Taking Up the Case of the Stranger


Madonna of the Rio Grande: Border Patrol (mixed media, 2006) by Barbara Fast

Reaching out to our undocumented neighbors

by Luis Cortés Jr. & Meredith Rapkin

Approximately 12 million undocumented people currently make their home  in the United States. While the majority of them are from Mexico, there are also sizable populations of undocumented people from El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines, Honduras, Korea, China, Brazil, Ecuador, and India. Odds are that a number of them live in your town, perhaps even in your neighborhood. Some have stayed past the expiration of their tourist or student visas. Many others have broken the law by coming into the country without a visa, in most cases risking life and limb to do so. They came seeking a better life for themselves and their children, a desire we can all relate to.

Whatever their motivations and the forces that drove them here, their choices have put them in conflict with the law of our land. They need to be held responsible for their actions, but they also need to be treated humanely. Beyond that, they need to be recognized as productive members of society, which the majority of them are,  providing labor that most Americans are unwilling to perform and working for employers who hire them in spite of their undocumented status.

Regardless of their status and how it will one day be resolved, these immigrants are human beings made in the image of God; many of them are parents. As Christians, we have an opportunity to reach out, encourage, and advocate for them. And if we are to do that effectively, we must begin by educating ourselves about our country's laws, the immigrants' needs, and the ways in which we can best love these neighbors. Here we offer five suggestions to get you started.

1. Let your faith guide you with respect to immigrants and immigration policy. 

Immigrants—especially unauthorized immigrants—and immigration policy are politically charged topics in the United States today. Because of this, it is extremely important for people of faith to maintain perspective on the issues. As people of faith, we are called to follow our reading and understanding of the Scriptures, using the teachings of God as a guide in all our actions. These  teachings should inform every aspect of our lives, including how we treat newcomers in our communities and how we approach immigration policy in the future. Form your views of immigrants and immigration based on biblical  revelation, as it was written in Leviticus 19:33-34 to "not mistreat the stranger in your midst." A person's immigration status does not change the fact that we are all children of God, and we were once strangers in a strange land.

The true "stranger" in our midst today is the undocumented immigrant. Many undocumented people in the United States today live in "mixed-status" families, meaning that one person may be undocumented, but others may be Legal Permanent Residents or US citizens. Young people who were brought here by their parents at a young age have no recollection of their home country and may not even speak the language after living and attending school in the United States for many years. We live in a time when the ongoing heated debates about immigrants and immigration reform have created and reinforced racial hatred of Hispanics, generating paralyzing fear within immigrant communities. Stand up and be counted among those proud Americans who let their faith guide them in welcoming the stranger among us.

2. Be a good neighbor: Learn what new immigrants in your community need to know in order to survive day to day in the United States. Equipped with the facts, you'll be able to counsel and support them effectively. 


All persons need a way to identify themselves, regardless of what county they live in. However, it is very difficult for undocumented immigrants to obtain identification in the United States. Undocumented folks should try to carry some form of legal identification issued in the United States, such as a state-issued ID card or driver's license. If they don't have a government-issued ID, they should carry an employee, school, or union ID. Sometimes even a bank card with their name and photo or an ID from an apartment complex or gym can be helpful. People without legal immigration status should never carry or use someone else's identification for any purpose. Not only can they be deported, but they can also be prosecuted and, if convicted, fined and sent to jail in the United States before being deported. Using a social security number or card that belongs to someone else is also a crime, and we have seen a rise in criminal prosecutions of this type.

Many countries have begun to issue IDs for their nationals who are living abroad. For over 130 years, the Mexican Consulate has issued these IDs, called a "matricula consular card," to Mexicans living abroad. It is an official government identification, containing biographical information and often a local address for the individual identified. Many other countries have followed Mexico's lead and are now issuing IDs at their local consulates. Interested individuals should contact their local consulate or embassy and ask if they issue IDs for people living abroad. Requirements for obtaining an ID vary from country to country.


Learning English is essential to living successfully in the United States. English classes will help immigrants be able to communicate effectively with neighbors, teachers, employers, and police and to navigate independently. However, classes are not enough. People need to practice what they have learned with a native speaker. Help new immigrants find English classes, many of which are offered for free or at low cost, and then take that step beyond: conversing with and befriending them, inviting them to your church and into your home.


Finding a place to live can also be a challenge. Many immigrants find it difficult to manage a relationship with their landlord. It is important always to remember that, in the United States, landlords cannot discriminate against anyone on the basis of race, religion, ethnic background, national origin, gender, familial status (including having children or being pregnant), or because of mental or physical disability.

This means that private landlords cannot ask about a person's citizenship or immigration status during the rental application process. However, for federally assisted housing programs, questions about immigration status are allowed.


