Congregations’ role in resolving U.S. immigration policy

By Ronald E. Keener

Pastors are advocating for ‘a more just and common-sense solution’ in what is a moral discussion.

Reform of immigration law remains on the nation’s agenda — and on the agenda of congregations in this country as well. “Congregations can help America find the way forward by re-igniting the conversation on immigration reform. We can move it from partisan politics to a moral discussion,” says Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, a network of Latino Evangelical congregations.

“Some pastors have already started immigrant ministries and some have even advocated for a more just and common-sense solution. Leaders as diverse as Bill Hybels, Rich Nathan, Chuck Colson, Richard Land, Leith Anderson, and Joel Hunter have already engaged in conversation and public declarations for the church, for the sake of mission and witness, to act,” Salguero says.

“Congregations should engage in real conversations with immigrant churches and leaders and together as God’s people lead the way. Our faith and conscience demand no less,” he says.

Church Executive posed questions to Rev. Salguero, who co-pastors, with his wife Jeanette, the multicultural Lamb’s Church of the Nazarene in New York City. He also consults on multi-ethnic ministries and urban congregations.

What are a few main points on the American immigration debate of the NaLEC?

We feel that the American immigration debate is at an impasse and Christian churches can play a critical role in helping move past this stalemate. Evangelicals understand the need to balance the respect for laws while advocating for more common-sense and humane immigration laws.

In short, Christains are calling for a balance between mercy and justice. The main point is that we can reform the immigration laws in ways that reflect love of neighbor, respect for the law, and serve as a boom for our economy.

We believe that the immigration laws as they stand can be improved by taking the following simple steps: (a) Requiring immigrants to pay back-taxes, (b) Exacting penalties to employers who may have circumvented the system, and (c) Providing a path to earned citizenship for the close to 12 million men, women and children who are already here living, working, and worshipping among us.

Generally, what issues have prevented the U.S. Congress from dealing with the immigration issue?

Although close to 67 percent of Americans would like to see  common-sense solutions to the immigration debate, Congress I think feels stuck between extremes. Congress has to find a way to balance between these polarizing rhetorics of amnesty and enforcement-only. Neither is the solution; rather Congress can provide a strategy that offers  a pathway to integration that make sense for the country. I think one of the major hurdles for Congress is learning to balance enforcement and integration.

What path do you advocate to legal status for undocumented immigrants?

One of the major obstacles for undocumented immigrants is that no clear path has been made for attaining legal status once you’re undocumented. I often hear people say, “They should get to the back of the line.” The truth is that we need laws that create these lines for the undocumented. If you’re undocumented, an earned path would allow you to pay any back taxes, learn English, and it would create a line that would allow you to contribute to the good of the host nation.

How is the stance of the NaLEC (a Christian view) differ from others on this issue?

As Christians we are not politicians, pundits or lobbyists; our perspective is a pastoral and prophetic one. We hold fast to our Christian mandates to both obey the law and welcome the stranger. Christ’s injunction in Matthew 25, “for I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” deeply informs our role in this national debate. Moreover, we believe that we should obey laws in so much as they don’t violate our conscience or our faith.

So our stance as followers of Jesus is to say, “We can do better. We can create better laws.”

We want laws that allow us to integrate people into our neighborhoods and churches. Pew Forum Research has said there are more than 10 million Latino evangelicals (this does not include the many evangelicals from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia) in the United States, many of these evangelicals have relatives who’ve tried to earn a path to citizenship, but because of back-log, clerical errors, or immigration scams, have not been able to do so.

These are people who are trying to do the right thing. In addition, many of them are children who were brought here and now don’t have a way to earn a path to citizenship. Their only fault was obeying their parents. Immigration reform would help these people the most.
As Christians, we think the law can create a just way to integrate these men, women and children who wish to contribute to our society in open ways.

I take it your organization does not favor amnesty. What approach do you advocate for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.?

The NaLEC tries to articulate our position in biblical and ethical language, though this is not always possible. I think the term amnesty has been too politicized. We have a similar biblical term to amnesty; it’s called grace or unmerited favor. We are trying to balance both grace and justice. What we talk about is love of neighbor and respect for the law. St. Augustine gave great advice to Christians when dealing with thorny issues. His advice was always to seek what he called the “summa bonum” — the highest good.

