And I charged your judges at that time: Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien. Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Deut 1:16-17a NIV
In July, President Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion to confront the issue of unaccompanied children crossing the border into Texas from Central America. World Relief predicts that 60,000 unaccompanied children are expected to cross the border this year alone. That is just the latest news concerning “illegal” immigration in our country.
Over the past few decades, immigration and immigration reform have been one of the most challenging political issues. With the media sound bites, our misinformed table conversations, and sometimes inappropriate rhetoric that we hear from the pulpit, it is imperative that all professing Christians become more educated on this critical humanitarian issue. Together, we must determine how the Bible might call us to respond to this issue not only as citizens of America, but rather as citizens of God’s kingdom.
At first glance, it may appear that immigration reform is simply a question of border crossings and national security. However, a closer look reveals that it is also a conversation about extreme poverty, greed (including exploitation and economic injustice), violence, a broken judicial system (at least concerning this issue), and human trafficking. In spite of this reality, immigration reform has stalled in this Congress, and therefore, will be a highly contested issue of the next political elections.
The book Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate by Matthew Soerens & Jenny Hwang answers many of the fundamental questions in this debate. (The authors refer to foreigners as “undocumented” rather than “illegal,” and while I agree that a person’s citizenship does not define their identity, I have chosen to use the reference “illegal” in this article simply because it is the language most commonly used in journalism and is therefore, readily identifiable to the reader.)
Know the Language
Alien – a person from another country
UAC – unaccompanied child, a child who has been sent to cross the U.S. border illegally by an adult who is a citizen of another country
“Green Card” – the legal document that identifies a foreigner as being “legally admitted to live permanently in the United States (Soerens & Hwang, 68).” The green card can be obtained through four processes: employment-based system (normally reserved for a limited number of highly technical degrees), qualifying familial relationships or reuniting immediate family with those who are U.S. citizens or Legal Permanent Residents (this option gets very complicated), increasing diversity from specific countries that historically have a lower immigrant population in the United Sates
Amnesty – the act of a government to pardon (or set a guilty party free with no punishment) a large group of individuals
The Myth: All illegal immigrants come from Mexico. The truth: A significant portion of undocumented workers come to America from places like Asia, Europe, Canada, and Africa.
The Myth: Illegal immigrants do not want to go through the legal process for immigration. The truth: “Most undocumented immigrants are undocumented not because they choose to remain undocumented, but because there is no process for them to enter legally or obtain legal status (Soerens & Hwang, 65).”
The Myth: Illegal immigrants or undocumented workers do not pay taxes. The truth: The majority of undocumented workers use fake social security numbers to obtain jobs at places like your local convenience store or fast food restaurant where payroll taxes are deducted from their paychecks. These taxes—in the upwards of $6 billion each year—are received by the government and benefits American citizens. In a way, these deposits contribute to the U.S. economy because we have people paying significantly more into the system, when they are not legally qualified to reap Social Security, Medicare, or the majority of federal and state government benefits.
The Myth: The primary allegiance of American Christians is to our country, its values, the safety of ourselves and our families, and the Constitution of the United States. The truth: As Christians, we are citizens of God’s kingdom and our primary authority is to the truth we find in God’s Word which specifically calls us to one commandment—love God and love our neighbors. As citizens of God’s Kingdom, our primary responsibilities are to share the good news that Jesus saves, make disciples of all nations, and complete the work that God has assigned for each of us.
There are an estimated 11 to 12 million people living and working in the U.S. without valid immigration status (Soerens & Hwang, 12)-meaning they have no legal right to be in America, because in many cases there is currently no way to regularize their status. When politicians began to discuss options for regularizing foreigners in this category, the charge of amnesty eliminates all hope and the dialog quickly breaks down. It is important to note, however, that according to its definition, no one is suggesting that these foreigners get a free pass with no penalty. What has been proposed, however, is a comprehensive or more effective immigration reform process that includes the redemption of this group of individuals.
Approximately half of the “illegal” immigrants actually come to America legally by securing a temporary visa, but “overstay their welcome” by not returning to their home countries at the designated times, thereby transferring them into an illegal or undocumented status.
People normally migrate to the U.S. illegally because they are facing severe conditions of extreme poverty or lack of work in their home country, and are looking to come to the land of opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families, and there is currently no legal way for some of them to come.
