There are few issues as contentious in American society today, including here in Maryland, as immigration. While immigration is inherently an economic issue, a cultural issue and a political issue, at Baltimore-based World Relief we view the issue first and foremost from the perspective of our Christian faith.
As an organization that empowers churches to serve vulnerable refugees, human-trafficking victims and other immigrants throughout the United States, we believe the Bible has a lot to say thatshould inform our thinking as we confront the challenges and opportunities of immigration. The Hebrew word for an immigrant, ger, appears 92 times just in the Hebrew Scriptures, often referenced alongside the fatherless and the widow as uniquely vulnerable groups for whom God has a special concern and whom he commands his people to love. God reminds his people that their own ancestors were immigrants and commands that immigrants be treated equally to the native-born.
Another important biblical theme is that of hospitality, which literally means to love those who are strangers. When we do so, Jesus suggests that, in a unique way, we are welcoming him: "I was a stranger and you welcomed me," he says, because "when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me." Similarly, the author of the book of Hebrews says that by welcoming strangers we may actually be entertaining angels unaware.
That suggests that maybe these immigrants — whom some in our society see as a threat or even as an invasion — may actually be a blessing. That's certainly been our experience at World Relief, as we've welcomed thousands of refugees and other immigrants over the past several decades, and it's been the experience of many churches around the nation. Many immigrants come into the U.S. with a vibrant Christian faith, breathing new life into our congregations, while many others find the hope of a transformational relationship with Jesus upon arrival here. Immigrants already account for the fastest growth in American Christianity today, and they present a great hope for the future of the church.
Another biblical principle that we must consider as we think about immigration to the United States is the biblical command to respect the rule of law. While most immigrants in the United States — including all of those admitted as refugees — have lawful status, an estimated 11.5 million immigrants are present unlawfully. As a Christian organization guided by Scripture, which includes both commands to welcome immigrants and to follow the law, how are we to respond to those immigrants without legal status — including many who have fled desperate poverty and others who have been victims of human trafficking?
Fortunately, current law allows us to minister freely: We can teach English classes, provide affordable, authorized legal services, and share the gospel without running afoul of the law or being expected to report if we suspect someone is present unlawfully. As we minister to undocumented immigrants, we've found that the vast majority are hard-working, family-loving people who desperately want to get right with the law but cannot under our current system. There's no possibility to "go back and come back the legal way," and they can't "wait their turn in line" because, under current law, there really is no line for the vast majority. That's why we believe that part of loving our immigrant neighbors is to advocate for better laws.
We don't think amnesty — forgiving and forgetting the fact they have violated the law — shows appropriate respect for the law, but we also don't think that mass deportation is either practical or humane. Instead, we've joined with many other Christian groups to advocate for a comprehensive immigration reform that would require those present unlawfully to come forward, pay a fine as a penalty for having entered or overstayed a visa, and then be able to earn permanent legal status over a period of several years if they can prove that they're working, paying taxes, avoiding criminal problems and learning English. Along with reforms to fix the problems in our current visa system (to make it easier for immigrants to enter legally when there are jobs available, and to make sure that families are kept unified) and to secure our borders (to make it harder to immigrate illegally), we believe this presents a wise public policy direction that both honors the law and extends the welcome to which Scripture calls us.
Matthew Soerens is the U.S. church training specialist for World Relief (www.worldrelief.org), which is headquartered in Baltimore. He is the co-author of "Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate." His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.