Isn’t the term “undocumented” just a euphemism for “illegal aliens”? Basically, yes—undocumented immigrants are those who are present unlawfully in the United States.
While we’re not sure illegal is the best descriptor of the people, but rather their activity (otherwise I might be an “illegal,” too, because I have to confess I have exceeded the speed limit on more than one occasion), and, as the English language has evolved, an “alien” means something to most people other than a human being made in God’s image, these are just semantic preferences: undocumented immigrants are individuals who are present in the United States without lawful authority.
It’s interesting to note that that does not necessarily mean that all the undocumented entered unlawfully. At least half of the undocumented population entered “without inspection” (illegally) across a border, but the other 40% to 50% entered legally, with a visa—but then failed to comply with the terms of the visa and fell out of status at a certain point. That means that, while border security may be an important part of fixing a broken immigration system, it can at most solve half of the problem.
The fact that these individuals are present unlawfully is a big problem for a lot of Christians. After all, Scripture is very clear that we’re called to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Rom. 13:1). So, yes, we do understand that people are here illegally—but that leads to another question: what do we do about it?
The government and the church clearly have very different roles. The church can’t deport people even if it wanted to, so—while we can influence the government (we’ll discuss that below)—we need to figure out our role. It’s important to know that we can minister to immigrants, even undocumented immigrants, without violating the law (at least as it stands in most states). A church can preach the gospel to immigrants, teach English, meet material needs (without offering employment), and be a friend to immigrants and never violate the law.
For the undocumented immigrant who is here unlawfully, this gets more complicated. While one could argue whether they have made themselves “subject to the governing authorities” (some might say that the government has the option of deporting them, but has chosen not to, mostly because it is in the nation’s economic interest for them to be here), they are certainly not obeying the law. But, that’s not to say they are flippantly ignoring Scripture: many stay because they feel it is the only way that they can provide for their families, necessary to fulfill another biblical mandate: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Tim. 5:8). At the end of the day, some have chosen to provide for their families—and be right before the Lord—even if that means disobeying the government, and risking the “sword” that Romans 13:4 tells us it bears.
Christians can disagree on which response is right, but I hope we can all agree that it’s tragic that our system forces people to choose between those two, equally biblical commands of following the law and providing for one’s family. We can advocate for the government to reform the immigration laws so that illegal immigration is very, very difficult and legal immigration—not without limit, but sufficient to keep our economy growing and families united—is much easier. And then we need to find some mechanism that recognizes that those who are undocumented have broken the law—insisting that they pay a fine, for example—but which also recognizes our own government’s complicity in creating a morally hazardous, dysfunctional system and avoids the incredible expense of deporting 10 to 12 million people.