As I speak in local churches on the topic of immigration, challenging Christians to think about how our faith should inform the ways that they respond to the arrival of immigrants to our country, I never begin by talking about politics. Contrary to what some of my non-Christian friends presume based on media reports, most American evangelical Christians are not wildly political, right-wing zealots: the reality is that most evangelical churches avoid discussing politics as much as possible, especially from the pulpit, because their priority is preaching God’s word and making disciples, and they fear that political discussion could distract from that primary mission. So, as I speak, I almost always begin my discussions with a review of the many references to immigrants in the Scriptures, urging Christ-followers to think about immigration from a distinctly Christian perspective, rather than simply through the lens of a political ideology.
I’ve come to believe, though, that it’s important to eventually address the question of policy. If I don’t, I risk two problematic outcomes. On one hand, if we never discuss public policy, the Church will miss out on a critical way that I believe we are called to love our neighbors. The interpersonal interactions that we have with immigrants, ministering in word and deed, are important and tangible ways that we express love to our immigrant neighbors. I’m increasingly convinced, though, that we cannot stop there. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr., loving our neighbor starts by being a “good Samaritan,” picking up the guy beat up alongside the road to Jericho and taking him to get help. When the next day we find another man beat up alongside that same Jericho Road, though, and another the next day, at a certain point loving our neighbor requires us to ask, “What’s wrong with this road?” Charity, Dr. King said, “will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed.” We can address the symptoms of a broken immigration system in the lives of individual immigrants within our churches and communities forever without ever solving the root problems, which are systemic in nature. The only way to transform the broken system that leads so many immigrants to fall into troublesome situations is to advocate with immigrants for policy reform.
The other risk of not addressing public policies is that, if I do not clarify what I believe the policy response ought to be, many folks will arrive at a false conclusion about which policy I would prescribe to address the situation of the estimated 10.8 million undocumented immigrants—and then once they think they can categorize me politically, they’re apt to dismiss the rest of what I have to say. They will hear me speak of the biblical call to be merciful and hospitable and to extend love to immigrants and presume that I’m advocating amnesty for the undocumented, or they’ll hear me reference the biblical mandate to submit to the governmental authorities and presume that I’m for mass deportation—and in either case, they would be wrong.
What I do advocate—and the policy that most prominent evangelical leaders and institutions have supported, including my employer, World Relief, and our parent organization, the National Association of Evangelicals—is what’s known as Comprehensive Immigration Reform. What we mean by that, essentially, is a policy that would do three things:
- Make it much harder to immigrate illegally to the U.S., by investing in smart border and interior enforcement and by minimizing the incentive that draws immigrants in unlawfully by creating an enforceable employment authorization verification system. To do this without wrecking our economy by depriving it of adequate labor flows, though, we must also…
- Make it easier to immigrate legally—not without limit, but to meet the labor needs of a growing economy and to keep families unified. At present, our employment-based immigration legal system allows just 5,000 low-skilled immigrants in per year, which is a tiny fraction of our country’s labor needs, particularly in industries like agriculture and hospitality. Very few want to immigrate illegally, and if we create legal channels to meet the supply of work, future illegal immigration will be dramatically minimized. Finally, to address those who are already here illegally, we propose that we…
- Require and allow those who are undocumented to come forward, pay a fine for having violated the law (either by entering illegally or overstaying a temporary visa), undergo a criminal background check and—unless they have committed serious crimes, in which case they will be deported—be granted probationary legal status. With that status, they’d have several years to earn permanent legal status by working, paying taxes, demonstrating efforts to learn English, and avoiding any criminal problems. Only after satisfying all those requirements—and after the backlogs of those currently waiting outside of the U.S. to come in legally are cleared out—would those presently undocumented be placed on a long-term path to citizenship and full integration.
Such a solution avoids the extremes of either mass deportation—which would cost between $80 billion and $200 billion just to physically remove everyone, and much more in lost economic activity—or of amnesty, which could undermine the rule of law by forgiving the offense of unlawful presence without penalty. Comprehensive Immigration Reform would require that the undocumented pay a penalty for having violated the law (which is why, by definition, it is not amnesty, which means free grace) and earn the right to stay in the U.S.
Most Americans—72% according to a recent Pew Research Center survey, including majorities of both Republicans and Democrats—support this policy. Most evangelical Christians do, too—fully nine out of ten white evangelicals, in fact, once they understand it. That’s why I believe it is so vital that Christian leaders help their congregations to understand the proposals on the table—not to tell people how to vote or to unnecessarily politicize the church environment, but to help Christ-followers to understand their options and to know how to apply a biblical worldview to the facts.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief.
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