Banking is another vital service for the immigrant community. In many cities  immigrant populations have been targeted by criminals because of the stereotype that undocumented immigrants may carry large sums of cash. Helping people gain access to the banking system helps individuals safeguard their money and save for the future in a more secure fashion. It is also cheaper to cash checks and easier to  pay for certain items if they have a bank account and cash machine card. Different banks have different requirements in order to open an account, but all banks will require some sort of valid identification. Some banks allow people to open an account with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number and a matricula consular card. Encourage new immigrants in your community to use a bank.


Navigating the health system in the United States is difficult enough for natives and is especially confusing for immigrants. The most important thing to know about medical care is that  anyone—including  undocumented  immigrants—can get urgent treatment from the closest emergency room. Immigration status should not be an issue, because laws protect all uninsured people who need urgent medical care. Also, no law requires any emergency room personnel to report a patient's immigration status to the government.

Public benefits

Finally, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for most public benefits, such as food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families [TANF], most federal student loans, and Medicare/Medicaid [except emergency Medicaid]. However, children of undocumented immigrants who are themselves US citizens by virtue of birth on US soil are eligible for federal aid, just as any other US citizen would be. A parent is not required to verify his or her own status in order to apply for benefits for a child. Federal law allows the agency to verify the immigration status of only the individual applying for the benefits.

3. Help immigrants understand their basic rights, especially the undocumented. 

Basic rights

The US Constitution grants all US citizens, and all non-citizens in the United States, several rights, including the right to remain silent, the right to a lawyer, and the right to be free from unreasonable searches. Unfortunately, having these rights does not mean that they will be respected by local police or federal immigration agents. However, learning about these rights, and then helping people understand their rights, will allow people to make better choices, and maybe even assert those rights, when the need arises.

The right to remain silent is one of the most basic rights assured by the US Constitution. Everyone has the constitutional right to remain silent, even if detained, arrested, or in jail. A person cannot be punished for refusing to talk to police.  Helping new immigrants understand the right to remain silent is very important, because many new immigrants come from countries where this right does not exist, and it is a powerful means of self-protection in the United States. There are two exceptions to this rule. In some states, people are required to  identify themselves to law enforcement. Also, if driving and stopped by law enforcement, they can be required to show a driver's license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance—but still is not required to answer questions. People must understand that if they choose to speak to law enforcement, anything they say can  be used against themselves and others. Always keep in mind that lying to a government official is illegal, as is the use of false identification documents.

Rights while driving

Driving a car in the United States is the situation where all of us are most likely to interact with law enforcement. This is no different for the immigrant. For this reason it is important to understand what rights apply when a person is stopped while driving a car.

First, everyone should do their best to avoid traffic stops by keeping their car in good running order—making sure that all lights are working and the registration is current. Law enforcement officers need a good reason to search the car after they have stopped a driver. They cannot search a car without a warrant unless they have good reason to believe that criminal activity is likely to take place, that the driver has been involved in a crime, or that there is evidence of a crime in the vehicle. However, if a driver gives them permission to look in her car, they can search the entire car. Be aware that anything they find during the search may be used against the driver or passengers.

Rights in the home

It is also vitally important to help immigrant families understand their right to privacy in their home. Police cannot enter a home unless they have a warrant or the occupant gives them permission. If the police knock on a door, it should NOT be opened. A person is within their rights to refuse to let law enforcement into his or her home without a warrant. However, if a person opens the door, law enforcement will enter the home, search everywhere, and question everyone present. Instead of  opening the door right away, after the police knock, it is best if the resident asks the police to pass a copy of the warrant under the door. If the police do not have a warrant, and the door remains closed, the police will go away. If they do have a warrant for the home, the person must open the door, or they will knock it down. Often when immigration agents come to a home, they have a warrant for a particular person. If that person is home, that person should go outside, so that the others in the house are not also questioned. Even if law enforcement officials enter the home, the individuals inside still have the right to remain silent.

4. Encourage and help facilitate the creating of an emergency plan in advance of a possible emergency. 

Whether or not a person is in the United States legally, they face the risk that the local police, sheriff, state trooper, or agents from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could pick them up at work or home, while driving a car, or simply while walking down the street. A person also may be stopped and detained if a law enforcement agent has reason to believe he or she committed a misdemeanor or crime or are engaging in some criminal activity. Unfortunately, there have been reports about people being stopped and detained without cause, simply because they "looked" foreign or spoke a foreign language or because they were suspected of being an undocumented immigrant.

Any individual who fears being stopped, arrested, detained, or deported should create an emergency plan ahead of time to protect herself, her family, and her property. Encourage family members to make plans now. It is very important to make plans ahead of time about what the family will do if one member is detained or deported. Understanding what could happen, what their rights are, and what their best options are under these circumstances will help put the person in a position to make the best choices for himself and his family.

