Recently in The Washington Post, columnist Michael Gerson expressed dismay at the position of many white evangelicals on immigration. “Their views on immigration are less a function of their religious beliefs than of their group identity. On this issue, believers generally take their cues not from their catechism but from their cohort.”
Gerson cites a recent poll by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project in which more than 60 percent of white evangelicals believe that the growing number of immigrants “threatens traditional American customs and values” and more than half view immigrants as burdens rather than contributors to the U.S. economy.
With more than 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S., the immigration issue is not going away. Gerson’s words challenge our thinking: “On the polling evidence, politicians might lead evangelicals in either direction on immigration reform. But for evangelicals themselves, it would be a discrediting shame if their group identity counted more than their deepest beliefs.”
What are our deepest beliefs about immigration? Are they influenced more by the political parties and the media, or by Scripture and the heart of God? As Christians more fully understand the deeper issues embedded in the immigration debate, grasp God’s love and compassion for the “alien,” and begin to love those in our midst, our political positions will be infused with the compassion and truth of our Heavenly Father. And that is the kind of comprehensive reform our country needs.
A Broken System
In their book, “Welcoming the Stranger,” Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang describe the complicated, nuanced issues confronting Christians who desire to uphold the rule of law but also reflect God’s love and compassion to immigrants and refugees in the U.S. “On first glance at this issue,” they write, “we recognize that immigrants are people made in God’s image who should be treated with respect; at the same time, we believe God has instituted the government and the laws that it puts into place for a reason, and that as Christians we are generally bound to submit to the rule of law.”
While submitting to the rule of law sounds easy — like going on green and stopping on red — when it comes to immigration it’s more like approaching a blinking yellow light that causes havoc at a busy intersection. Yes, many immigrants entered the country by crossing the Mexican border illegally, but almost half of unauthorized immigrants arrived in this country legally and failed to comply with the terms of their visas. Soerens and Hwang write, “The reality … is that immigration today is not so simple, and most undocumented immigrants are undocumented not because they choose to remain undocumented, but because there is no process for them to enter legally or obtain legal status.”
Many Americans, whose ancestors legally migrated to the U.S., are frustrated that so many immigrants today circumvent the law. However, until 1882, anyone who arrived in the U.S. was welcome to build a new life here — it was impossible to come illegally. Immigration policy changed and restrictions evolved until 1965, when the last overhaul of the U.S. immigration system resulted in a system of eligibility based on family connections and employability. Despite massive changes in our economy and culture since 1965, this outdated preference system stands. For instance, a maximum of 5,000 permanent visas is available per year for employer-sponsored low skilled workers, despite the fact that our economy demands many times that number. So while we may want to tell people from other countries, “Wait your turn in line,” for many — even those with immediate family in this country — there is no line.
In fact, even when immigrants follow U.S. law, they can get caught in a broken, backlogged, and convoluted system. David Moran, pastor of Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church in Florida, cites the case of a Brazilian pastor he hired to help care for the large Latin population of his church. Originally, this pastor arrived in the U.S. with a legal tourist visa and applied for a longer-term religious worker visa. He acquired a tourist driver’s license, valid for six months. While he was still waiting for his new visa, his driver’s license expired. After two extensions of 60 days each, he is left without a legal option for a driver’s license. Yet he still hasn’t received his religious worker visa that would enable him to apply for a new license. “He has done everything properly and in order. He has the best immigration lawyer in the country,” Moran says. “People like this drive around in fear. If they are stopped without a driver’s license and it’s determined that their legal status is in question, they can be deported. And they can’t come back for 10 years.”
Despite a diversity of views on the solution, almost everyone agrees that the system needs fixing.
God’s Heart for the Stranger
As our country seeks to address this system, how does the Bible inform our thinking about immigration? Soerens and Hwang write that the most common word in the Bible rendered into English as alien, stranger, sojourner, or foreigner is the Hebrew word ger. The word is used 92 times in the Old Testament. For instance, God speaks to the Israelites in Leviticus 19:33-34: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.” Because of their own experience as aliens in a foreign land, the Israelites should welcome those who find themselves in the same situation, God says.
Comprehensive reform includes not only political solutions that address the broken system but also reform in our own hearts, more closely aligning them with God’s heart for the vulnerable.
Ephesians 2 reminds us that we were once “separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. … Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.” When we were strangers, even enemies, God welcomed us. Through Christ, God opened His home to us, not just as visitors, but as sons and daughters of the King. Of anyone in this country, because of our own experience as undeserving aliens and strangers who received God’s grace, Christians are best equipped to empathize with and show grace toward immigrants.
