It’s hard to find a more divisive issue in American politics than immigration. Good people fall on various sides of the issue. But church leaders are increasingly asking what role the church plays in addressing the needs of both legal and undocumented immigrants.
Matthew Soerens has become a go-to leader on this issue. Matthew works as the US Church Training Specialist for World Relief, an evangelical organization that is especially devoted to helping refugees around the world. He is the coauthor of Welcoming the Stranger the very informative website, undocumented.tv, which answers questions and offers information in for assisting the church in ministering to undocumented immigrants.
Today, Matthew agreed to stop by and answer five questions for today’s Friday Five:
1) World Relief is an evangelical organization that helps refugees around the world. And yet you also advocate and assist refugees here in America. Why?
Our mission at World Relief is to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable. In many parts of the world, that means that we come alongside local evangelical churches as they stand with those devastated and displaced by natural disasters or conflict. Elsewhere, we help the church to help vulnerable women and children. I worked for a short time with World Relief Nicaragua, where we helped to launch a micro-finance organization that provides loans to the rural poor, allowing them to increase their agricultural production and, thus, their family income. But here in the U.S., we see refugees and other immigrants as some of our most vulnerable neighbors, and so our task is to empower local churches to welcome and stand with these newcomers.
2) The attitudes of many Christians toward immigrants, especially the undocumented, is one of disdain and anger. Do you think this is fueled more by politics than theology?
Too often, yes. Daniel Carroll, who is a brilliant Old Testament professor at Denver Seminary and who writes and speaks extensively on the topic of immigration in Scripture, has observed that, in most conversations with a Christian about immigration, there is seldom anything distinctly Christian about the conversation. It’s the same conversation you would have with a non-Christian—concerns about assimilation, English, crime, the economy, etc., but seldom any mention of how Scripture would have us to think. I think that’s a problem.
The politics and economics of immigration are certainly important, and we need to get to those issues, but, for followers of Christ, the primary question has to be, “who is my neighbor?” And if immigrants are our neighbors, we are called to love them. If they are human beings made in God’s image, we need to speak about them in ways that honor their inherent dignity, being careful not to slander them. That does not mean that we can’t disagree about policies—I think we need good, informed debate around how to respond to policy questions—but it does mean that a lot of the rhetoric, much of it based on inaccurate information, should be toned down.
3) From a biblical perspective, why should Christians care about undocumented immigrants?
Throughout Scripture, we find God commanding his people to care for three groups of vulnerable people: the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow (for example, Deut. 10:18, Ps. 146:9, Jer. 7:5-6, Zech. 7:10, Mal. 3:5, to name just a few). God calls his people to love their neighbor (Lev. 19:18) and then, just a few verses later—perhaps in case the Israelites were wondering if their neighbor was to extend even to foreigners—God specifically says that they should love the alien as they love themselves, remembering that they were themselves aliens in Egypt (Lev. 19:33-34). In the New Testament, we’re called to extend hospitality—literally, to love those who are strangers—and told that, in doing so, we may be entertaining angels (Heb. 13:2) or even Christ himself (Matt. 25:35-40).
We need to care about immigrants—including those present unlawfully—because of the Great Command to love God and love our neighbor (Luke 10:27), but also because of the Great Commission. We’re told to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), and immigration provides a mission field right at our doorstep. It’s not an accident that these folks are arriving in our nation. While there may be economic and sociological reasons for why immigration occurs, above that is God’s sovereign hand directing the movement of peoples “so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:27). We can respond to immigrants with an attitude of fear—much as the Pharaoh of Moses’ day responded to the Israelite foreigners living in his land—or we can recognize that immigration presents a great missional opportunity for the Church.
Already, according to research by Todd Johnson at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, immigrants account for the fastest growth in American evangelicalism, and that will only increase if we have the eyes to see that “the harvest is plentiful” (Luke 10:2), rather than seeing an “invasion.” As the demographics of the evangelical church in the U.S. change, though, that also requires us to recognize that many of these undocumented immigrants are our brothers and sisters, vital parts of the Body of Christ just like each of us, and that their suffering is supposed to be ours as well (1 Cor. 12:26).
4) Do you sense a shift in the evangelical movement on this issue, perhaps a splitting from traditional conservatism?
I do think that evangelicals, who just a few years ago were (for the most part) wary to engage this particular issue, have shifted rather forcefully into the camp of those advocating for reforms to our immigration system that are just, compassionate, and sensible, balancing a concern and respect for the people affected with a high regard for the rule of law. But I wouldn’t necessarily consider that a split from “traditional conservatism;” in many ways, I think it represents a return to the values of conservatism advocated by someone like Ronald Reagan, who believed that being pro-immigrant was also pro-family and pro-market-economy.
Supporting the sort of Comprehensive Immigration Reform that groups like the National Association of Evangelicals and the Southern Baptist Convention have vocally supported—a reform that would secure the borders, make new mechanisms for future legal immigration to meet the labor needs of the US economy and to keep families together, and require those currently undocumented to come out of the shadows, pay a fine, and get right with the government before getting on a long-term path toward citizenship—does not fit neatly into either liberal or conservative boxes. In my mind, though, it is the most sensible way forward (and most Americans, including most evangelicals, agree, according to polling).
5) How do you answer the law and order argument that most conservatives make?
Some folks (and it least some, though perhaps not most, conservatives) tend to consider absolutely any policy proposal that would ever permit someone currently here unlawfully to stay in the United States—even a proposal that requires them to pay a serious fine, learn English, and wait a decade or more before they could be eligible for citizenship—to be “amnesty.” That just isn’t accurate according to the dictionary: amnesty is unmerited grace and forgiveness of an offense. It is what we receive from God—forgiveness through no effort of our own, but only by Christ’s death on our behalf. On a theological level, I’m a big fan of amnesty, but I don’t think it is necessarily a good public policy precisely because the law is important (Rom. 13:1) and amnesty can send the opposite message, that breaking the law is no big deal. On the other hand, deporting 11 to 12 million people would be both enormously expensive (and would require a huge increase in the size of government, which most conservatives would not usually favor) and would create a humanitarian nightmare, since many if not most of those who would be deported have US citizen family members.
What we have proposed is a middle-ground solution: require those here unlawfully to come forward and pay a fine for having entered or overstayed a visa unlawfully. Once there is a serious consequence for their infraction, this cannot be considered amnesty (Richard Land with the Southern Baptist Convention has gone so far to say that those who call this proposal amnesty might want to consider remedial English classes for themselves). If they can pass a criminal background check and show that they have been contributing to society, they would be put into a probationary legal status for several years. Only after keeping a clean record during that time period could they potentially become eligible for permanent legal status and, eventually, citizenship.
To me, that would be a good and reasonable law that would be firm but fair and, economists on both the right (the Cato Institute) and the left (the Center for American Progress) will tell you, would be very good for the U.S. economy. The alternative—to do nothing—is what Senator John McCain once called a “de facto amnesty.” The rule of law is not honored when we selectively look the other way as both immigrants and employers violate the law—even with the best of reasons—on a daily basis. The current law is so dysfunctional and harmful to our economy that we haven’t enforced it in decades; it is time to change the law and then to enforce it strictly.