One of the unique privileges that I have is to serve on the Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee for the Southern Baptists of Texas state convention. The Texas Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee (TERLC) is our state’s version of the ERLC of the Southern Baptist Convention, and our mission is much the same. The mission statement of the ERLC is “to address social and moral concerns and their implications on public policy issues from City Hall to Congress.” In our state convention, we aim to do the same within our state.
Much of what has been done in the past is little more than stating our positions on certain moral issues of the day, most notably abortion and gay marriage. But the TERLC has taken a different focus the last couple of years, much to my delight. This committee has been trying to identify an issue within our state that we might be able to influence the development of public policy in accordance with biblical teachings. One of the front burner issues of the day is immigration reform, and as one of the border states with Mexico, our state has more at stake in this conversation than most. There are rumblings that our state legislature will bring forth some sort of legislation on immigration in the next session, and our committee would like to work alongside other believers in our state to see that public policy on immigration be influenced by the will of God.
To that end, the TERLC invited several Hispanic pastors and church members to meet with us to share with us their perspective on immigration reform. That meeting was held this week, and it was incredibly enlightening. These pastors work with Hispanics, many of whom are in the country without legal documentation. Without official records, the pastors in the room agreed that about 50% of their members are “illegal immigrants” or “undocumented.” (Some in the room did not like the term “illegal immigrants” because it cast these people as perpetual criminals, but I will share more about that later.)
They shared various personal stories about friends and families caught in the realities of immigration. One lady shared of a young girl who was brought to Texas by her parents as a little child. She was raised in Texas, and graduated from high school and college in Texas. Armed with a nursing degree, she is unable to get a job in Texas because she is undocumented. Another pastor shared of a man in his congregation who was brought over to Texas as a 3 month old boy. His mother had told him all of his life that he was born in Texas, so he assumed that he was a citizen. He did not realize the truth until he applied for a marriage license and found out that he was not a citizen. He was deported to Mexico, and will never be able to reenter the country again. One pastor told me about the “illegals” in his church who have bought homes and even opened their own restaurants, though neither one of us knew how this could be done without proper documentation.
All of the pastors shared passionately about sharing the gospel and ministering to the people that we call “illegal immigrants.” They see these people as the friends and neighbors, fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God, and created in the image of God. The biblical commands like “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22.39) or “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt” (Exodus 22.21) or “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 19.33-34) were more than just theories to these people. They embraced them as the Word of God, and they were passionately trying to minister to and help these people in the daily struggles of life.
When speaking about immigration reform, or really about any issue, it always takes on a whole new flavor when you stop speaking about a classification of people and start to speak of real people of whom you have met and spoken to. These are real people, people like you and me, who are trying their best to build a good life for their children. They have taken great risks to escape a country with high poverty and little hope to come to a land of opportunity. And it is very hard to say to them, “You don’t deserve to be here” while we realize that we really don’t deserve to be here either. By the grace and kindness of God, I was born in America.
There are two distinct sides to the immigration reform debate. On one side is the pole of compassion, on the other side is the pole of justice. It was very interesting to listen to the Hispanic pastors and church members who spoke boldly for both of these positions. Regardless of your perspective, it is hard to escape the realities of either side of the issue.
Regarding the issue of justice, it is clear that the followers of Christ are expected to obey the laws of the land. The apostle Paul made this very clear in Romans 13, during a time in which the laws of the land were not all that favorable to the Christian church. Paul wrote,
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13.1-7 NIV)
Obeying the laws of the land means that we ought to submit to the immigration laws of our nation, and furthermore, to obey the hiring laws set forth by our nation. One of our federal government’s chief responsibility is to protect our nation and to guard its borders, and historically, this means controlling who is allowed to enter the country. All sovereign nations today control the flow of non-citizens into and out of the country. Illegal immigration becomes an issue of legality and justice when millions of people enter this country illegally, breaking the laws of the authority set in place by God.
The issue of justice also extends to the matter of taxes, which was also referenced by Paul in Romans 13. Illegal immigrants have access to public education and publicly funded healthcare, both of which are supported by taxes. When they do not pay taxes on their wages or pay income taxes, then they are not helping to support the services that they take advantage of. With budget shortfalls occurring in all domains, including national, state, and local districts, the issue of illegal immigration becomes an issue of economic justice. And this is not lost on those who minister to this population. Several of the pastors felt like the issue of immigration reform was really about money and the economy, and some felt that they were being victimized by the economic struggles of late.
Of course, it did not escape their notice that illegal immigrants provide a cheap labor source for the Americans who like to enjoy cheap products and services. In some ways, the state economy is supported by the labors who are not supposed to be here, and the same people who cry out “secure our borders” also enjoy the cheap goods and services provided by the very people they wish were not allowed to be here.
The discussion about what a pastor’s role in discipling those who are in this country illegally was interesting. Is it a pastor’s role to tell Christians to return to Mexico if they are not legally in this country? Or, is it a pastor’s role to minister to immigrants in times of need, helping them to solve their housing and employment struggles? What does it mean to obey the laws of the land when the immigration laws are confusing and applied inconsistently? When is it right to obey God rather than man (see Acts 4.19)?
Much has been made about the impact of illegal immigration on crime. We often hear of the drug cartels killing farmers in Arizona or that Phoenix is the kidnapping capital of the world. But these pastors knew that the crime rate in the largest border cities has actually declined in the last few years. According to a recent Time article,
According to the FBI, the four large U.S. cities (with populations of at least 500,000) with the lowest violent crime rates — San Diego, Phoenix and the Texas cities of El Paso and Austin — are all in border states. “The border is safer now than it’s ever been,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Lloyd Easterling told the Associated Press last month…Consider Arizona itself — whose illegal-immigrant population is believed to be second only to California’s. The state’s overall crime rate dropped 12% last year; between 2004 and 2008 it plunged 23%. In the metro area of its largest city, Phoenix, violent crime — encompassing murder, rape, assault and robbery — fell by a third during the past decade and by 17% last year. The border city of Nogales, an area rife with illegal immigration and drug trafficking, hasn’t logged a single murder in the past two years….It is true that Phoenix has in recent years seen a spate of kidnappings. But in almost every case they’ve involved drug traffickers targeting other narcos for payment shakedowns, and the 318 abductions reported last year were actually down 11% from 2008. Either way, the figure hardly makes Phoenix, as Arizona Senator John McCain claimed last month, “the No. 2 kidnapping capital of the world” behind Mexico City. A number of Latin American capitals can claim that dubious distinction…An even more telling example is El Paso. Its cross-border Mexican sister city, Ciudad Juárez, suffered almost 2,700 murders last year, most of them drug-related, making it possibly the world’s most violent town. But El Paso, a stone’s throw across the Rio Grande, had just one murder. A big reason, say U.S. law-enforcement officials, is that the Mexican drug cartels’ bloody turf wars generally end at the border and don’t follow the drugs into the U.S. Another, says El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles, is that “the Mexican cartels know that if they try to commit that kind of violence here, they’ll get shut down.” (Tim Padgett, “The ‘Dangerous’ Border: Actually One of America’s Safest Places,” Time, July 30, 2010).
None of this was lost on this group of pastors who were tired of the political hype and misinformation being spread regarding immigration reform.
On the other side of the immigration reform debate is the pole of compassion. The people of God are not to turn a blind eye to the need of the immigrant. The Bible is very clear,
When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19.33-34 NIV)
The Word of God instructs us to treat the aliens living with us as one of your native born because we were all aliens at one time. (In fact, we continue to live as aliens if we believe the words of 1 Peter 2.11.) We are not to mistreat these people whether they are “legally” in our country or not. As the people of God, we are to “love them as ourselves.”
And this biblical commandment was definitely not lost on this group of pastors. They told stories of bringing food to the housing areas where many of this population group struggles to forge out an existence. They know of people who are trapped in the realities of this issue. As pastors, they see people in hurt and people in need, and feel that it is the church’s job to share a cup of cold water or to feed the hungry. Christians, should look differently upon people, and it is the job of the church to change the attitude of those in our pews who refuse to treat these people as one of their native born.
It did not escape the notice of the Hispanic pastors in the room that the first few “whereas” statements of the Resolution passed by the SBTC in their 2006 Annual Meeting viewed immigrants in a negative light. Only the last two “whereas” statements focused on compassion and ministry. In their words, shouldn’t the order be reversed?
After four hours of conversation, it is even more difficult to see how our nation and God’s people can unite these two viewpoints into one coherent public policy regarding immigration. But some groups are trying. I became aware of several initiatives during the morning that might offer a glimmer of hope.
The first is a piece of legislation sponsored by Senators Orin Hatch and Richard Durbin called the DREAM Act. The Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act (AKA, Dream Act) would provide a conditional path to citizenship for youths that have lived in the USA for most of their lives. Under the rigorous provisions of the DREAM Act, qualifying undocumented youth would be eligible for a 6 year long conditional path to citizenship that requires completion of a college degree or two years of military service. You can read more here.
Another initiative that might at least be a step in the right direction is the “Pastor’s Declaration on Border Security and Immigration Reform” by a group of pastors in Houston calling themselves the US Pastor’s Council. Their full resolution can be read here, but their main points are to secure the borders, reform the immigration system, and to implement a just process to legal status for specified illegal immigrants. This resolution seems to combine all essential elements while recognizing the issues and difficulties with each.
Richard Land, the Director of the SBC’s ERLC, has issued a statement about immigration reform also. He also encourages a balance of compassion (neighbor love, provision, dignity, etc.) and justice (constitutional obligations, fiduciary obligations, cultural obligations, etc.). His full statement can be read here.
At the end of the day, the issue of immigration reform is a matter of public policy and ministry. The just and humane treatment of every person created in the image of God ought to be a priority to each and every believer. In addition, all nations formulate public policy for the common good. In a democratic society, the church does have a role in speaking to these issues. We cannot simply “love our neighbor” and let the politicians argue over immigration reform. Since we elect the people who make our laws, and we minister to people who suffer under the laws they make, we have the unique obligation and responsibility to influence the formation of public policy.
The Hispanic pastors were right in that we need to change the way we view this issue. As the people of God, we cannot look at this through the same lens as those who are not followers of Christ. While we may share some of the same concerns, we operate on very different values and principles, or at least we ought to. We must see these people as people and not statistics. We must view them with compassion, as the Word of God instructs us to.
But we cannot ignore the matter of justice and the welfare of the land in which we live. The present system is untenable for much longer. In a very short period of time, the government will no longer be able to afford to provide the services that it does, whether to tax payers or to illegal immigrants. Cities and states are all in budget struggles, and government services like education and healthcare are all under strain.
As one who came to the meeting focused more on the justice position than the compassion position, it was good for me to hear the Words of the Lord regarding showing compassion to the aliens who live among us. It is doubly hard to mistreat fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God. In the end, we must do as the Scriptures urged us to do.
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2.1-3 NIV)
May the Lord give our lawmakers wisdom to craft legislation so we all may live peace and quiet lives so that all men may be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.