I have more than a passing interest in the current debate about immigration laws that was bogged down in Congress yesterday and now, according to recent reports, seems like it might result in new, meaningful legislation. At least a third of the members of the church I serve are first generation immigrants. About half of our membership is comprised of ethnic minorities. We have members from more than 15 different countries--a fact that we celebrate annually with a "Taste of Grace" festival for our community. On this occasion (that is scheduled for this Saturday, April 8) we set up booths with native foods from a dozen or so countries we have represented in our church. We invite people to come taste the foods, learn a little about the various cultures and meet us. We use this opportunity to witness to those who come and try to establish new relationships. It is one way to show the community the power of the Gospel to break down the walls that naturally separate people of different backgrounds.
Our multiethnic leadership has grappled with the issues of immigration as it relates to membership. Should illegal immigrants be allowed to join the church? Should they be encouraged to return to their homeland? If members, should they be allowed to serve in leadership positions? Questions that had simple answers when asked theoretically take on immense shades of complexity when they are attached to flesh and blood.
I have seen the abuse that is sometimes inflicted on innocent people--unintentionally no doubt--by the system that exists for dealing with immigrants. I have tried to wade through some of the incomprehensible laws related to immigrants that have been patchworked together over decades. What I have found at points is hard to understand and harder to explain. WORLD Magazine has addressed some of the issues in thoughtful ways, including an article that shows some of the inconsistent and convoluted practices of our current immigration system.
What do you say to a woman who has been converted through the ministry of the church who wants to be baptized and join the church, but is living with a man who is not legally her husband? He was her husband for 15 years in their native South American country. But because it was easier for them to get visas into the USA as unmarried people, they divorced, came over here, discovered that "nobody in America takes marriage seriously," and so decided simply to live together. Then the Lord saved her, but not her (ex)husband. Now he is unwilling to marry her legally.
What do you say to a young man who has come to Christ through the church's outreach and wants to be baptized and join but whose visa has expired? He wants to become legal but every avenue he has pursued has resulted in a dead end. Talk of various types of amnesty has kept him hopeful, but he is here illegally.
What about the devoted Christian family that were working through what they were told was a legal channel to pursue permanent residency only to discover that they were scammed and are now left with no passport, visa, or any other form of legal identification. When we contacted legal authorities we were simply told that they were "small fish" and that, though it is unlikely, there is a slight possibility that in 10 years or so their case might come to light and receive some attention.
Living in Southwest Florida has sensitized me to the severe mistreatment that many immigrants experience both officially and unofficially. It is common to read in the local paper about immigrants who were robbed and/or beaten but who refused to call police out of fear of what might happen to them. Unscrupulous people take advantage of their fear and misunderstanding of the immigration laws and bilk them out of large sums of money.
I am a law and order guy. I believe that laws should be obeyed and lawbreakers should be punished. But when laws are unjust or unjustly applied, it is impossible to maintain a black and white perspective. Our immigration laws need to be overhauled. I am glad that Congress has followed President Bush's lead and tackled the issue. I am grieved, however, when I hear some legislators that come from my side of the aisle speaking as if all immigrants who are here illegally are willful criminals and should be treated the same. It simply is not that simple.
In the parable of The Good Samaritan Jesus explains what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. It involves showing social justice to those who are in no position to help themselves. While the Samaritan may not have broken any laws in his deeds of kindness, he certainly did go against the social conventions of his day by helping a despised Jew. "Go and do likewise" is our Master's instruction to us. I think this applies the the immigrants--legal and illegal--that are among us.
I pray that the current debate in Congress will result in laws that are more just and enforceable. I personally hope that some kind of guestworker plan is included. But regardless of what comes out of Washington DC, my greater prayer is that the churches of Jesus Christ in this land will lead the way in showing love to those who are the strangers and aliens among us.