Establishing a Path Toward Legal Status

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Perhaps the most sensitive question for Christians wrestling with U.S. immigration policy is that of what to offer immigrants who are here in the country illegally. Many Christians are torn between the desire to respect and enforce the law and the desire to love, welcome and share the gospel with immigrants. How should believers respond in cases when they suspect immigrants are here illegally?

For churches, ministries and ordinary American Christians, U.S. law does not restrict the clear biblical mandate to show compassion. There’s no requirement that a citizen report someone they suspect may be in the country unlawfully. Christians can teach English classes, run food pantries, teach Sunday school, baptize and serve Communion — the law. In general, the only area where there’s a likely legal risk is in employing someone who is not authorized to work.

Of course, that could change: There have been proposals in the past that could have made some elements of ministry to undocumented immigrants illegal; it’s important, as a matter of religious liberty, to push back against any policy proposals that would imply the government is limiting those whom the church can serve. As Rick Warren has said, “A good Samaritan doesn’t stop and ask the injured person, ‘Are you legal or illegal?’” and Christians should be able to minister to people freely.

Unauthorized immigrants, including many within evangelical churches, are often desperate to get right with the law, and many yearn to be citizens of the United States, a land they have come to love. Many Americans rightly wonder why undocumented immigrants don’t simply begin the process to become citizens. But the fact is, for most undocumented immigrants, there simply is no process for them to actually come out of the shadows and make things right. Most do not fit into any of the limited categories of people who qualify to request immigrant status (a legal prerequisite to citizenship) under existing law — just as most did not qualify for immigrant visas when they were still in their countries of origin. With very limited exceptions, it’s not a question of them being unwilling to wait their turn in line: There is no line in which they qualify to wait. It’s also not a question of them not having enough money to pay filing fees or to hire an attorney: In most cases, the best attorney in the country could do nothing to help them, because they simply do not qualify under current law.

So what could lawmakers do to address this situation? To simply offer an amnesty policy, pretending that these undocumented immigrants had not broken the law and extending citizenship, would not honor the law, which Christians are called to do.

On the other hand, a mass deportation policy would be problematic as well. Just on an economic level, it would be disastrous. The conservative American Action Forum estimates that it would cost somewhere between $400 billion and $600 billion to forcibly identify and deport all immigrants in the country unlawfully and then to keep them from simply coming back illegally, which many would likely try to do if taken from their family members who are U.S. citizens. And the economic consequences of removing these individuals who are workers, taxpayers and consumers from the U.S. economy would be even more severe, removing $1.6 trillion from the U.S. economy over the next 20 years. Furthermore, on a humanitarian level, the country would have to figure out what to do with millions of U.S.-born children born to undocumented parents, who would in many cases grow up without one or both of their parents, potentially adding additional burden on the foster care system. Churches, many of which include undocumented members, would be hard hit as well.

Another option is the status quo — to deport undocumented immigrants only selectively, a few hundred thousand per year over the past decade, which is enough to keep these immigrants living in fear but not ever to remove all of those who are unlawfully present. Sen. Marco Rubio and the late Sen. John McCain, among others, have called this a “de facto amnesty,” as it mostly ignores the reality that millions of immigrants are living in the country unlawfully (and that many employers are knowingly violating the law by hiring them).

Our country needs a better way forward — one that honors the law, is fair to American taxpayers and keeps families together. That way is an earned legalization process, including some form of restitution. Immigrants in the country unlawfully would be able to come forward and admit to having violated U.S. immigration law by sneaking across the border or by overstaying a temporary visa, and would pay a fine as a result, potentially payable in installments over time. From there, they could undergo a criminal background check; while a small minority of immigrants have committed serious crimes and ought to be deported, the vast majority have not: They would be allowed a temporary legal status for a period of time while they can pay their fine and prove that they’re working or part of a household where others are working; paying taxes; and staying out of criminal trouble. If they meet all appropriate requirements, they’d eventually be able to apply to be lawful permanent residents of the United States. Once they reach that status, they could choose to pursue the existing process for naturalization to become a U.S. citizen, which includes passing a test in English focused on the Constitution and U.S. history.

For the subset of these immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, it does not make sense to require the payment of a fine as restitution: They did not make the decision to come to the United States unlawfully or to overstay a visa, as they had no choice in the matter. For these young people, commonly known as “Dreamers,” an earned legalization process should not include a requirement of restitution, given the biblical and legal principle that we do not hold children accountable for their parents’ decisions (Ezekiel 18:20).

This sort of an earned legalization process, paired with improvements to border security, is supported by more than two-thirds of American evangelical Christians, according to a poll from LifeWay Research. In fact, only 16 percent of evangelicals disagree with this proposal. It’s a common-sense way forward that both honors the law and keeps families together, both values found in Scripture.

“For immigrants in the country illegally, there are no real options for redemption,” notes LifeWay Research Executive Director Scott McConnell, reflecting on a recent poll that found an increased level of support for such a path to citizenship among evangelical pastors. “That [lack of redemption] doesn’t sit well with pastors — the majority of whom were ready for lawmakers to offer a means of making restitution and gaining legal status years ago.”

Indeed, while the Bible guides us to reject public policy proposals that undermine the rule of law, it also compels us to believe in restoration. Were elected officials to pursue a restitution-based legalization process for qualifying immigrants, it would give these immigrants the chance to earn their way back into right standing with the U.S. government, which would be a tremendous relief to them and a reaffirmation of the importance of the rule of law.

An earned pathway to legal status would legitimize the long-term presence of these immigrants in their communities. There would be great community celebrations as neighbors, family members, fellow church members and employees welcome immigrants with open arms out of the shadows and into lawful and permanent status. This process would invite the formerly undocumented to participate fully and completely in American society, finally being able to add their strands of colorful fabric to the great and beautiful tapestry that is the United States of America.

To learn more about thinking biblically on immigration click here.
To sign on to the Evangelical Statement of Principles on Immigration click here.
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