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Hillary Scholten is an attorney who worked for the DOJ under President Obama, then returned to the Midwest to provide legal representation for migrant workers in Michigan. In this episode, she considers how government policy, people of faith, and the larger community can intersect to create healing refugia spaces.

For more background

Hillary Scholten is running for Congress in Michigan’s 3rd district. Here is her campaign website.

Here is the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center website.


Debra Rienstra: Today I’m talking with Hillary Scholten. Hillary is an attorney who worked for the Department of Justice under the Obama Administration and then moved back to Grand Rapids, Michigan, her hometown, to serve with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. These days she is running for Congress. She is a Democratic candidate from Michigan’s 3rd District. Hillary’s here to talk with me today about how policies and systems can prevent or encourage the kinds of refugia that help all people thrive. Hey, Hillary.

Hillary Scholten: Hi. Thanks for, thanks for having me Debra.

DR: Thanks for being here today. So, I would love to take at least a little of the credit for getting you and your family back to Michigan, since my department here, the English Department at Calvin University, managed to lure your very accomplished husband to join our faculty and teach journalism here.

Hillary Scholten: We’re glad you did.

DR: Yes. Thank you for working it out as a family so that you could all become part of this community again. Jesse’s a really great colleague. We’re just so glad to have him. And you have been diving in and serving this community as an attorney and now you’re very deep into it with this campaign for Congress. So, how are you doing?

Hillary Scholten: Doing well, actually. Yeah. A lot of momentum around the campaign. I feel like maybe I’m running on pure adrenaline at this point, but we’re all doing well so far. Thanks for asking.

DR: Yeah. So has it changed your life a lot?

Hillary Scholten: You know, it’s—as an attorney also, you know, I come from experience of working long hours, so the day-to-day hasn’t necessarily changed too much. Though, you know, I make a few more phone calls now than perhaps I did before, so…

DR: Got it. Yeah. So let’s begin with your experience providing legal services to immigrants here in West Michigan. What did you do? What kind of folks did you work with? What was that work like?

Hillary Scholten: Yeah. So we really did a wide range of work at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. As a statewide organization, we served a diverse array of immigrants. So, you know, I did everything from working with migrant farm workers here in the west side of the state, helping families fight against wage theft, representing single mothers who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, advocating for fair and safe housing conditions for migrant farm workers, to representing Iraqi religious minorities who were trying to be deported under new policies under the Trump Administration. Really wide-ranging effort of work over the last two years.

DR: How has your faith motivated you in that work?

Hillary Scholten: You know, just as you said, it has motivated me. It motivated a lot of my decision to leave the Justice Department in 2016 when we were staring down the pike of some, what I believe were truly immoral decisions. And I realized that, you know, my faith called me to different action at that time. I couldn’t stay and help support the policies of this president, which I feel, you know, is in direct conflict with the teachings of Christ, the example of Christ’s life to care for those on the margins, and, you know, the explicit instruction to care for the foreigner among us in particular.

Immigrants have been, you know, an acute target of this administration, and so for me, you know, it was, it was a faith-based decision as well as one, I feel like there—as we see a lot of attorneys who agree with this, there’s a lot of unconstitutional things happening under this administration, and I just didn’t feel as, you know, as an attorney that I could continue to support those policies.

DR: So you noticed the change right away after the inauguration?

Hillary Scholten: You know, I mean, I would say we saw, we saw a president who ran on a very specific agenda and pretty early on began—through executive orders and decisions directly from Jeff Sessions who was put in charge of, you know, immigration programs under the Department of Justice—we saw the directives changing, yeah, quite immediately.

DR: He was your boss for a while there.

Hillary Scholten: Yeah, for a few months. Yeah.

DR: So you came here and then worked in this, with immigrants here.

Hillary Scholten: Yeah.

DR: So what kinds of policies do we have in place right now that prevent the people that you worked with—the kinds of people that you worked with, migrant workers, immigrants, refugees, undocumented or documented—what kinds of policies do we have in place right now that prevent such people from thriving, as well as business owners and farmers and employers. This is all a big tangled system.

