“Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:8).     Much of the discussion around immigration in the United States, including within our churches, focuses on questions of public policy: who should be allowed in?  How should we penalize those who have broken immigration laws?  How can we maximize the economic benefits of immigration and minimize the costs?   These policy questions are important, but the “we” in question is the U.S. government, not you and I as individuals. Churches—and the individuals who compose those churches—have the privilege and responsibility to speak into those questions, because we live in a democracy.  But we also need to ask how we, as followers of Jesus Christ, will respond to immigrants on an inter-personal level.   Regardless of how politicians decide to address the policy questions, there are many needs within the immigrant community and, particularly, amongst undocumented immigrants that the Church, if rightly motivated and equipped, could help to meet. Many immigrants need and desperately want help learning English, which they know is vital to long-term success in the U.S.  Undocumented immigrants are often amongst the lowest-income individuals in our communities but—ineligible for the public benefits such as food stamps, subsidized housing, or welfare for which citizens are eligible—they scrape by and sometimes rely on churches and charities for food and medical assistance.  And, while many immigrants bring a vibrant faith with them to the United States, others still have the greatest need that any of us could have: to know personally the hope of redemption found in Jesus Christ.  Meeting the physical needs of immigrants goes hand in hand with meeting spiritual needs.   One particularly urgent need within the immigrant community is for legal services. Almost every immigrant will need to interact with the governmental authorities who can grant a “green card” or citizenship at some point in her life, but doing so can be a confusing, expensive, and—if done incorrectly—risky process.  The fees charged by most immigration attorneys make them inaccessible to many low-income immigrants, so many immigrants fall prey to unscrupulous, unauthorized “consultants” or notarios.  Some of these folks are just crooks, willing to deceive immigrants desperate to hear that if they pay enough money they will be eligible for legal status; others are well-meaning, but, with inadequate legal training, they occasionally give bad legal advice that can have devastating results.  I have known many individuals over the years that I have been working closely with immigrants who have either been swindled out of thousands of dollars, been separated for up to a decade from family because of bad legal advice, or both.   Federal law provides an opportunity for non-attorneys to be granted authorization by the Department of Justice’s Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to provide immigration legal services for individuals at non-profit organizations who can demonstrate an adequate level of training in the law and access to ongoing technical support. BIA-recognized organizations—including many offices of World Relief, where I work—usually provide excellent, competent legal advice at low cost, but there are far too few such organizations to meet the need.  According to the roster maintained by the BIA, many entire states are served by just two or three organizations, if that.   If the need is great at present, though, it will be a veritable tsunami if some sort of an earned legalization process for undocumented immigrants is passed into law in the coming years. Where I live in DuPage County, Illinois, for example, our World Relief office is the only BIA-recognized organization.  My colleagues do an excellent job at providing accurate legal advice to about 1,500 immigrants per year.  But we estimate that there are probably about 55,000 undocumented immigrants living within our county; if the reform for which we have advocated were to pass tomorrow, requiring most of these undocumented individuals to pay a fine and fill out paperwork to earn legal status, it would be an “Hallelujah!” followed immediately by a “Lord, Have Mercy”—because we frankly do not have the capacity to respond to such a huge number of individuals seeking legal assistance.   While there are simply not enough BIA-recognized non-profit organizations in the country at present to meet the demand, though, there are local churches in every community. And while legal services involve a high degree of technical complexity, it’s not impossible for churches to seek BIA recognition, commission staff or committed volunteers to be thoroughly trained, and then to provide legal services to the immigrants in their communities—and in the process to share the love and hope of Christ.   In fact, World Relief is partnering with the Evangelical Free Church of America to offer an intensive training in immigration law for churches or ministries interested in seeking BIA recognition to provide legal services. The Immigrant Pathways Institute will offer its first training, open to individuals from churches and ministries regardless of denominational affiliation, from July 25 to 29, 2011 at Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois.  We’re excited at the overwhelming interest in this opportunity and hope to provide additional trainings in additional locations, as well as to provide the ongoing technical support that a church would need to become BIA recognized and to provide immigration legal services, in the near future.

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 previous role at World Relief was as a BIA-accredited Immigration Legal Counselor.  His blogs appear here on Mondays.   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.   If you’re interested in writing a guest blog, contact blog@g92.org.  

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