing Trump’s constituency – the organisation is the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals in the US, giving them what Yang calls a “validity” to speak to evangelicals, some 80 per cent of whom famously voted for Trump in the 2016 election.

 “The challenge [for us] when [we’re] working with evangelicals specifically is to try and say ‘Just because you’re Christian doesn’t mean you’re married to one political party; that your partisan identity doesn’t make up your Christian identity and vice-versa’…” says Yang.

“The challenge [for us] when [we’re] working with evangelicals specifically is to try and say ‘Just because you’re Christian doesn’t mean you’re married to one political party; that your partisan identity doesn’t make up your Christian identity and vice-versa’…”

– Jenny Yang

And the situation may not be as challenging as it may first appear. While Yang says national polling may show the church as “anti-refugee”, “in our experience working with churches in the cities where we settle refugees, the response is always pretty positive”.

Part of the challenge, she adds, is to get Christians to think about refugees and immigration issues, not from a political or relief perspective, but from the perspective of their faith.

“So we’re always challenging the churches and saying ‘Look, this is a theological and belief issue, not just a social issue per se.”

Yang says that while arguments about security and the economy – that refugees may represent threats to either or both – may be valid occasionally, she points out that most data shows immigrants are a boon to the US economy and that native-born Americans have higher rates of criminality than immigrants.

“I think they’re a ruse for people to have an excuse for not changing culture and identity,” says Yang. “I think it really has to do with that because I think people are scared of the demographic change that is happening in the US…”

There have been some positives from the Trump administration putting the spotlight on immigration issues, says Yang, one of which is that she believes more Christians who don’t agree with the administration’s policies are being willing to speak up. And that includes some evangelicals.

“I think there has to be [recognition] of a more diverse view of the evangelical church in the States because right now it’s dominated by the ‘old guard’ whereas I think, these days you’re seeing a diverse church in terms of its political views as well as its theological views…”

One the current challenges to US policies on immigration lies in the “human caravan” of migrants, mostly from the Central American nation of Honduras but also from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua which is making its way across Mexico towards the US border.

Yang says that World Relief supports the right to seek asylum and that there needs to be a proper process in place to adjudicate the claims of those who make such claims.

“Obviously if there are individuals who are fleeing from persecution, we should make sure that we give them proper protections and that includes not detaining them – we’re against, especially, the detention of children and families and I think there’s a way to ensure that people will show up for court and be adjudicated without the need to detain them indefinitely.”

Addressing Trump’s comment that he’s going to cut aid to countries from where people in the caravan are coming from, Yang says such an approach is “antithetical” to what the administration is trying to achieve.

“Because you don’t cut funding when you’re trying to alleviate the reasons why people are fleeing in the first place…I think it’s a wrong tactic,” she says. “Instead of cutting aid, I think we should be giving them more aid and doing it in different ways – so not…necessarily just poverty alleviation but how do you continue to create a strong and robust judicial system so that people will be able to find protection within their own countries…?”

Addressing the Australian situation where the government has adopted a tough “Stop the Boats” policy which has seen people detained offshore on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island as well as Nauru, Yang says the US has adopted similar policies where family separation and detention has been used as a deterrent to would-be migrants.

“I think part of it is, there’s just a misunderstanding of why people are fleeing in the first place. People are not fleeing because they understand how the system works, they’re not fleeing because they necessarily want to come to these places – I mean they’re fleeing desperate situations in which the only way in which they’re going to find protection is by coming to places like Australia and places like the US and so I think there’s a way to deal humanely with these individuals.”

Yang says a proper immigration system should ensure people that need protection are protected while stopping those who might be coming for other reasons and reiterates that in her experience, refugees, rather than harming the economy or nation in which they settle, “end up contributing in significant ways”.


Jenny Yang’s advocacy for refugees and immigrants is borne out of her own life experience. Her father was orphaned during the Korean War and was sponsored into the US by the Ford Motor Company where he and his wife, also from South Korea, settled in Philadelphia.

“Him being able to come to the US was a sign of God’s faithfulness to him because he had prayed for years to be able to come to the US. So when he finally did, it was a huge blessing to him. So my Dad’s migration story is tied to how he experienced God and I think, because of that, he loves America and he’s always raised us to love the US as well.

“So I think I have a passion for migration because I understand from my parents’ experience that it’s hard leaving everything you know behind to start your life anew…And everytime I look at my family’s story, I’m like ‘This is the of story that so many other immigrants go through and they’re not any different from my own family and yet they’re vilified and…bear a lot of the brunt of people’s insecurities’.”

Yang believes the church has a “critical role” to play in the migration story playing out across the globe.

“I think when we talk about migration, it’s fundamentally a Biblical issue…” she says. “The Bible provides a blueprint, I think, for how we’re supposed to respond as Christians.”

She also points to a passage in I Corinthians 12:26 which speaks of how, when one part of the body suffers, “we all suffer together”.

“There’s a lot of our brothers and sisters in Christ that are suffering because of situations and circumstances that are really dire and life-threatening. And I think for us to be one body and one church, we have to realise we are not talking about the ‘other’; we actually talking about people who share the same faith as us.”

Yang also believes immigration is a missional issue.

“I think God is moving people to bring people to know Himself. I think people move from one place to another to encounter the church and Jesus’ followers for the first time and we have an incredible opportunity to share the Gospel with our immigrant neighbours without ever having to leave our own backyards.”

She also thinks Christians have a “moral authority and a responsibility” to uphold the dignity of refugees as being made in the image of God.

“Right now…we’re seeing just a common tendency for people to dehumanise immigrants and if there’s any[one] to speak into that, it’s us, it’s us as a church.”

And that, as well as works of charity, may also mean engaging in advocacy, something which Yang says may not result in immediate tangible outcomes but is about working for longer term change.

“It requires, I think, more effort almost because you’re working for systemic change which a lot of times doesn’t come so easily…But I think for us to continue that drumbeat and make sure that we’re continuing to challenge people through the use of our voice is really, really important.”



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