By Libby Grammer Garrett
Undocumented immigration cannot be described as either a problem or a possibility — it simply is a reality, and one that we are not dealing with very well. As someone who works with immigration issues every day in an immigration law practice, I can attest that most Americans are grossly misinformed about this issue, dependent as they are on inflammatory and misleading news sources.
Being exposed to an actual immigrant’s story can help us break down these conventional stereotypes:
Lidiana entered the United States in the early 1990s, seeking work because she could not make ends meet in Mexico. She quickly found work in a factory and has been paying taxes for years. She married a lawful permanent resident and had three children, all U.S. citizens. Her husband filed papers for her so she could obtain her green card, but because of long processing times at the former INS — now the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) — many years passed before that petition would become current and she could actually adjust her status to obtain permanent residency.
But in the meantime, her marriage became abusive, and Lidiana was forced to leave her husband. He withdrew the papers he had filed for her, making her ineligible to obtain legal status. Her only option to regularize her status was using novel legal arguments from a skilled attorney, but she still faced the possibility that the petition could be rejected. If rejected, she would be put in deportation proceedings, leaving her children with no mother and no income to support them in the only home they have ever known.
When real people who are made in the image of God become involved, we realize that the issue of undocumented immigration is testing the capacity of Christians to resist temptations that undermine a Kingdom ethic — xenophobia, racism, greed. If Christians claim to look to the Bible as our guide on moral decision-making, then we must do so on the issue of undocumented immigration as well.
The Old Testament is full of references to migrants and their families. The scriptures demand justice and mercy toward strangers and aliens. Many crucial Old Testament stories — Abraham, Joseph and Ruth — depict the lives and struggles of sojourners and foreigners. Hebrew law clearly demands care for the alien/sojourner and grounds that demand in Israel’s own experience as “aliens in Egypt” (Lev. 19:34).
The teachings and actions of Jesus and his followers in the New Testament carry forward the same pattern. Jesus himself was an alien in Egypt when his parents fled to save his life. He was kind to strangers and taught a Kingdom ethic in which inclusion of outsiders was central. Paul noted our status as resident aliens in the world and what might be called our ‘naturalized citizenship’ in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Just and merciful treatment of those on the margins of society is a fundamental biblical norm. That we have so much trouble seeing this is a scandal that reflects the corruption of our purported commitment to the Lordship of Christ. We must treat undocumented immigrants with the dignity that every human being deserves. We must become advocates for the 12 million of our neighbors who remain vulnerable and in the shadows.
Some Christians have found avenues to advocate for these strangers among us. The Roman Catholic Church has led the way. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for broad-based legalization (permanent residency) for undocumented immigrants, reform of family-based and employment-based immigration pathways so that families divided by immigration may be reunited, and humane working conditions for everyone. They call for an abandonment of the “blockade” border-enforcement strategy and a restoration of due-process protections for all immigrants. Catholic Charities offers direct care to hundreds of thousands of immigrants each year.
Sadly, Baptists lag behind Catholics in their attention to immigration reform, though some groups (such as the American Baptist Churches USA and the Baptist General Convention of Texas) have offered services in the form of lawsuits on behalf of immigrants and training for church-based aid to immigrants. However, other groups (such as the Southern Baptist Convention) have only offered words of kindness to strangers while doing little to advocate publicly for the undocumented.
This is a marginally good start — but Baptists must do better. If our denominational structures are too sluggish to offer leadership, local congregations must blaze the trail. This means re-centering the issue around Scripture and its norms for each Christian’s public witness while avoiding the fictional information spouted forth by uninformed media outlets seeking to place blame for all of our country’s ills on one group of people.
Almost every community in this country is home to undocumented immigrants. The question is whether we choose to view them through the lens of our Kingdom citizenship — or our national xenophobia.