For NaLEC we are asking, “What is the highest good for us as believers?” How do we demonstrate genuine hospitality and love of the stranger in a way that shows Christ’s character. What laws can we support that move us away from partisanship and into the Gospel? Those are our fundamental commitments.

You’ve praised the stance of the Southern Baptists in backing a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants. Is this a breakthrough? Is it different than what the mainstream denominations, such as the Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians are saying on the matter?

We think the Southern Baptists have made a good initial step. Still, we all have a ways to go.

A Christian response to immigrants has still not seeped down into the pews. I think we still need our pastors and preachers to talk more about what God requires of us when it comes to immigrants and the laws. Christians, I think, should take their cues not from our favorite political party but from Scripture.

Scripture, I think, presents a just view on how we devise laws in regards to immigrants. I think a real breakthrough will come when people in our congregations begin to really wrestle with the balance between law, justice and mercy.  Yes, we back a path to legal status, not to gain political points, but as a pastoral response to the immigration crisis particularly among families and young children. Our stance is premised on the belief that these laws, which have not been amended in more than 20 years, can be more humane and just to all undocumented immigrants many of whom are members of our congregations.

You propose a Just Integration Strategy; what are its main points?

What I am proposing is a third-way forward. Just Integration is the idea suggested by a Hispanic evangelical leader in California. What we are calling for is a humane integration strategy. What we  propose is that we reform the laws that help immigrants integrate legally, while creating pathways for contribution economically, culturally, and in every area of our nation’s life. In this way, both immigrants and citizens are both enriched; the country is enhanced by the great diversity of God’s people.

I think the obstacle is that some people see integration as a threat rather than an opportunity.  Integration creates opportunity for the church, state, or country to see how God is working through the diversity of people, culture and languages. This is rooted in a view of the church started at Pentecost.

Immigration reform is not seen as a hot topic until after the next Presidential election. What progress do you feel can be made in the meantime to resolve the country’s immigration challenges?

I think that one of the intermediate steps we can take is allowing young people who were raised in this country to benefit from the DREAM Act. Most of these young people were brought here as small children and know no other home. The DREAM Act would allow them to serve in the Armed Services or go to college and better contribute to the future of this country. California has already passed legislation that looks something like this and I think it is a win-win for everyone. We invest in our best, brightest, and those willing to serve, and the return is immeasureable. Of course, the hope is for something more comprehensive that presents a more long-term solution.

I think the task of the church is to continue to highlight the plight of the immigrants in this country and how our country could do better. I think what we must do is lead with love to overcome a lot of the fear that surrounds our engaging with immigrants. Love will cast away all fear. Ministries that engage our congregations with immigrants will help dissuade much of the fear and misinformation. Once we enter into deep relationships we can advocate from a place of relationship and knowledge.  In the meantime, we need to continue to minister and serve the immigrants in our communities with Christian love.

What stereotypes do Americans have of immigration reform and coming to a solution on the issue?

I think there are many myths that we as pastors and leaders need to address. The first myth is the myth of win-lose, that somehow by integrating good, hard-working people our nation will be diminished. Nothing could be further from the truth. Immigration reform would allow people to contribute more openly and would actually benefit our nation. Moreover, as Christians, we try to stay clear of a them versus us narrative. There is no us and them, there’s just us.

The second myth is that those who advocate for immigration reform are advocating for breaking the law. The reality is that what we are calling for are better laws. Laws can and should be improved. Historically, our country has had the courage and will to change laws that have had devastating effects on large groups of people. We changed laws in the abolition of slavery, the ending of segregation, the right for women to vote, and this is one more time where we can call for better laws — laws that allow for justice and mercy to walk hand in hand.

The third myth is that integration will bring our economy crashing down. Actually, many studies show that by integrating these undocumented immigrants, the economy will have close to $1 trillion boom.

What human and economic “capital” is the U.S. losing by not tackling the immigration issues? How might the American church be positively affected?

I think in 30 years Christians are going to ask where we, the leading evangelical pastors and leaders, were on this issue. Were we silent or did we seek to positively impact our culture like Wilberforce and Wesley?  More than a political issue this is an ecclesial issue. How does the American church define itself in this globalized culture?

American churches who seek to have great relationships with their sister churches in the Global South of Africa, Latin America, and Asia need to lead the discussion concerning immigration.

People are what matter most. Our Christian witness will be judged by our posterity on how faithful we were to the commandment of loving our neighbor as ourselves.


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