There are several important things to consider when making a plan. First, people with a pending immigration case should memorize their alien registration number. This number identifies the case for all immigration agencies. Also, all immigrants who are here legally need to carry evidence of  their  lawful  status. Undocumented  immigrants  need  to carry some form of ID, as discussed above. While opinions differ about whether undocumented immigrants should carry documents that show their country of birth, many believe it is always better to carry some form of valid ID at all times. Also, immigrants should keep a card with them at all times, indicating the name, address, and phone number of their emergency contact—a trusted immigration lawyer, a member of the clergy, their consulate, and/or a community organization—so they can call any or all of them as soon as possible after being detained to get the information needed to protect their rights and make better choices. They should always carry a prepaid telephone card to make it easier to place a call for help when needed.

Individuals with medical problems need to think ahead as well. Anyone taking prescription medicine should carry a copy of the prescription or the label with the name of the medicine, the prescribing doctor's name and phone number, and the dosage. This will help prove to authorities that a health problem exists, which may also play a role in whether authorities decide to detain or to release the person pending a hearing before a judge.

All undocumented immigrants should carry a "know your rights" card. Many times undocumented immigrants are returned to their home countries shortly after they are detained because they are unaware of their rights. A "know your rights" card is a small card that can be carried in a wallet or pocket that a person can show enforcement officials when they want to assert their right to remain silent. It also gives law enforcement officials the name and phone number of an immigration lawyer (if the person has one) or community organization. You can download sample cards here.

Finally, work with immigrants to help them gather important documents now—just in case they are needed in the future. Important documents include identity documents for themselves and their family, including birth certificates for US-citizen children. Families may also need access to leases, mortgage documents, car titles, marriage certificates, school records, and copies of any criminal history that may exist. As a friend, offer to keep a copy of all pertinent records in a safe place at your home in case something happens to their copy or they contact you from detention.

5. Help immigrants in your community get answers to their immigration questions from a trusted source. 

Because immigration is complicated and the law often changes, immigrants often have many questions and want to find someone who will give them accurate, up-to-date information about their legal options. Whether they are documented or not, it is important they get advice from reliable immigration lawyers and accredited representatives, and not from unscrupulous lawyers or notarios (notary publics). Notarios are not recognized as lawyers in the United States. They cannot provide legal services and cannot advise on immigration matters. They usually do not understand the complexities of immigration law.

Anyone seeking legal advice should go to a lawyer who is licensed to practice law. Because of the complexity of the law, it is best to go to a lawyer who specializes in immigration issues. Lawyers must be members in good standing of the bar of a US state (or US possession, territory, commonwealth, or the District of Columbia) and not be under any court order restricting their practice of law. The best way for an immigrant to protect herself is to ask the lawyer to produce his or her current attorney licensing document. Clients should make a note of the admission number, if any, and if they are not satisfied with what the lawyer shows them, they should contact the state bar admission authorities to verify that the lawyer is licensed and a member in good standing of the bar. A lawfully admitted attorney should honor  any  request  of this type, as state bar rules require disclosure of this information to clients. This information may also be accessed through the state bar website. If the lawyer is not currently licensed or is not a member in good standing, the client should walk away. Legal interactions are among the most stressful situations for immigrants, and they provide rich opportunities for powerful Christian witness.  Simply accompanying them to appointments will help them endure the most intimidating and confusing aspects of the process.

It is the immigrant's responsibility to find a lawyer. The government is not required to provide a lawyer for immigration cases. In some instances, the government maintains a list of nonprofit organizations that provide low-cost or free legal services and community-based and church-based non-profits and outreaches that offer help. Immigrants should feel free to inquire about such a list.

Immigrants  can  contact  the American  Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), the only legal immigration bar association in the United States. To find lawyers by the type of immigration law they practices, the language(s) spoken in their office, their location, or last name, go to AILAlawyer.com to do a search or call 800-954-0254. The National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers' Guild can also assist in finding a lawyer.

Looking to the future 

With our faith to guide us, each one of us should try to open our arms to the newcomers in our communities. This can be done in the practical ways described above and in many other ways, too. Reach out to community organizations and others who work with immigrants. Volunteer your time. Express your opinions on immigrants and immigration through your local newspaper, or simply talk to family and friends about this issue. Immigrants have made this country strong in the past, and it is our hope that you will reach out to the new immigrants around you in an effort to make them a part of the great future as well.

Rev. Luis Cortés Jr. is the founder of the Philadelphia-based non-profit Esperanza, a national network of 12,000 faith and community-based agencies. One of the leading voices for Hispanics in America, Cortés is the author of several books and in 2005 was featured by Time magazine as one of the nation's "25 Most Influential Evangelicals."

Formerly a staff attorney at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Meredith Rapkin teaches at Villanova University Law School's Farmworker Legal Aid Clinic, where students work in teams to represent people living and working in agricultural and agriculture-related settings throughout Pennsylvania.


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