“Why is immigration policy important to evangelicals? Certainly because we believe what the Bible teaches about treatment of ‘aliens in the land.’ It is also because so many Hispanic, African and Asian immigrants are evangelical Christians who are in our denominations and churches by the millions. They are us.”
What is the immigration “crisis,” and why does it matter to the church?
There are an estimated 11.5 million immigrants presently living in the United States without legal status. All sides agree that this is a problem—with some viewing the situation as an “invasion” of “illegal” immigrants threatening the culture, safety, and economy of the United States, while others lament that “undocumented” immigrants are kept in the shadows, with families divided by unjust laws. Christians often feel stuck in the middle of these two views—recognizing the tension between the biblical commands to respect the law and to welcome, love, and minister to our new immigrant neighbors.
Who are these undocumented immigrants? A lot of what we hear and read about undocumented immigrants is inaccurate. Of the approximately 11.5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, about 40% entered lawfully with a visa, but overstayed, while the rest entered illegally. While about 56% of undocumented immigrants come from Mexico, there are also millions of undocumented Asian, African, and European immigrants—so this is certainly not just a Mexican issue. Most immigrants without legal status, like those with legal status, come to improve their economic situation (which is often very perilous in their country of origin), to reunite families, or fleeing persecution in their country of origin.
Why don’t these people come the legal way, the way that my ancestors did? It’s easy to romanticize the immigrants to the U.S. of a century ago, but in reality, the immigrants who came through Ellis Island and in earlier eras came for the same primary reasons that immigrants come today—and, at the time, they faced much of the same resentment from some native-born U.S. citizens. What has changed dramatically, though, and the reason that many immigrants today do not come legally, is immigration policy. Prior to 1882, no one came illegally to the U.S.—because all immigration was legal: there was no requirement of a visa and no federal restrictions on who could immigrate. That began to change with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and several gradual changes that, by 1924, nearly closed off immigration to all but a fortunate few. While immigration reforms passed in 1965 reopened the possibility of immigration for some groups, current policy provides most who would like to immigrate with no legal option.
Why don’t immigrants just wait their turn in line? There are four basic ways that a person might obtain Lawful Permanent Resident status in the U.S:
- Employment-Based Immigration—but these visas are almost exclusively reserved for those with “advanced degrees” and “extraordinary abilities,” not for those content to do low wage labor.
- Diversity Visa Lottery—but the odds of winning are about 1 in 300, and it’s only a possibility for individuals from “under-represented” countries, not for those from Mexico, the Philippines, China, India, and other “over-represented” countries.
- Refugee or Asylee Status—for some of those fleeing persecution, but not for those fleeing poverty, natural disasters, or environmental degradation, and only a fraction of one percent of the world’s refugees are allowed to be resettled to the U.S.in a given year
- Family-Based Immigration—but backlogs can be as long as twenty years, and many others do not have the requisite relative in the U.S.to sponsor them
Many individuals who come and find work in the U.S.do not fit into any of these categories, so there is really no “line” in which they could begin to wait; there is no legal way for them to come under current law.
Aren’t undocumented immigrants a drain on the economy? Actually, almost all economists (44 out of 46 of those surveyed by the Wall Street Journal) agree that undocumented immigrants are good for the U.S. economy. Contrary to popular perception, most undocumented immigrants do pay taxes. The Social Security Administration estimates that 3 out of 4 undocumented immigrants has Social Security, Medicare, and income taxes deducted from their paychecks, and the Social Security Administration has taken in as much as $15 billion annually in recent years in contributions that do not match a valid Social Security number—but those immigrants will not be eligible for any Social Security benefits under current law, nor are they eligible for public benefits such as welfare or food stamps. Undocumented immigrants are responsible for certain costs to the economy—particularly at the local and state levels for education and emergency healthcare—but, overall, the economic benefits they bring outweigh the costs.
