For many Christians, the general idea that churches and individual Christians should seek to love, welcome and share the gospel with immigrants is uncontroversial, but the issue becomes much more difficult when considering how to respond to immigrants who are in the country illegally.
While most immigrants are in compliance with U.S. law, a significant minority — likely somewhere between 10.7 million and 12 million, based on nonpartisan and governmental estimates — are not present in the United States lawfully. Just over half of those individuals crossed a border illegally, while an estimated 4.5 million (including two-thirds of those who have arrived since 2014) entered lawfully on temporary visas, but overstayed their visas. Christians seeking to be faithful to the Scriptures want to show kindness and compassion to these individuals but are also are bound to respect the law. Is it possible to do both?
Undocumented immigrants often choose to come to the U.S. illegally under very difficult circumstances, fleeing serious economic hardship or even persecution. However, except for those brought as minors or trafficked to the U.S. against their will, they still did knowingly break U.S. law. This is why amnesty is wrong: Amnesty communicates that the law doesn’t matter. Even when laws don’t work well, they shouldn’t simply be ignored — participants in a democratic society should work to change them.
The best way forward — both to respect the law and to keep families together — is to have an earned legalization process, which includes the payment of a monetary fine as restitution for adults who willfully violated U.S. immigration laws. Of course, a criminal background check should also be a part of that process, and anyone convicted of a serious crime should be excluded and potentially deported. On the other hand, someone brought as a child to the U.S. did not make the decision to enter the country or overstay a visa unlawfully, and should not be penalized.
Most of the undocumented immigrants in U.S. churches are actually very eager to make things right, and they would be happy to pay a fine and meet other qualifications to eventually have the chance to be lawful permanent residents of the United States, a country most have come to love and see as their home. For many who have lived under both the fear and shame associated with their unlawful status for many years, the opportunity to earn legal status would feel akin to the biblical Year of Jubilee, a time of redemption, when debts were canceled (Leviticus 25:8-17).
If the law is truly to be respected, we should ensure the integrity of the U.S. immigration system going forward: That means doing everything possible to deter illegal immigration, including pursuing secure borders, but also facilitating legal immigration: not without limit, but in ways that meet the needs of the U.S. labor market, that keep families together and that allow the country to continue to serve as a place of refuge for some of the most vulnerable persecuted people in the world, consistent with the best of the history and values of the United States.
Another area where respecting the rule of law comes into play is honoring the nation’s laws that offer asylum to those who flee a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin. Decades ago, the U.S. actually turned away Jewish people fleeing the Nazi government in Germany. Many of them were ultimately returned and killed in the Holocaust. In the years that followed, the U.S. joined many other nations in resolving that, when someone with a credible fear of being harmed reaches its shores or borders, that person should not be returned. That doesn’t mean that everyone who shows up should be admitted, but if we respect both the law and the dignity of each human person, it’s vital that everyone who professes a fear of persecution if returned is given a fair hearing and the chance to prove that qualification under the terms of U.S. law.
U.S. immigration laws are complicated, dated and often only partially enforced. To restore the rule of law, we must pursue reforms that reaffirm the importance of the law while also reflecting our values.
This is an excerpt from Thinking Biblically about Immigrants and Immigration Reform, an e-book recently published by the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT).