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Churches share nation’s concern for needed immigration reform

Four ways to reform immigration, taking a comprehensive, holistic approach.

By Ronald E. Keener

Churches are as engaged in the issue of immigration in this country as are other groups, many doing quiet, steady work and providing dialog and attempting resolution that goes well beyond the public clamor that adds little to a real solution.

Adding to that understanding is a new book that brings a reasoned and thoughtful background to the issue. Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (IVP, 2009) is written by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang.

Soerens is a Board of Immigration Appeals-accredited immigration and citizenship counselor at World Relief DuPage in Wheaton, IL. Hwang is director of advocacy and policy of the Refuge and Immigration Program of World Relief, Baltimore, MD.

Says Hwang: “Immigrants — both those who entered legally and those who entered illegally — are a rapidly growing segment of the church in the U.S. and many predict are going to be at the forefront of the evangelical movement in the U.S. in the next 20 years.

“The undocumented population, in particular, tends to be very hard working, about 95 percent of undocumented adult males are employed, but earning relatively low incomes in jobs that employers say they cannot find anyone else to do.” [www.WelcomingTheStranger.com] Church Executive posed some questions to Jenny Hwang:

What couple issues have prevented the U.S. from dealing with the immigration issue to this point?

The largest issue is just misunderstanding. Very few people have had to interact with U.S. immigration laws, so most people do not understand how antiquated and often unjust the current system is. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions, some of which are passed on by the Internet, radio and television, that have entered into our national consciousness that are just incorrect and often, from a Christian perspective, slanderous. Immigration is fundamentally tied to the economy and labor needs, and while most studies and research have shown that immigration is favorable to the economy, improving immigration policy is a political battle, in which our leaders in Congress have yet to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

So what’s standing in the way of reform?  How can liberals and conservatives come together on this issue?

The divide on the immigration debate isn’t between conservatives and liberals, per se. In fact, it creates some strange alliances between, for example, left-leaning human rights organizations and right-leaning business interests in favor of comprehensive reform.  Also most left-leaning groups don’t want open borders and instead favor stronger border security while many right-leaning groups acknowledge that deporting all undocumented immigrants is not a feasible way to tackle the immigration challenge.

What has blocked political progress on this issue is that the majority (about 65 to 70 percent, according to polls) of Americans who do favor a comprehensive solution that would require undocumented immigrations to legalize their status, are not very vocal about their preference. Thus the small minority of individuals who are opposed to any legislation that would allow legal status to undocumented workers call and write to their legislators consistently, shifting the debate to reflect their perspective.

Many churches are realizing that immigration is affecting them directly because in some churches, almost all of their congregations are undocumented immigrants, while in others, pastors themselves are undocumented immigrants. Thus, many churches are starting to get involved in the debate because it’s an issue that’s affecting them directly.

Can you typify the immigrant (legal and illegal) population in the U.S.?

Immigrants are as diverse as the native-born population, working in every career, living in every state, and with a whole range of cultures and beliefs. Most immigrants in the U.S. are in legal status, either already naturalized as U.S. citizens or with green cards, while another 11 to 12 million are undocumented, meaning they entered unlawfully or overstayed a valid visa (which comprise about 45 percent of the undocumented population).

Mexicans make up a bit more than half of the undocumented population, but there are a great many undocumented Asians (about 1.5 million), Europeans, Canadians, Africans, and Hispanics from countries other than Mexico, so this is certainly not just a Mexican issue. There are also about three million U.S. citizen children living with families where one parent is an undocumented immigrant.

What stereotypes do Americas have of “immigration reform” and coming to a “solution”?

A lot of Americans are wary of passing an “amnesty” that would “reward illegal behavior.” They don’t see that as an adequate solution. Current reform initiatives, however, are not amnesty (which means forgetting an offense, from the same etymological root as amnesia), but would require those who are undocumented to come forward and register with the government, pay a substantial fine for having entered or overstayed unlawfully, prove that they have been working and paying taxes, pass a criminal background check, and earn temporary legal status behind those who are stuck in backlogs to enter the U.S. legally.

To quote Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, to call such a process “amnesty” is to “do violence to the English language.” Immigration reform has also often included a guest worker program. By creating legal avenues through which immigrants can come to the U.S. legally in the future, we decrease pressure off the border and prevent another undocumented immigrant population from growing in the U.S.

What can congregations do to help the situation?

There are lots of ways that congregations can help. The first is to get to know the immigrants in their community — through direct ministry, perhaps by opening up their building to an immigrant congregation without their own space, and by inviting immigrant brothers and sisters to share their stories in Sunday school classes or other venues.

We’ve found, both personally and in the work of World Relief across the U.S., that as individuals and congregations get to know their immigrant neighbors, many misconceptions they had about immigrants dissolve. In fact, we see many individuals and churches transformed by their relationship with immigrants. Oftentimes, as churches begin to befriend immigrants, they begin to understand the problems with the current immigration laws and find ways to advocate for just policies as well.

Can you summarize what solution to the issue you might suggest at this juncture in the debate?

We think that it is important to reform immigration in a comprehensive, holistic fashion, rather than taking a piecemeal approach. That means (1) reducing the backlogs in the current system, so family members of U.S. citizens do not have to wait up to 22 years to be lawfully reconciled with their relatives, as they are in some cases currently; (2) creating a new mechanism for legal entry into country for individuals who want to accept jobs, including jobs not requiring a great deal of education or skill, with an option either to work temporarily in the U.S. if they prefer or to eventually become U.S. citizens; (3) a mechanism for those currently in the U.S. and out of status to apply for the same program, with the additional requirement of paying a fine for having entered or overstayed unlawfully and meeting other requirements; and, (4) smart border security policies that secure the borders of our country while treating detained immigrants humanely.

The best way to secure our borders is to re-direct the traffic from the “back fence” of our country to the front door: to create legal mechanisms by which those who want to work in the U.S., who do not mean us any harm and have nothing to hide from a criminal background check, could enter lawfully. That’s what is missing in current law. Our border patrol agents are overburdened, which distracts them for pursuing the few individuals who really do pose a threat to our country.

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SOURCES FOR INFORMATION

For good, non-partisan data —

The Pew Hispanic Center (www.pewhispanic.org) and the Migration Policy Institute (www.migrationpolicy.org) are good sources.

From a Christian perspective, Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (www.sojo.net/immigration) and the Justice for Immigrants campaign of the Catholic Church (www.justiceforimmigrants.org) are good resources.

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