Hillary Scholten: Yep.

DR: So, are the interests of citizens and immigrants necessarily at odds? What’s going on?

Hillary Scholten: Yeah, it’s—that’s, that’s such a great question. I’m glad you asked it. Because I think, you know, to answer the last part of the question first. No, I don’t think that their, their interests are at odds, and I think, I think we see right now the policies of this president not serving either of those interests. Here in Michigan, 50 percent of our migrant labor population is undocumented. And that, that’s pretty true, it bears out to varying degrees, but it’s pretty true across the board, across the country.

DR: And what kind of agricultural products or industries are involved there?

Hillary Scholten: Wide, wide ranging. But—so here in Michigan, like particularly here in the third congressional district—heavy on apples, peaches, up in the ridge area, West Michigan, you know, we’re known for our blueberries. That’s farther out towards the coast in the, in the second district, asparagus as well. We have tons of dairy farms throughout the state as well, and poultry farms.

So those are the types of products that we’re thinking of that, you know, involve this type of labor, agriculture being a huge driving force for our state, of course. So it puts the workforce as well as the employers in a very precarious position.

The workers, of course who I represent and who you see up close and personal, you know, being just terrified to speak up about any violation of their rights. Be it wage theft, be it unsafe working conditions, unscrupulous labor practices, or, you know, even sexual harassment where individuals feel, “I would rather endure these terrible conditions than face a potential consequence of being deported and separated from my family.”

We are learning all too much about the atrocities of family separation that happen at the border right now and the trauma that it will inflict on children and the parents themselves. Parents in the interior recognize that, too, and it keeps them from coming forward and speaking up about their rights.

And then, you know, it also puts the employers in a precarious position as well. We’ve talked to numerous farm owners who say to us, “Is there anything we can do?” We do our due diligence of checking individual status, but we know also sometimes Immigration and Customs Enforcement gets it wrong and if they conduct a raid, it can be wide sweeping. And those warrants they issue don’t have to be reviewed by a judge, so mistakes are made. And people can get swept up in these raids who aren’t necessarily the intended targets.

And an employer then is looking at losing a large chunk of his or her work force. And that puts them in, in an extremely precarious position, particularly when you’re talking about crops that need to be taken off the field, off the trees, off the bushes, within a certain period of time. If you’re losing a good slew of workers right at the peak of harvest, there goes thousands of dollars.

DR: Yeah. So everyone’s in a state of chaos and insecurity and fear and this is, as we say, not sustainable.

Hillary Scholten: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

DR: So let’s just pause with the way things are before we start thinking about solutions, and I’m curious, you know, what you wish all Americans understood about life on the ground as a migrant worker or refugees or immigrants. Those are three very different categories. But with all the rancor and inflamed rhetoric in the air, what is the American public missing when it comes to immigration? You’ve seen it on the ground. What are we missing?

Hillary Scholten: I really wish that we could come, come together and connect on the complexity of it all. You know, I think that’s what we’re missing. We’re missing how complex this is. That it has been broken down into sound bites and tweets and memes and one side lobbying a carefully crafted zinger at the other. And–  

DR: Simplistic arguments.

Hillary Scholten: Exactly, exactly. And it is so much more complex than that. It’s not a problem we’re going to solve overnight, and so I wish people would take a deep breath be willing to consider real solutions for ending this crisis. I think that this is something that we can solve. You look at over the past decade and even over the past 15 years, we have come so close to passing bipartisan immigration reform that provides a pathway to legal residents for so many—all, in some cases. And this is something that Republicans and Democrats have agreed on in the past.

And I know that there are still a large amount of Republicans and Democrats who would come together and pass a bipartisan immigration bill that would significantly improve, if not completely solve, this immigration crisis.