One concern for many Christians is justice — that we uphold the law by demanding accountability of those who entered this country illegally. We cannot overlook violations of our national laws, but biblical justice means more than merely the punishment of wrongdoing. In his book “Generous Justice,” Tim Keller points to the command of Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” Keller writes, “Mishpat [the Hebrew word translated justice] … is giving people what they are due, whether punishment or protection or care. … Over and over again, mishpat describes taking up the care and cause of widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor — those who have been called the ‘quartet of the vulnerable.’”
For instance, Zechariah 7:9-10 reads: “This is what the Lord Almighty says: Administer true justice, show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the immigrant or the poor.” Keller continues, “Any neglect shown to the needs of the members of this quartet is not called merely a lack of mercy or charity, but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we. That is what it means to ‘do justice.’”
Reforming Our Hearts
So from a biblical point of view, comprehensive reform includes not only political solutions that address the broken system but also reform in our own hearts, more closely aligning them with God’s heart for the vulnerable. That reform starts with reminding ourselves that unauthorized immigrants are human beings made in God’s image. In many ways they are just like us — they want to provide for their families, secure life’s basic essentials, and ensure a better future for their children. Soerens and Hwang write that they prefer to refer to people as “undocumented” as opposed to “illegal.” They write, “We do not deny that it is illegal to enter the United States without a valid visa and inspection, nor do we condone any illegal activity. However, while entry without inspection (or overstaying a temporary visa) is illegal, this does not define the person’s identity. Many of us have broken a law one time or another [like speed limits], but if a single … act were to define our identity, we would probably all be ‘illegals.’” Perhaps “unauthorized immigrants” more clearly describes the status of these individuals without dehumanizing them.
Reforming our own hearts also includes demonstrating compassion and empathy toward those in our midst. Throughout this country, unauthorized immigrants are serving Americans. In places such as Key Biscayne, Moran says, unauthorized immigrants are essential to the day-to-day activities of life — they do yard work, take care of children and the elderly, and clean pools and houses. They harvest, prepare, and serve our food. In fact, more than 50 percent of our food supply is touched at some point — harvesting, transporting, preparing, serving — by the hands of immigrants; some lawful, some not. Many of us are willing to be served by immigrants, but we often don’t empathize with their struggle. When we’re reading a magazine during our pedicure, are we aware that the young woman washing our feet has been separated from her parents for years because there is no legal way to bring them to this country? When we avert our eyes from day laborers standing outside Home Depot, do we consider that their day’s work might feed their family in Mexico for a week?
Before moving to Key Biscayne, Moran served for 20 years in Houston, Texas, as pastor of a church in a poor Hispanic neighborhood. In 1979, after he picked up a friend near the border, he was arrested for “aiding and abetting.” He recalls, “I was a ‘trafficker’ and spent New Year’s Eve in jail. As you can imagine, when I came back to the neighborhood, I had good status. The church filled up.” Through his experience in Texas, Moran began to consider the weight of various ethical choices. He met many people who had endured worse than subsistence living in Mexico. They risked their lives to walk across the desert to get to Houston. They worked jobs for below minimum wage to send money back to Mexico. “These were the most noble people I had ever met,” recalls Moran. “Did they break laws? Yes, but no one in their family died.”
Confronting our own fears may be the most difficult reform we face. Soerens and Hwang write, “While it may be natural to prefer our own native language, food and customs, and even to be frustrated as the culture we know is changing all around us with the influence of immigrants and refugees living among us, we must recognize there is no scriptural justification to claim superiority or exclude others on this basis.” When people who look, talk, and behave differently move next door and restaurants with indecipherable signs spring up down the street, we feel the discomfort of new things. Socially, we tend to insulate ourselves from those who are different, and exclude the outsider. But Jesus upended these social expectations. Those who were excluded from worship in the Jewish temple — gentiles, women, lepers, the marginalized, strangers — Jesus touched, healed, included, and loved.
But Jesus not only shows us the way to respond to the stranger. He became a stranger for us. He became the oppressed, the vulnerable, the abandoned one so that we wouldn’t have to. If He has loved us like this, certainly we can embrace comprehensive reform of our hearts toward immigrants. As the debate over immigration policy continues, Christians will have legitimate differences of opinion as to how reform should be implemented. But if our political positions are steeped in the compassion, love, truth, and justice of our Heavenly Father, hopefully the watching world will see Him and not our fear.
Susan Fikse writes alongside her full-time job of wife to Jonathan and mom to three energetic kids. She and her family live in San Diego and attend Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Encinitas.
Illustration by David Senior