Immigration Reform: What Christians Need to Know

With media sound bites, misinformed conversations, and sometimes inappropriate preached rhetoric, it is imperative that Christians educate themselves on the immigration reform debate.

And I charged your judges at that time: Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien. Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Deut 1:16-17a NIV

In July, President Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion to confront the issue of unaccompanied children crossing the border into Texas from Central America. World Relief predicts that 60,000 unaccompanied children are expected to cross the border this year alone. That is just the latest news concerning “illegal” immigration in our country.

Over the past few decades, immigration and immigration reform have been one of the most challenging political issues. With the media sound bites, our misinformed table conversations, and sometimes inappropriate rhetoric that we hear from the pulpit, it is imperative that all professing Christians become more educated on this critical humanitarian issue. Together, we must determine how the Bible might call us to respond to this issue not only as citizens of America, but rather as citizens of God’s kingdom.

At first glance, it may appear that immigration reform is simply a question of border crossings and national security. However, a closer look reveals that it is also a conversation about extreme poverty, greed (including exploitation and economic injustice), violence, a broken judicial system (at least concerning this issue), and human trafficking. In spite of this reality, immigration reform has stalled in this Congress, and therefore, will be a highly contested issue of the next political elections.

The book Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate by Matthew Soerens & Jenny Hwang answers many of the fundamental questions in this debate. (The authors refer to foreigners as “undocumented” rather than “illegal,” and while I agree that a person’s citizenship does not define their identity, I have chosen to use the reference “illegal” in this article simply because it is the language most commonly used in journalism and is therefore, readily identifiable to the reader.)

Know the Language

Alien – a person from another country

UAC – unaccompanied child, a child who has been sent to cross the U.S. border illegally by an adult who is a citizen of another country

“Green Card” – the legal document that identifies a foreigner as being “legally admitted to live permanently in the United States (Soerens & Hwang, 68).” The green card can be obtained through four processes: employment-based system (normally reserved for a limited number of highly technical degrees), qualifying familial relationships or reuniting immediate family with those who are U.S. citizens or Legal Permanent Residents (this option gets very complicated), increasing diversity from specific countries that historically have a lower immigrant population in the United Sates

Amnesty – the act of a government to pardon (or set a guilty party free with no punishment) a large group of individuals

The Myths

The Myth: All illegal immigrants come from Mexico. The truth: A significant portion of undocumented workers come to America from places like Asia, Europe, Canada, and Africa.

The Myth: Illegal immigrants do not want to go through the legal process for immigration. The truth: “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 (Soerens & Hwang, 65).”

The Myth: Illegal immigrants or undocumented workers do not pay taxes. The truth: The majority of undocumented workers use fake social security numbers to obtain jobs at places like your local convenience store or fast food restaurant where payroll taxes are deducted from their paychecks. These taxes—in the upwards of $6 billion each year—are received by the government and benefits American citizens. In a way, these deposits contribute to the U.S. economy because we have people paying significantly more into the system, when they are not legally qualified to reap Social Security, Medicare, or the majority of federal and state government benefits.

The Myth: The primary allegiance of American Christians is to our country, its values, the safety of ourselves and our families, and the Constitution of the United States. The truth: As Christians, we are citizens of God’s kingdom and our primary authority is to the truth we find in God’s Word which specifically calls us to one commandment—love God and love our neighbors. As citizens of God’s Kingdom, our primary responsibilities are to share the good news that Jesus saves, make disciples of all nations, and complete the work that God has assigned for each of us.

The Facts

There are an estimated 11 to 12 million people living and working in the U.S. without valid immigration status (Soerens & Hwang, 12)-meaning they have no legal right to be in America, because in many cases there is currently no way to regularize their status. When politicians began to discuss options for regularizing foreigners in this category, the charge of amnesty eliminates all hope and the dialog quickly breaks down. It is important to note, however, that according to its definition, no one is suggesting that these foreigners get a free pass with no penalty. What has been proposed, however, is a comprehensive or more effective immigration reform process that includes the redemption of this group of individuals.

Approximately half of the “illegal” immigrants actually come to America legally by securing a temporary visa, but “overstay their welcome” by not returning to their home countries at the designated times, thereby transferring them into an illegal or undocumented status.

People normally migrate to the U.S. illegally because they are facing severe conditions of extreme poverty or lack of work in their home country, and are looking to come to the land of opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families, and there is currently no legal way for some of them to come.

