A dedicated, passionate group of 1,050 individuals gathered in Bend, Oregon this past weekend to talk about issues of justice. Speakers like Adam Hochschild, writer of Bury the Chains, and Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff, the Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University, gave stirring accounts of why God loves justice and how critical evangelicals were in the abolition of slavery in the mid 19th century. Matthew Soerens and I were interviewed by Lynne Hybels during the Saturday evening plenary of the conference on the issue of immigration, and Lynne asked us the question, “Why is immigration an issue of justice and being discussed here at the Justice Conference?”
The Justice Conference gave me a wealth of material to reflect on as I answered this question. Justice, it was said by various speakers at the conference, is about recognizing the God-given dignity and worth of every human being, that every person is equal to another and has certain inalienable rights. In thinking about justice, we need to think about the golden rule, and treat others as we ourselves would want to be treated. Justice, one speaker said, is about having right relationships with those around you, about shalom, or peace, with our neighbors.
Speaking about justice in these terms clarified for me why I feel like immigration is one of the greatest justice issues of our time. Hearing about what justice is, I start asking myself whether we are recognizing the dignity and worth of the immigrant, whether we are treating the immigrant as we ourselves would want to be treated, and whether we have right relationships, and shalom with our immigrant neighbors.
We have in our country right now 12 million people who are primarily poor, vulnerable, and outside the protection of the rule of law because they are here without legal status. These are people who often had to leave their homes, their cultures and familiar surroundings to go to another country to secure food and opportunity for their families. Leaving everything behind, the foreign-born are often the most vulnerable in our society, people who often are at the mercy of others.
These immigrants are contributing to our country in tangible ways, however. Virtually all undocumented men are in the labor force. Their labor-force participation rate at 96% exceeds that of men who are legal immigrants or who are U.S. citizens. Undocumented immigrants are also critical to the functioning of some of our key economies. It’s estimated that a quarter of all farm-workers are undocumented immigrants. The construction industry is made up of 17% of undocumented immigrants, and the building and landscaping business about 19% of the work force. Max Finberg of the U.S. Department of Agriculture once said that half of all our food is touched by immigrant hands between when it’s grown and when we consume it. Our economy in many ways depends on these immigrants. Even more than the economic contributions they make, immigrants are infusing Christ-centered values into our country of hard work, love for family and God, and a generous spirit. They are revitalizing our churches. These immigrants have become our brothers and sisters in Christ.
These immigrant families, however, are suffering, living in fear of being separated from their loved one. There are 3.8 million unauthorized immigrants who are parents of children who are U.S. citizens. Just last year, a record 393,000 immigrants were deported from our country. These deportations don’t just affect the individual deported but entire families who are left behind as children go to school and are not picked up by their mothers because they were deported just that morning. This leaves the church in a quandary as church leaders often have to find care for these children who are left behind. Also, about two-thirds of undocumented workers earn less than twice the minimum wage, compared with only one-third of all workers. A third of the children of unauthorized immigrants and a fifth of adult unauthorized immigrants lives in poverty. This is nearly double the poverty rate for children of U.S.-born parents (18%) or for U.S.-born adults (10%).
Our country has a “Keep Out” sign at the border but a “Help Wanted” sign at the workplace. This has resulted in an underclass of undocumented immigrants and a system that is incongruent at best and exploits people at worst. That is not what America is about. As Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention said, “The immigration crisis is tearing the social fabric of our nation in ways that are far easier to rend than they are to mend.”
You see throughout the Bible the times when God was angry with those in positions of influence who were supposed to care for the poor and vulnerable but often ignored them, if not exploited them. God knew this, and called on the Israelites to treat the alien as one of your native born (Lev. 19:33), and to leave what remained of their harvest for the alien (Deut. 24:19). God calls on His people to administer justice, and defines what that means, which is to show mercy and compassion to one another, to not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor (Zech. 8:9). Jesus in the New Testament laments the Pharisees who gave a tenth of their spices but neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matt 23:23).
Justice requires that we intervene when we see the dignity or worth of another human being not being respected. There are many churches in the U.S. that are experiencing ethnic diversity in their congregations as their neighborhoods also change, but there are many congregations that perhaps do not know any immigrants, and they may be wondering, why should I care about this issue? We may not know an undocumented immigrant, but it doesn’t shield us from asking questions of those who we know in this country are suffering. Dr. King also said that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Specifically to Christians, it says in 1 Corinthians 12 that when one part of the body suffers, we all suffer together. I don’t believe this is an issue the church can ignore. In fact, I believe how we treat the most vulnerable brothers and sisters among us is a direct reflection of what we believe about God, His plans and purposes- are we are seeing immigration as an opportunity to learn, serve, and share the Gospel, rather than as a threat?
Jenny Yang is the Director of Advocacy and Policy at World Relief, based in Baltimore, Maryland. She is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009).
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
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