Bill Hybels says that casting a vision is the process of inspiring people to move from “here” to “there.” We often think that to “sell” a vision, we need to paint a compelling picture of “there,” he says, when we really need to make the case for why we cannot stay “here.”
I spend a lot of time trying to convince people of the wisdom of reforms to our immigration policies. For many, though, particularly for native-born U.S. citizens who have never had to interact in significant ways with our immigration system, the status quo does not seem so intolerable. But our current system really is a mess, not working well for immigrants, for our national economy, for our national security, or for almost anyone. Before we consider solutions, let’s just assess the current situation. Here’s why we can’t stay here:
- For decades our national borders have been insufficiently secure, allowing millions to enter without inspection. While the number of unlawful entrants has decreased dramatically as funding on border security has skyrocketed and the U.S. job market has faltered, it seems that no matter how much taxpayer money is spent on border security, it is very difficult to have fully secure borders. Regardless of security, there are still jobs in the U.S. paying many times what jobs in impoverished parts of Latin America pay, presenting an enticement to desperate individuals seeking to provide for their families, individuals for whom there are usually no lawfully-attainable visas, since most of these would-be migrants lack the requisite family relationship or high level of educational achievement required under current law.
- Millions of others have entered the U.S. on temporary visas, but then not departed from the U.S. when they were supposed to under the law. They, too, join the ranks of the undocumented, since most do not qualify to apply for a permanent immigrant visa.
- Employment authorization laws have been only sporadically enforced, in a tacit recognition of the economic reality that our economy, particularly in certain industries, is dependent upon the hard work of unauthorized immigrants who either entered or overstayed a visa illegally.
- Those millions are now residing and are somewhat integrated into our society, but still in violation of law, keeping them from integrating fully and making them vulnerable to exploitation and sometimes even human trafficking.
- As laws are sporadically enforced, about 400,000 immigrants have been deported each year for the past several years, nearly half of whom are guilty only of civil immigration violations, not of committing crimes. Those deportations exact a dramatic cost fiscally (the U.S. government spends an average of $23,480 per deportation—you can do the math), socially (about 205,000 of those deported in the past two years were parents of U.S. citizens, meaning many kids end up as practical orphans), and spiritually (immigration accounts for the fastest growth within American evangelicalism, so many churches have been decimated by the deportation of its members—and sometimes even by their pastors).
- Many of those undocumented immigrants were brought to the country—usually not of their own volition—as small children. They tend to be well-integrated members of their communities, but as they finish high school, they are ineligible for federal financial aid to continue to college and, even if they can find private scholarships, they are not authorized to work in the U.S. This results in incredible frustration for these young people and those who love them, as well as an incredible waste of human capital, which taxpayers have invested in by paying for their primary and secondary public education.
- U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents wait years and sometimes decades to be reunited to their loved ones who want to migrate, stymied by inflexible family reunification visas for most qualifying family relationships.
- Employers complain they cannot get sufficient visas to bring in the skilled workers that they need to keep high-tech companies growing; some warn that they will relocate their businesses elsewhere—and thousands of U.S. citizens’ jobs in the process—if they cannot access visas for highly-skilled workers.
- Other employers, in fields such as agriculture and hospitality, complain that they cannot attract sufficient workers either, and that existing temporary worker programs are dysfunctional bureaucratic messes. They say they have little choice but to hire undocumented immigrants, and they warn that if workplace authorization laws were really to be strictly enforced, they would either have to close down or relocate to another country—laying off many American citizens who work in higher-paying jobs that are dependent upon someone doing the jobs at the bottom—or consumers would have to pay dramatically more for their goods and services.
- Since the system is not working very well for anyone (except, perhaps, for a black market human smuggling industry that increasingly has ties to drug trafficking and organized crime, the private prison industry that lobbies to detain more immigrants each year on the taxpayers’ dime, and the small share of employers who actually prefers undocumented employees because they can exploit them), Americans have lost faith in their government’s commitment to the rule of law, eroding one of the cornerstones of a healthy society.
Most Americans seem to agree on these problems. In fact, most even agree on the solutions, according to polling, but immigration is not a high priority for most voters. In the recent past, the congressional debate has been directed by a vocal minority that thinks, quite simply, that immigrants themselves are the problem. For those driven by a population control mentality that sees immigrants as a problem in themselves, the only acceptable “solutions” are not just securing the border but closing it—shutting off all or most lawful migration going forward and deporting all those currently in the U.S. unlawfully (or convincing them to “self-deport” by making life so miserable for them in the U.S. that they leave without the government having to forcibly remove them). While only a small percentage of Americans hold these views, they are among the most likely to actually call or write to their legislators, who pay close attention to the correspondence from constituents that comes into their offices.
Fortunately, there are elected officials on both sides of the aisle challenging these ideas and working tirelessly to find real, commonsense solutions that are consistent with the desires of the vast majority of American citizens. Eight Senators—four Republican, four Democrats—have come together to write a broad bill that seeks to address each of these problems through a series of sequential actions. Essentially, the bill would make it very, very difficult to work, to enter the country, or to overstay a temporary visa, illegally. It would concurrently adjust the visa system, making it much easier to immigrate legally, so that going forward employers (at both the “high-“ and “low-skilled” ends of the job spectrum) will be able to access the workers that they need to grow our economy and so that families can be together. And it would address the situation of those present unlawfully, requiring them to pay a fine and meet various other requirements to first earn a provisional legal status and then, after at least a ten year process, permanent legal status, which would allow them to eventually seek full citizenship and integration if they satisfy several demanding requirements. It’s not a perfect bill, because the democratic process requires compromise. Those focused most on border security had to make some concessions to those whose greatest concern is legalization, and vice versa. Those most worried about insufficient workers had to negotiate with those most concerned about making sure that U.S. citizen workers do not face competition from the foreign-born. So no one—not me, not even the bill’s eight coauthors—is completely happy with every provision. But there is no doubt in my mind that it would absolutely and dramatically improve the status quo by addressing each of the problems I have outlined above.
The reality, though, is that the bill’s future is precarious. It’s unclear whether it has the votes to pass the Senate, particularly if amendments are added that shipwreck the carefully negotiated bipartisan compromise. Even if it passes the Senate, the prospects in the House of Representatives are even tougher—in part because many House leaders say they believe the only way to address the various problems outlined above is in a piece-by-piece fashion, with many separate bills. I’ll explain next week why I simply do not think that strategy will work.
You can help these reforms become a reality by calling your Senators and your Representative and asking them to support broad immigration reform legislation, consistent with biblical values of hospitality, family unity, and a respect for the rule of law. But you can—I hope you will—also commit to pray for our legislators as they undertake this process. Please commit to prayer by signing up below, and we’ll send you a weekly prayer request and reminder via email. And please challenge others to join in via social media, using the hashtag #pray4reform. The problems in our immigration system are overwhelming, but our God is greater and stronger, and he promises to hear and bring justice to those “who cry out to him day and night” (Luke 18:7).
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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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