How does the Bible inform the way that we think about this issue? God tells us throughout the Scriptures that he loves and has a special concern for the alien (Deut 10:18, Ps 146:9), and he commands his people to do the same (Lev 19:33-34). God commanded the Israelites to treat the foreign-born the same as they treated native-born Israelites (Ex 12:49), but he also instituted special provisions for immigrants, along with other vulnerable groups such as orphans and widows (Deut 24:19-21, Mal 3:5). In the New Testament, Jesus, who as a child was forced to flee as a refugee to Egypt, makes clear in the parable of the Good Samaritan that God’s command to love our neighbor includes, specifically, migrants in need (Lk 10:25-37). He instructs us to welcome the stranger, for in doing so we are welcoming Christ himself (Mt 25:31-46).
But what about the fact that these people broke the law? Romans 13:1-4 makes very clear that Christ-followers are to submit to the governmental authorities that God has established. While there may be situations when “we must obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29), we should not lightly brush aside this biblical command. However, we can uphold the importance of the rule of law without necessarily deporting 11.5 million people; we could insist upon other penalties, such as a significant fine, for entering or overstaying a visa unlawfully. It is also important to recognize that there is no conflict between the submission to authority mandated in Romans 13 and serving undocumented immigrants: we can minister to immigrants’ physical needs, help to teach them English, share the good news of the gospel, and advocate for just policies that would better their situation—all without violating the law (at least in most states). Since we live in a democracy, we can advocate for immigration policies that are both welcoming of immigrants and maintain the importance of the rule of law. We can also seek justice—as God commands (Micah 6:8)—by addressing the structures of poverty that create the situations from which immigrants feel they must flee.
How is this affecting the church? Demographers tell us that immigrant churches are the fastest growing segment of evangelical churches in the U.S. Increasingly, when we talk disparagingly about “those people,” we are talking about ourselves, because the Church is one Body of which each of us is an interdependent part. When one part suffers—as many undocumented brothers and sisters are, as individuals are forced into the shadows and families are divided by current laws—every part suffers (1 Cor 12:12-26). What should our church do? We suggest several steps: Prayer—for wisdom as your church engages with this issue, for immigrants in your community, and for your political leaders Listening—to immigrant brothers and sisters’ experiences, as well as to what the Bible has to teach us about how to interact with the foreign-born; the "I Was a Stranger" Challenge is a great discipleship tool to help us to listen to what Scripture says Education—help others in your congregation to understand the issue; some churches have dedicated a sermon or Sunday School class to the topic, or created opportunities for interaction between immigrants and non-immigrants within the church; we have several resources for educating congregations available, including a template PowerPoint Presentation and a small group curriculum Advocacy—your legislators need to hear the moral voice of churches and their leaders; some churches have created or signed on to a statement in support of immigration reform; others have visited, written to, or called their legislators to share their opinion; you can send an online message to legislators via World Relief's website Service—the best way to understand the immigration issue is to build relationships with immigrants, and service, such as through providing English classes, is a great way to begin; World Relief's offices throughout the U.S. may be able to provide assistance in getting started Evangelism—While many immigrants bring a vibrant faith with them, others will encounter the transformative message of the gospel for the first time in the U.S. Immigration provides a missional opportunity to make disciples of all nations—right on our doorstep
What should we encourage our government to do? Many evangelical churches and leaders have advocated immigration reform based on the following principles:
- Securing our borders in ways keeping with humanitarian values, making it much more difficult to enter the country illegally;
- Providing a new mechanism for lawful entry to the U.S. for those who want to work here, making it easier to migrate lawfully in keeping with the U.S. economy’s labor needs;
- Reducing the backlog for family-based immigration petitions, to more quickly reunite families; and
- Providing a way for those already present in the U.S.to earn legal status by paying a fine, paying any taxes due, and making efforts to learn English, avoiding the extremes of either mass deportation or amnesty.
- Mass Deportation—but this would be extremely costly, costing at least $80 billion just to remove everyone plus an estimated $2.6 trillion over ten years in lost economic activity
- Amnesty—but “forgetting and forgiving” without consequence ignores the reality that the law has been broken and could send the wrong message or encourage future illegal immigration