Brief History and Current State of Immigration in America

The America that we know and appreciate has always been a country of immigrants. Like the Israelites, we have left historical documents unread or simply forgotten the history that has essentially made this country the nation that it is today. Pilgrims immigrated to this land. Enslaved Africans became immigrants of this land. Approximately twelve million immigrants came to America through Ellis Island, New York in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These immigrants arrived, were processed, and given American citizenship immediately. So when people say that immigrants ought to come to our country “the legal way,” they are generally referring to this brief heyday of quick and nearly effortless immigration processing which no longer exists. A detailed reading of American immigration history reveals country biases and class discrimination. While the rules of legal immigration have changed (many would argue for the worse), some of the inconsistencies concerning country favoritism and class discrimination have not. America wants to welcome highly educated immigrants who may be researchers, doctors or engineers, but our politicians clearly don’t want to welcome more poor people, who have the same hopes for their sons and daughters as any Americans does.

As a result, there are several categories of foreigners residing in America:

1. Refugees or asylees (temporary category) are foreigners who are approved by the U.S. and United Nations to flee their country because of documented racial, religious, or national fear or persecution. Foreigners who fall into these categories are generally approved to receive a green card.

2. Legal Nonimmigrants are foreigners (include tourists, temporary workers or students) who visit America temporarily on a nonimmigrant visa for a finite period of time.

3. Illegal Immigrants: When nonimmigrants remain in the country beyond the expiration date on their temporary visas, they become undocumented or “illegal.” Additionally, obtaining a temporary visa costs money, so severely impoverished foreigners are locked out of the opportunity to gain a nonimmigrant visa which would help their families remain in their home country. Those with no hope and without options come to this country illegally. Most often, they work hard so American business owners can exploit them, Americans can benefit from cheap products, and the American government can receive tax deposits.

4. Lawful Permanent Residents possess green cards and have the right to petition for immediate family members (including spouses, unmarried children) “to immigrate to the U.S. as lawful permanent residents…Lawful Permanent Residents can apply to become U.S. citizens after having resided in the U.S. lawfully for four years and nine months, if they meet all other requirements for naturalization, including passing a test in English (with limited exceptions) of U.S. history, civics and government, and pay a [significant] fee. Lawful Permanent Residents married to a U.S. citizen may apply earlier, after two years and nine months (Soerens & Hwang, 68-69).”

5. U.S. Citizen – After completing the above mentioned process and swearing an oath of alliance to the United States, Lawful Permanent Residents can become naturalized U.S. citizens with all rights and privileges. Based on the 14th Amendment, all children born in the United States are declared American citizens. This category also includes children who are born to an American citizen who may be residing outside of the country (ex. American military personnel).

In short, the entire process for legal immigration is limited, lengthy—anywhere from five to 20+ years—and costly (the process is largely paid for with immigrant families’ money, and not U.S. tax payer dollars). It is important to understand these definitions, myths, facts, and history, when we hear sounds bites like, “Immigrants need to come the legal way” or “Immigrants need to wait their turn in line.” The reality is that for many immigrants, there is no line to get in because they “have no qualifying family member who is a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent Resident (Soerens & Hwang, 76).”

Biblical Points to Ponder

*Many of our Old Testament heroes of the faith were what we would refer to today as immigrants, sojourners, or aliens at some point in their lives, and God used them in light of this truth.

*God reminded the Israelites throughout their history to remember the alien, widow, and orphans among them, to treat them fairly, and to teach them God’s ways so they too could enjoy the Lord’s savior and prosper.

*The New Testament is very clear that God does not determine a person’s value by their racial or ethnic composition, for we become one, united people through Christ Jesus.
Romans 13 is clear that we should submit to the authority (particularly governmental and military) that God has placed over us to protect us, and part of their responsibility is be conscious citizens and exercise righteous judgments under God’s authority.

*Christians are called to love their neighbors, and Jesus’ earthly ministry makes it clear that our neighbors include those who may be ethnically different from us, those who are societal outcast, or physically oppressed, downtrodden, or impoverished.

*The teachings of the Apostle Paul affirm that believers in Christ are called to show concern for others, particularly for those who are considered weaker in the Christian body.

*The doctrine of grace reminds us that we don’t work to earn any spiritual thing in this life, least of all God’s favor or his salvation. In the same manner, it is only by his grace that we have been born in the country that we are, at this opportune time in history. Christians who hold to the authority of the entire Bible understand that through Christ, we claim to the blessings of Abraham’s covenant, specifically that we are blessed because God desires and indeed intends to use us to bless all nations and the entire world.

Consider how you can be a truth teller and change this conversation.

Other Resources for Consideration:

Immigration: Tough Questions, Direct Answers” by Dale Hanson Bourke

Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible” by M. Daniel Carroll R.

