It's Time, Mr. President
Christian leaders call for comprehensive immigration reform
by Linda Espenshade
From the mother who can no longer afford to feed her children because her husband has been deported, to the American citizen whose ready-to-deliver pregnant wife was sent back to Mexico because of a missed filing deadline; from the men sitting in US immigration detention centers with no rights to a lawyer, to the green-card holders forcibly taken from their homes at night by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents—pastors in the Hispanic community hear stories that make them agonize for the lives torn apart by an immigration system they often describe as "broken."
They and their allies are united in calling for comprehensive immigration reform that will address this brokenness. Here's what some of them are saying:
"We are leaders serving a diverse spectrum of churches," says Rev. Luis Cortés Jr, president of Esperanza, one of the largest evangelical, faith-based Hispanic networks in the United States, "but we are united in the belief that every human being is created in the image of God. We take seriously the Gospel's call to treat the foreigner with respect and compassion. Acting on this call means raising a public voice for immigration reform as a moral and spiritual issue."
In spite of the many reasons for comprehensive immigration reform, Cortés knows that proponents battle a variety of political forces—labor unions, conservative Republicans, and conservative Democrats who want to keep their congressional seats. Proponents also suffer from the silence of some evangelical leaders, who have influence over millions of evangelical Christians.
"We cannot wait a minute longer," says Lisa Sharon Harper, chief church engagement officer for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith. "Because every minute we wait, another family is broken up, another family is driven into poverty. Real people, real lives are affected every single day."
Harper challenges Christians to examine their own fear that immigrants will threaten our "way of life"—a motivating factor that Christians have historically used to justify evils like slavery and apartheid. "We really need to have a come-to-Jesus moment," Harper says, "where we admit our fear, and we admit our fear of the loss of power and control to people we don't know and we don't trust, to a language we don't understand. We need to repent, because that's not faith." Fear is the opposite of faith, she says, and fear is what's driving the opposition to immigration reform.
Harper sees the impact of the broken immigration system in terms of poverty. Mothers or fathers who are left to care for multiple children when their spouse is detained or deported often become impoverished. They experience a level of desperation that can push them to make choices they wouldn't otherwise make—choices that sacrifice their families and themselves.
"Poverty is one of the surest and fastest ways to mangle the image of God in a human being," Harper says.
"There are people, many, many people, who have tried to do the legal requirements and have gotten so messed over by the system, either by the ineptitude of the system or by the carelessness of the system, that it's almost impossible to do the right thing when you're trying," says Rev. Dr. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Fla.
For starters, Hunter says, the system pushes immigrants into the shadows, where they struggle to do what's right. "There's less motivation to be a constructive member of society and more motivation to be very resentful about not being given a chance." Add to those feelings a sense of economic desperation, and the desire to fight the system and its keepers for what they need may not be far behind.
As Christians, Hunter suggests, we need to focus on redemption. Certainly people who break the law need to pay a penalty, but people jump to conclusions when they think the penalty is to go back to their home countries, he says.
"Many of us in our own walk didn't have to go back to square one when we did wrong. God redeemed us from where we were," Hunter says.
Rev. Gabriel A. Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, recognizes that some evangelical Christians oppose any leniency for undocumented immigrants because of the biblical instruction to submit to the law and leaders of the land. "I think that kind of legal concern is a legitimate one. I don't dismiss that," he says. To that end he believes restitutionary measures are necessary in the new law.
However, he says, judging immigrants for breaking the law to come to America is not doing justice to the complexity of the problem. It's quite possible they came here because their children would have died or been malnourished in their home country. Many immigrants come here only seeking what's best for their family.
"The Gospel calls us to compassion while obeying the law," Salguero says, "but if the law is broken we answer to a higher authority."
"We stand ready," says Salguero, "from pulpits all over the country, from wherever our platform is to make our biblical case, our moral case. We stand ready to prick the moral conscience of the country."
Linda Espenshade is a freelance journalist based in Lancaster, Pa.