Welcoming the Undocumented

By Greg Williams 6-11-2015
Image via Richard Thornton/shutterstock.com
Image via Richard Thornton/shutterstock.com

The primary challenge facing immigration laws in the United States is not people crossing the border without authorization. In fact, a recent study from Pew Research Center shows that fewer people than ever are attempting to cross the border.

Rather, our dilemma with immigration is that people who are already here — some for several decades — without proper documentation face substantial difficulties in trying to integrate and contribute to the country. Solely focusing on increasing border security to stop people from crossing without authorization ignores the real issues that the U.S. faces when it comes to immigration: including the lack of legal status for the 11 million aspiring Americans who are already involved in their communities.

2013 report from the Migration Policy Institute shows us that we are seeing a shift in the pattern of undocumented immigrants who currently reside in the U.S. Over half of the undocumented population has been living here for ten years or more, a third are homeowners, and a third have at least one minor at home who is a U.S. citizen. These facts often get left out of the border security narrative.

And these people are more integrated into the U.S. than I currently am as a rootless intern: they own houses, their kids go to public schools, they are members of local churches. All they are missing is the right papers. Our current immigration system forces these men and women into the margins of our society, making it much easier for them to be exploited when they could otherwise be productive members.

Major metropolitan regions such as Los Angeles and New York City have one kind of isolation for undocumented immigrants, in which full participation in civic life is impossible due to inability to vote and living in fear of interactions with law enforcement. Matters are worse in cities without the same kind of historic immigrant populations. More migrants are settling in the Midwest or the Rust Belt — places which lack a support network of and for recent immigrants. This leads to language barriers, racial prejudice, and difficulty finding community support even if people are legal permanent residents (LPR). Without legal protection, matters become much worse.

Nebraska is one example of this challenge for immigrant communities. Just this past week, state legislators allowed DACA recipients (men and women who have taken all the steps they could to normalize their status) to earn drivers’ licenses, a basic necessity to living and working in most of the country. Before this legislation, immigrants were at the mercy of carpooling, expensive taxis, or public transit.

Christians ought to push against this isolation and exploitation. We must welcome the stranger as if she were Christ, as Matthew 25 makes clear. While there are practical steps that many local churches should take to welcome people — such as providing ESL classes, or even certified legal aid — the ultimate solution to these legal problems is national immigration reform enacted by Congress.

As a society we need to provide a pathway to citizenship so that immigrants who have made the commitment to become integrated into our society can take the final step of accessing citizenship. Most Americans, as a recent study from the Pew Research Center shows, agree that undocumented immigrants should have the opportunity to gain legal status even as this kind of proposal seems to be consistently stalled in Congress.

According to the Pew study, more than 70 percent of Americans of all ethnicities, ages, and backgrounds agree that there ought to be a mechanism by which undocumented immigrants who meet certain criteria should be allowed to legally remain in the U.S.

Focusing solely on border security, though superficially appealing, is a dead-end approach when it comes to fixing our broken system. The Border Patrol has already massively increased in size and authority over the past decade — leading to abuse and excessive use of force — and the growth of unauthorized migration has been drastically reduced. We must pivot from focusing on enforcing border security to focusing on helping those who are here and want to live here.

Overwhelmingly, these men, women, and children are contributing to — not harming — our society. Welcoming them is a wise policy choice in our current context. But it is also, frankly, our moral obligation as Christians.

Greg Williams is Communications Assistant for Sojourners.

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