The Lamb’s Agenda: Why Jesus is Calling You to a Life of Righteousness and Justice” by Samuel Rodriguez

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (of the Department of Homeland Security)

Evangelical Organizations Working on Immigration Reform:

World Relief

Sojourners

Evangelical Immigration Table

About the author, Natasha S. Robinson

Natasha Sistrunk Robinson is a writer, speaker, advocate, Women's Mentoring Ministry Leader, and recent graduate of Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary having earned a M.A. in Christian Leadership. Connect with Natasha through her website, www.natashasrobinson.com; blog, A Sista's Journey, Twitter @asistasjourney, and Facebook at NatashaSistrunkRobinson.
  1. Thanks for this thorough article! I think it’s sad that busloads of adults meet these poor,
    downtrodden, desperate kids to protest their arrival over the US border. These adults need
    to spend some time living in these countries without funds and without access to their
    ATM cards, and then they just might understand the desperation that fuels the perilous journeys these children and youth are undertaking to arrive here. Most of this “protest” is nothing but racism disguised as “concern about America.”

  2. Pingback: HOT TOPIC: Immigration Reform: What Christians Need to Know | A SISTA'S JOURNEY

  3. this is excellent. As a Texan I appreciate this even more

  4. Very helpful overview. Thank you for this insightful article, especially the biblical passages to ponder and pray over.

  5. Thank you for information and analysis!

  6. The article has several grammatical/editing/proofreading/formatting errors (“In July, President Obama *has* asked” should be just “asked”, “hay day” instead of “heyday”, category #2 of foreigners living in America has spurious parentheses and inconsistent bold emphasis) and a few factual errors (“amnesty” is defined as applying to a large group of people when it can, in fact, apply to groups of any size, including single individuals). The author’s thesis contends, in part, that the issue of immigration reform is much larger than “border crossings and national security”, but addresses only border crossings in the rest of the article. As a High School paper, this would be mediocre writing; it’s hard for me to read it as a serious treatise on such an important topic.

    I would contest the author’s categorization of the arrival of “Pilgrims” as immigration since, from their perspective, they were not arriving in an existing country but claiming open land and settling a new country. They did not enter, join, or even recognize any of the nations that already existed; they displaced the indigenous population and marked their own borders. They were settlers, conquerors, or maybe usurpers, but not immigrants. Under “Biblical Points to Ponder”, the author appears to be framing the issue in terms of inclusiveness and compassion, which is great, but the subtle suggestion is that this is “compassion” for those who are ethnically different and of lower social or economic status and that it should be exercised ahead of any responsibility to the government and existing laws and procedures. I would counter that our Christian compassion should instead guide us at the polls and in the legislative offices to create laws and procedures which are already compassionate, resolving the implied conflict between attitude and policy. I would also mention that I am personally acquainted with a number of immigrants and find them to be from all social and economic strata, and many have changed their circumstances dramatically – both for better and worse – since coming here. Immigrants are people, not positions, a point which the author herself makes elsewhere in this article. Her implied equivalence in the same section between God’s grace – unearned and freely available to all – and the wealth, opportunities, and benefits of American citizenship so closely echoes the antiquated policy of Manifest Destiny that it would surely be seen as offensive by many foreigners and likely also by some Americans.

    She cautions against categorizing any attempt at regularization as “amnesty”, implying that amnesty is – or is seen as – a bad thing, while neglecting to mention that Congress has passed amnesty-based legislation seven times since 1986. Someone must think that amnesty is acceptable. She criticizes past legislation for having biases toward countries and classes and further asserts that subsequent changes in legislation have failed to remove those biases but does not clarify what those biases are. Even if she is absolutely and inarguably correct, even if those biases are discriminatory in the worst sense, this type of argument is always dangerous because it seeks to arouse passion and promote action without understanding. It is political spin and marketing double-speak and is decried when used by anyone seeking to sway opinion by emphasizing some facts while obfuscating others.

    I agree that there are problems with the current immigration laws, and I do not oppose reform legislation. However, the fact that the process is “lengthy… and costly” is not prima facie evidence that it is broken. Something that is worthwhile and in limited supply should be difficult to obtain. “Social Security, Medicare, [and] the majority of federal and state government benefits” are benefits for the citizens of this country, not just anyone who happens to be here; that’s part of why citizenship is desirable in the first place. Immigrants who broke the law to come here, then break other laws to obtain what the author admits are fake social security numbers, have no basis – in my estimation – for complaint that they do not receive any benefit from the taxes that they have paid. A counter-argument to that might be that the payment of taxes in and of itself should be sufficient to secure benefits; I would answer that the taxes are only supposed to be collected from citizens and legal workers, so any deceit in obtaining that status invalidates the claim.