So I think we also need to remember that there are lives on the line. This has become a debate that I think too often gets treated sort of like any other policy decision. Not that those aren’t also involving severity of treatment of lives, but here we’re talking about—we’ve had numerous children die at the border in recent months. And every year there are thousands of deaths with people trying to cross the border. So it really it is a humanitarian crisis that we need to treat as such, and we should be responding to it with that level of severity.

DR: And moral urgency.

Hillary Scholten: And moral urgency. Exactly.

DR: It’s not just about the blueberries and the timing they require.

Hillary Scholten: Exactly, exactly. Yep.

DR: There is a moral urgency to it. Have you seen people who are living under these conditions finding places of refugia? In some ways, this is our connection here now to our larger topic. Have you seen immigrants of whatever legal status find places of refugia?

Hillary Scholten: Yeah.

DR: For themselves and their families.

Hillary Scholten: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. And I think it’s no different from individuals who are immigrants recently arrived or immigrants from long ago or people who don’t consider themselves immigrants. It’s in community. You know, community with similarly situated families. Communities of their church, communities of school, and I think one thing that this work has really taught me is the importance of community, and our community here in particular, of recognizing these individuals regardless of their legal status are living here, and we are sharing this space and these resources, and they are a part of our community.

DR: So is it, is it okay for people of faith to—whatever their worries about legal status—to be the people of refugia and to welcome these folks into community? What would that mean? What would it look like?

Hillary Scholten: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, there is no command in scripture against that. In fact, even as I mentioned before there’s a very real command to welcome the foreigner amongst you, and there’s no asterisk saying check their legal status first.

DR: Yeah. Widows, orphans, sojourners seems to be a very persistent theme in the Old Testament especially, but it’s certainly a theme in the Gospels as well.

Hillary Scholten: Yeah, yeah.

DR: Have you seen people of faith really step up and create these places of shelter, literal or spiritual, for people who are full of fear, who are in crisis in one way or another?

Hillary Scholten: Yeah. Absolutely. I see it in ways big and small. You know, I think we see the faith community has really stepped up and sheltered children who have been brought to our region for care under disastrous conditions, which, I know personally a lot of families who disagree wholeheartedly with it, but it doesn’t change the fact that the kids are here.

DR: Yeah.

Hillary Scholten: And people who have said, “Well it’s not going to do me any good to sort of not open my home. What I can do is provide a space here for this, for this child while this disastrous policy is taking place, and work with whatever I can to eventually help this child be reunited with their parents.” And my organization that I work for, the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, we represented legally every child that was brought to the state of Michigan after being separated with their parent for foster care, and successfully reunited all of them. And it was overwhelming seeing people of faith sort of stepping up and just really being changed by that whole experience.

DR: So they too experienced a kind of transformation through being involved with that?

Hillary Scholten: Absolutely.

DR: Yeah.

Hillary Scholten: Absolutely. It’s a—you can just disagree with this policy on one level, but when you are caring for someone else’s child in your own home you just realize again that issue of urgency. How urgent it is to just get that child back with their parent.

DR: Amazing.

Hillary Scholten: Yeah. Yeah. And churches stepping up. I know at our church, we’ve reached out and provided housing and physical needs for a number of refugees here who are transitioning. Strong people of faith like at Treetops organization stepping up and creating whole new organizations to expand on this idea of community and belonging and welcoming.

DR: There’s so much work to be done.

Hillary Scholten: So much work to be done.

DR: So much potential. So let’s think about the future. What did you learn from working at the DOJ, and then from your more recent work as an immigration attorney, about the importance of good policy and the potential for creating not just temporary places of refuge but places of refugia where—we’ve been talking about refugia as places that can be seed beds for growth that spread, that create renewed and healthy communities. So not just refuges but refugia. What kind of policies do we need that can help us do that?

Hillary Scholten: Well, even taking a step back and being broader, I think the thing that I learned from my time working at the justice department is that good policy and making good policy takes time. It takes thoughtfulness. It takes deliberation. It’s not crafted in late-night tweets.

