If there’s one state that we hear associated in the news with illegal immigration, it’s probably Arizona, whose harsh state-level immigration bill passed two years ago, SB 1070, inspired copycat bills in various other states and was the subject of oral arguments by the U.S. Supreme Court last Wednesday. As a border state, Arizona does confront the realities of immigration in some unique ways, but by at least one measure, it doesn’t have the biggest “immigration problem” in the country. According to the annual estimates of the unauthorized immigrant population released by the Department of Homeland Security recently, Arizona is actually home to fewer undocumented immigrants than North Carolina: 400,000 undocumented immigrants reside in North Carolina, about 40,000 more than in Arizona. New Jersey has an even larger population: 420,000 undocumented immigrants. And Texas, with about 1.8 million undocumented immigrants, has as many undocumented immigrants as Arizona, North Carolina, New Jersey and Florida combined.
The new report from the Department of Homeland Security, which estimates the total unauthorized immigrant population to be 11.5 million as of January 2011, provides data challenging much of the media-driven “common knowledge” about illegal immigration. For example, the image of “illegal immigrants” portrayed in the news media tends to focus on individuals who have recently crossed the southern border of the United States from Mexico. The reality, though, is most people in our communities who are undocumented have not crossed a border recently: fully 85% of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S. have been living here since at least 2005. Only a very small percentage of those present unlawfully have come recently. In fact, there are very few people coming from Mexico today. The Pew Research Center report released recently says that the net flow of migration between Mexico and the United States is now basically zero: a few people are still trying to migrate to the U.S. unlawfully from Mexico, but the number of border apprehensions are lower than any time since the 1970s, and many Mexican immigrants are returning to their country.
It’s also important to note only a slight majority of undocumented immigrants—59%—are from Mexico. That leaves millions of other folks from other countries. Many Americans—guided by the news media they consume—equate “undocumented immigrant” with Mexicans or Hispanics, but the reality is that there are millions of undocumented Asians, Europeans, and Africans as well. For example, the report estimates there are 240,000 undocumented Indian immigrants; based on the Migration Policy Institute’s estimate there are 1.6 million Indian immigrants living in the U.S. overall. This means that of every seven Indian immigrants living in the U.S., at least one is likely to be undocumented. Amongst Chinese, Filipino, and Vietnamese immigrants in the United States, the new data suggests about one in six is undocumented. There are 230,000 undocumented Korean immigrants in the U.S., which means 23% of the Korean immigrants living in the United States are undocumented.
Obviously, the significant (and rising) numbers of undocumented immigrants from Asia are usually not entering the country illegally: they usually enter on a valid—but temporary—visa of some sort, and then they overstay. The Pew Hispanic Forum estimates as much as 50% of the undocumented population is composed of visa-overstayers, as opposed to those who “enter without inspection.” That means while border security may be one important element of immigration reform, we’ll never solve our immigration challenges in the U.S. merely by focusing on the border, as so many politicians seem to want to do: if we’re not willing to examine the flaws in our antiquated visa system, we could at best address half of the “problem.”
This reality also means that immigration is an issue having a dramatic impact upon the Church in the United States that goes beyond just Latino Christians, though they do feel the pain caused by a dysfunctional immigration system most dramatically. If two out of every nine Korean immigrants is undocumented, it’s fair to assume most Korean-speaking churches have a fair number of undocumented immigrants in their midst. Whereas in a Spanish-speaking church it’s not much of a secret that much of the congregation is undocumented, though, in most Asian-American churches—where the undocumented are a significant but still relatively small minority of the total congregation—the realities of legal status are less often discussed and may carry more stigma. Some pastors may not even realize they have undocumented members within their congregation.
The reality is the Body of Christ in the United States is, in part, undocumented. If we are to take seriously the biblical teaching “if one part suffers, every part suffers” (1 Corinthians 12:26), then the realities of immigration should impact us all. We should all strive, in unity, for a just and compassionate resolution to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters—from every country, in every state, and through a variety of circumstances—find themselves.
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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