    “People normally migrate to the U.S. illegally because they are facing severe conditions of extreme poverty or lack of work in their home country, and are looking to come to the land of opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families”. But a land of opportunity won’t last if there are no limitations or controls on its use. I have never been to Yellowstone Park, but I’ve seen photographs and videos, and it looks beautiful to me. There are forests and mountains, rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. I believe that I could be very happy and successful if I lived there: I could hunt, fish, farm, and prosper without bothering anybody else. Far from the crime and pollution of the city where I live, I would have a better life. Sadly, there is no legal way for me to build a home there, and if I did so anyway, I should very much expect to be fined at the least, and possibly jailed and “deported” if I was discovered. Just the presence of a “better life” does not guarantee its provision; wanting something, no matter how deeply or passionately, does not in and of itself make it happen. Moreover, if I lobbied to have all restrictions on living there abolished, the land would soon become something other than what it is; it would be subject to exploitation by greedy developers, as well as simple changes by well-meaning immigrants such as myself who would nevertheless be displacing at least some indigenous flora and fauna. America is attractive to immigrants precisely because its greatness is tended and guarded, and that reality needs to be at the basis of all immigration reform plans, along with the compassion that Ms. Robinson advocates.

    Do we need immigration reform? The beauty of asking that question in America is that my individual answer to the question is only the starting point. The United States is a democratic republic; it is the collective voice of the people, moderated and tempered by their elected representatives, that determines what is “needed” and what is not. That the conversation is happening at all tells me that the system is working, at least up to a point. In any case, I say that we need more substantial contributions than this article, which comes across to me as a biased op-ed piece that does not even measure up to its own standards. We need more, and deserve better.

    • Lucien, Thank you for taking the time to read and offering your op ed piece in response. We can certainly agree to disagree without being disrespectful. You may observe that this article is a summary of facts from the book, “Welcoming the Stranger” by Jenny Hwang and Matthew Soerens. If the synopsis is insufficient for you, I recommend reading the 212 pages and 263 well documented and researched notes. Happy Thanksgiving!

    • In this season of Advent, with our emphasis upon the Son of God entering a world in which He was also a stranger, we need to deal with the “elephant in the room” no one’s talking about–the New Slave Class cultivated by AGRIBUSINESS in this country. The New Slave Class–non-white folks who speak Spanish (the first European language spoken in the United States long before the English speakers arrived) pick all the produce we Americans consume, because AGRIBUSINESS really runs this country. AGRIBUSINESS recruited Latino slaves
      in the 1980’s they could ruthlessly exploit for pennies, because AGRIBUSINESS–not the workers–decided that they would not/could not hire any American of any ethnicity to work for slave wages on their immense factory farms. AGRIBUSINESS sets immigration policy and
      BIG AGRA has decided that they want MORE slaves to complete MORE work for less money.
      No one Black in this country will EVER return to agriculture or work anyone’s fields for any
      reason–and no Euro-american is going to harvest anything that requires labor by hand.
      Most Asian labor arriving here is highly skilled in business, management, or the high-tech
      industry, and since they are usually from the middle-to-upper middle classes of their respective countries, they have no intention of harvesting anything, either.
      So that leaves the New Slave Class to do all the labor-intensive harvest chores and live
      in disgraceful conditions left over from 1702.
      Frankly, the entire globalization scheme run by the ruthless Superclass that dominates this planet–the interconnected network of manufacturers, Big Pharma, Big Agra, Silicon Valley, the Telecommunications Giants, the Banking/Finance Brokers and Defense Contractors–is the
      real reason we have upheaval and the constant migration of millions of desperate folks
      who are just trying to live and feed themselves and their families. And as someone who was a personnel director and who had to deal with immigration issues for employees, I can affirm
      that our immigration policies are slanted to favor EURO-folks over anything of AFRICAN or
      LATIN AMERICAN descent (unless you’re a lily-white Latina/o with a distinctly European
      appearance). AGRIBUSINESS calls the shots in this country, which is really why there has
      been no “reform” or “path to citizenship”; and Congress will continue to do the bidding of BIG AGRA, since many of them hail from states whose agriculture feeds this country and the world.
      That’s why any attempt at “reform” is fought–because BIG AGRA has decided to leave
      the New Slave Class in a constant state of exploitation. They do NOT want anyone named
      Garcia, Rodrigues, Lopez or Martinez to get an education, educate their children or aspire
      to the citizenship that threatens their hegemony–because Omar and Marisela just might
      start VOTING and we all know where that leads, don’t we? The Bible repeatedly warns us
      to remember when WE were strangers; to not oppress the stranger; to remember to treat them with hospitality, because we could be entertaining angels unawares–to love the stranger as ourselves. Christians need not be manipulated by media ads spun by BIG AGRA or any
      of the other multinational corporations that strangle this planet and literally sap the lifeblood
      out of the poverty-stricken humans desperate for clean water and a piece of bread.

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