DR: So this goes against our urgency issue here. Yeah.

Hillary Scholten: Well, it goes against the reactionary practices right now, I think, of the president. And so I think urgency to come to the table is what I would say. And to create perhaps not a system that will change overnight but here’s a step forward and then tomorrow we take another step and another step. But urgency to put our differences aside and really solve this problem. I think it’s considering a wide variety of perspectives on an issue and talking to the most important stakeholders in the issue and who will be impacted by the issue.

DR: Yeah. So how do you see government’s role, so the role of policy in conjunction with the role of the activities of people of faith or the activities of regular citizens? So it’s all, it’s all part of a system, but what’s the role of government policy in creating a larger culture of sustained healing?

Hillary Scholten: Well I think the policy provides a baseline, and it’s not the role of government to completely dictate every action of our lives. That’s the work of community. But at a base level we need policies that respect human dignity, we need policies that will protect vulnerable individuals within our community. We need policies that prevent taxpayer waste. Which is what we have right now: with our broken immigration system we’re just hemorrhaging money.

We’ve sent billions and billions of dollars to this broken system at the border. The last several government shutdowns have been caused by failure to resolve immigration reform, which those shutdowns have cost the taxpayers billions and billions of dollars.

So, I think we need like policies, like, that at it’s very core protect. I think that’s the first step. I think we are far from a place where we can sort of begin changing hearts and minds on this very divisive issue, but at its core the government needs to protect individuals. Particularly extremely vulnerable individuals like children who come into our care and custody.

DR: Yeah. So that creates perhaps some base conditions, as you say, a baseline out of which community and culture can do that harder work that government can never do of changing hearts and minds.

Hillary Scholten: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.

DR: Yeah. Alright let’s shift to the climate crisis. Another one. Immigration is huge and important. It’s worth spending time on, but this one is too.

Hillary Scholten: Yes. Talk about urgency.

DR: Yeah, right. What is government’s role in your mind in the major economic and cultural shift we’re going to have to face in order to meet this challenge?

Hillary Scholten: You know, I think again this is where I would say my perspective talking in very broad terms about the government’s rule in handling these very thorny issues is that at a baseline the government has to protect the resources within its care. The environment.

We can’t deny that climate change is real any longer and we need to act with urgency. So, I think we need a dramatic re-shifting of focus in our priorities in the government to focus on sustainability in all aspects of development. And I think that includes, even though there’s not a way to sort of change hearts and minds, I think you can incentivize everyone from individuals and small businesses to do their part when it comes to reducing our carbon footprint, relying less on fossil fuels, reducing, reusing, and recycling more.

DR: Yeah, I like this idea that government policy doesn’t create refugia, it doesn’t create cultural renewal, but it does protect the vulnerable, it can protect the vulnerable, and it does create conditions in which it’s easier for culture and community to do that deeper soul work.

Hillary Scholten: Absolutely, absolutely.

DR: Well, thank you. You’re in the midst of a hugely demanding campaign right now.

Hillary Scholten: Yeah.

DR: What are the most beautiful places of refugia for you?

Hillary Scholten: My home. It’s such an oasis for me right now in so many ways. I’m an early riser, so when I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is take a cup of coffee out to the porch, have some time in prayer and meditation, get ready to face the day.

DR: You live right in the city.

Hillary Scholten: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I’m surprised how quiet it is at 5:30 in the morning.

DR: 5:30. Oh, my goodness. You are an early riser. And you have two boys at home and a dog and a husband.

Hillary Scholten: Yep. Yep.

DR: I’m glad that’s a place of refuge.

Hillary Scholten: Yeah. Like I said at 5:30 before they all get up.

DR: Oh, right. After that, utter chaos.

Hillary Scholten: Exactly.

DR: Hillary, I’m so grateful for the work that you do, that you have done, for your commitment to being involved in politics and in doing this difficult work. So thank you for being with me today.

Hillary Scholten: Thanks so much, Deb.

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