Last week, I led a “conversation on immigration” at Mariners Church, a large evangelical church in Orange County, California. In advance of our event, I was alerted by a reporter at the local newspaper that our event—intended primarily for those within the local church to explore the issue of immigration from a non-partisan but explicitly biblical perspective—was featured on an email list of a local group called “California Coalition for Immigration Reform” (CCIR, not to be confused with Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, a very different group).
A visit to the group’s website revealed that it is led by a woman named Barbara Coe, who has been involved in the Minutemen Project border guarding vigilante group. CCIR’s perspective is that we’re in the midst of an “ILLEGAL ALIEN INVASION” that is turning the United States into “A ‘THIRD WORLD’ NATION” (they are apparently quite fond of the caps lock). Beyond their opposition to illegal immigration, the group also seeks to dramatically reduce legal migration to a “maximum of 300,000 legal immigrants annually,” less than the third of what our current quotas allow.
The reporter, who follows all sides of the immigration debate, informed me of the possibility of protesters at our event in a phone interview beforehand and asked for my response. I told her that I thought it was a bit odd for these folks to protest an event before they knew what I was going to say, but that they were welcome to join us. But, in my mind, I was irritated and I began presuming I knew these protesters’ motives, that they were ignorant, spiteful and probably racists.
At the event, there were, indeed, a number of individuals, perhaps a dozen or two, organized by the CCIR. They were quiet and respectful during my talk—no big signs or chants—but they did hand out fliers with “25 Reasons to Deport Illegal Aliens.” Their fliers were full of libelous claims about undocumented immigrants and citations from Lou Dobbs (whose counterfactual statements about immigrants eventually helped contribute to his departure from CNN). There were also citations from the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies, both population control groups opposed not just to illegal immigration, but to most lawful migration as well. Their founder, John Tanton, is so worried about “demographic momentum”—population growth either due to birth or to immigration—that he speaks favorably of China’s one-child forced-abortion policy, saying it is “unfortunate” that India has not adopted the same policy. Stapled to the fliers was an advertisement for a particular political candidate, which I thought particularly tacky at an explicitly non-partisan Bible study event. (They also seemed to be mostly over the age of 65, which is ironic because, as they spread inaccurate reports that undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes, they are probably receiving Social Security checks that are subsidized by undocumented immigrants who pay into a system from which they’ll never be eligible to receive benefits, to the tune of as much as $12 billion per year).
My first reaction to these folks’ presence was one of frustration and defensiveness. I began devising responses to some of their information that would publicly cut them down, exposing what I viewed as their naiveté, gullibility and hypocrisy. But then, as my mind went racing through the various economic studies and Scriptures I could cite to belittle their views, God convicted me of my own hypocrisy: doesn’t God love the Minutemen and similar groups? Aren’t they made in his image (Genesis 1:26-27), just like each undocumented immigrant? Didn’t Jesus die to save sinners—like them, like me (Romans 5:8)?
What’s more, I realized that I was unfair to flippantly dismiss their experiences. One person at the event—I’m not sure if he was actually from the church or if he was with the CCIR group—shared the frustration of being unemployed in an industry where, he believes, you can no longer get a job if you do not speak Spanish and in which hourly wages have declined dramatically since many undocumented immigrants have been employed by the industry. While economists are almost universally agreed that illegal immigration is good for the economy as a whole and for the average American, most also acknowledge that there are at least a few American citizens—particularly those with a lower level of educational achievement—who may be negatively impacted economically by immigrants’ presence because they end up competing for some of the same jobs. While I don’t think this possibility should dissuade us from following the biblical commands to welcome immigrants or from seeking Comprehensive Immigration Reform (which, economists believe, would actually increase the wages of lower-skilled U.S. citizens by legalizing the undocumented, which would level the playing field and remove incentives for employers to prefer undocumented workers who might be open to exploitation), I am wrong to uncompassionately dismiss the experience of the unemployed American who believes that he was—and who actually may have been, to some extent—displaced from his job by an undocumented immigrant. The fact that his experience is, according to the economic literature, relatively rare overall does not make it illegitimate. God calls me—and each of his followers—to respond with grace, empathy, and love.
Even when these folks’ arguments aren’t based in reality at all, though, and when some of them are motivated by sinful attitudes, I am called to love them. One of the most remarkable, beautiful doctrines of our faith is that God loves the world (John 3:16). He loves every one of his creations—not just those of us who are perfect, because none of us are (Romans 3:23). In fact “God is love,” the Scripture tells “and whoever does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8). (The animated music video from the Christian band Gungor, below, captures this truth with a bit of humor).
Following our God, who “is kind to the ungrateful and wicked,” we are explicitly called to love even our enemies (Luke 6:35), but I think we err, especially in contemporary political discourse (whether you’re a Fox News person or an MSNBC person), in turning people so quickly into enemies in the first place. That’s not to say that we should water-down our convictions—if they are firmly grounded in Scripture and rooted in the truth, we should be passionate and tireless advocates. But even if we are firmly convinced of the justice of our cause, we must renounce uncharitable and unloving means toward that end.
So, if any of the Orange County members of CCIR are reading this, I want to apologize. I do a decent job of smiling and acting diplomatically in the face of opposition, but my heart’s attitude toward you last Wednesday night was not one of love or respect for your inherent dignity. I’m still figuring out how to respond with genuine grace and kindness to you while also standing for the inherent dignity of the undocumented immigrants that I believe God also loves, but I’m praying for God’s grace to figure it out. And thanks, by the way, for getting the newspaper to write a nice article about our event. Journalists look for conflict, not quiet Bible studies and your presence made the evening interesting enough for press to attend.
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. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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