Brief History and Current State of Immigration in America
The America that we know and appreciate has always been a country of immigrants. Like the Israelites, we have left historical documents unread or simply forgotten the history that has essentially made this country the nation that it is today. Pilgrims immigrated to this land. Enslaved Africans became immigrants of this land. Approximately twelve million immigrants came to America through Ellis Island, New York in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These immigrants arrived, were processed, and given American citizenship immediately. So when people say that immigrants ought to come to our country “the legal way,” they are generally referring to this brief heyday of quick and nearly effortless immigration processing which no longer exists. A detailed reading of American immigration history reveals country biases and class discrimination. While the rules of legal immigration have changed (many would argue for the worse), some of the inconsistencies concerning country favoritism and class discrimination have not. America wants to welcome highly educated immigrants who may be researchers, doctors or engineers, but our politicians clearly don’t want to welcome more poor people, who have the same hopes for their sons and daughters as any Americans does.
As a result, there are several categories of foreigners residing in America:
1. Refugees or asylees (temporary category) are foreigners who are approved by the U.S. and United Nations to flee their country because of documented racial, religious, or national fear or persecution. Foreigners who fall into these categories are generally approved to receive a green card.
2. Legal Nonimmigrants are foreigners (include tourists, temporary workers or students) who visit America temporarily on a nonimmigrant visa for a finite period of time.
3. Illegal Immigrants: When nonimmigrants remain in the country beyond the expiration date on their temporary visas, they become undocumented or “illegal.” Additionally, obtaining a temporary visa costs money, so severely impoverished foreigners are locked out of the opportunity to gain a nonimmigrant visa which would help their families remain in their home country. Those with no hope and without options come to this country illegally. Most often, they work hard so American business owners can exploit them, Americans can benefit from cheap products, and the American government can receive tax deposits.
4. Lawful Permanent Residents possess green cards and have the right to petition for immediate family members (including spouses, unmarried children) “to immigrate to the U.S. as lawful permanent residents…Lawful Permanent Residents can apply to become U.S. citizens after having resided in the U.S. lawfully for four years and nine months, if they meet all other requirements for naturalization, including passing a test in English (with limited exceptions) of U.S. history, civics and government, and pay a [significant] fee. Lawful Permanent Residents married to a U.S. citizen may apply earlier, after two years and nine months (Soerens & Hwang, 68-69).”
5. U.S. Citizen – After completing the above mentioned process and swearing an oath of alliance to the United States, Lawful Permanent Residents can become naturalized U.S. citizens with all rights and privileges. Based on the 14th Amendment, all children born in the United States are declared American citizens. This category also includes children who are born to an American citizen who may be residing outside of the country (ex. American military personnel).
In short, the entire process for legal immigration is limited, lengthy—anywhere from five to 20+ years—and costly (the process is largely paid for with immigrant families’ money, and not U.S. tax payer dollars). It is important to understand these definitions, myths, facts, and history, when we hear sounds bites like, “Immigrants need to come the legal way” or “Immigrants need to wait their turn in line.” The reality is that for many immigrants, there is no line to get in because they “have no qualifying family member who is a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident (Soerens & Hwang, 76).”
Biblical Points to Ponder
*Many of our Old Testament heroes of the faith were what we would refer to today as immigrants, sojourners, or aliens at some point in their lives, and God used them in light of this truth.
*God reminded the Israelites throughout their history to remember the alien, widow, and orphans among them, to treat them fairly, and to teach them God’s ways so they too could enjoy the Lord’s savior and prosper.
*The New Testament is very clear that God does not determine a person’s value by their racial or ethnic composition, for we become one, united people through Christ Jesus.
Romans 13 is clear that we should submit to the authority (particularly governmental and military) that God has placed over us to protect us, and part of their responsibility is be conscious citizens and exercise righteous judgments under God’s authority.
*Christians are called to love their neighbors, and Jesus’ earthly ministry makes it clear that our neighbors include those who may be ethnically different from us, those who are societal outcast, or physically oppressed, downtrodden, or impoverished.
*The teachings of the Apostle Paul affirm that believers in Christ are called to show concern for others, particularly for those who are considered weaker in the Christian body.
*The doctrine of grace reminds us that we don’t work to earn any spiritual thing in this life, least of all God’s favor or his salvation. In the same manner, it is only by his grace that we have been born in the country that we are, at this opportune time in history. Christians who hold to the authority of the entire Bible understand that through Christ, we claim to the blessings of Abraham’s covenant, specifically that we are blessed because God desires and indeed intends to use us to bless all nations and the entire world.
Consider how you can be a truth teller and change this conversation.
Other Resources for Consideration:
“Immigration: Tough Questions, Direct Answers” by Dale Hanson Bourke
“Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible” by M. Daniel Carroll R.
“The Lamb’s Agenda: Why Jesus is Calling You to a Life of Righteousness and Justice” by Samuel Rodriguez
United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (of the Department of Homeland Security)