NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The immigration crisis in the United States is a huge issue, impacting tens of millions of people in many different ways. How do we approach this problem? First, we have to identify “we.” When I speak of “we,” I am referring to Southern Baptists and other evangelical Christians who are American citizens. As such, we have responsibilities in two realms: as citizens of the nation and as citizens of the heavenly Kingdom (Philippians 3:20; Titus 2:14; 1 Peter 2:9).
As citizens of the United States, we have an obligation to support the government and the government’s laws for conscience’ sake (Romans 13:7). We also have a right to expect the government to fulfill its divinely ordained mandate to punish those who break the laws and reward those who do not (Romans 13:1-7). As citizens of the Lord’s heavenly Kingdom and members of local colonies of that Kingdom (congregations of Christians), we also have a divine mandate to act redemptively and compassionately toward those who are in need. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39) and to do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12). How do these twin divine mandates apply to the immigration crisis facing our nation?
First, as citizens of the nation, we have a right to expect the federal government to enforce the laws regarding who may cross our borders. Border security is a question of national sovereignty, national security and the government fulfilling its divinely mandated responsibility to enforce the law.
Any successful consensus on how to address the immigration crisis must be built on the foundation of the federal government convincing the American people that it is willing to commit whatever resources are necessary to secure our borders. This does not mean closing the borders, but having effective control over who comes in, who goes out, and who they are.
The federal government’s disgraceful failure to fulfill its responsibility in this area, during both Democratic and Republican administrations, has caused severe consternation among a sizable constituency of Americans and has led to the immigration crisis we face. There are at least 12 million people living and working in our country who have come here illegally, and our federal government has no idea who they are and how long they have been here.
In addition to not controlling our borders, the federal government has failed in its responsibility to enforce the laws within the country by not cracking down on businesses that employ illegal workers and by not enforcing immigration laws internally.
Americans know the federal government is quite capable of enforcing laws that it truly wishes to enforce — the Internal Revenue Service comes to mind. The government is clearly culpable for not having the will to dedicate sufficient resources to enforce its laws at our borders or within the 50 states. That must change.
Some will ask, “Why not just insist that all of the more than 12 million illegal immigrants go home?” The simple answer is that there is neither the political nor economic will in the U.S. population for forcibly rounding up 12 million people — many of them who have children who are America citizens — and shipping them back to their country of origin. Politics and public policy are the “art of the possible.” The reality is that the United States is not going to deport 12 million people, whether you think we should or not.
Once the federal government has convinced the American people that it has the will and is committing the resources necessary to enforce its laws, then I believe a consensus can be built and will form around some type of “guest-worker” program that would address the question of the illegal immigrants who are already in the United States.
What would the contours of such a program look like? First, it must not involve any type of “amnesty” that would just forgive the illegal entry of people. It would recognize that these people did break the law in order to come here and work. Most of them have been hard-working, law-abiding residents since their arrival.
Such a “guest-worker” program would, in effect, say to those who are here illegally: You have a one-time opportunity of six months to come forward and apply for a “guest-worker” status, agree to undergo a criminal background check and agree to learn English. If such workers could demonstrate that they have been employed, and have not broken the law since or before their illegal entry, they could pay a fine and agree to pay any back taxes owed. After a certain number of years — depending on how long they have already been here — they could apply for permanent resident status.
For example, if someone had been here 10 years, they might be on probationary “guest-worker” status for five years. Someone who had been here five years would have a “guest-worker” status for six years.
Such a proposed “guest-worker” program would also give employers a six-month window to come forward, pay a fine and come clean for past offenses. At the end of the proposed six-month period, the government then would tell illegal immigrants and their employers that if they haven’t come forward and availed themselves of this generous and compassionate offer, “The government will find you and if you’re here illegally, deport you and if you are a business, fine you in significant ways, and perhaps prosecute you criminally.”
Also, since the government shouldn’t reward illegal activity, it should establish an expanded “guest-worker” program for people not currently in the country, but who would like to come to the United States to work. The government could establish such a program with a ceiling of, perhaps 350,000 people a year who could come to fill jobs that have been advertised in the United States by American employers for an adequate length of time and for which they have not been able to find employees domestically. These new “guest workers” would also have to agree to a background check and to learn English. Under such a proposed program, they could apply for permanent resident status at the end of four years, a shorter period than illegal immigrants would face for such status. In other words, those who have come here illegally go to the back of line behind those who come here legally. I believe most American would perceive such a program as a fair and practical way to deal with the over 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the country.
Coming forward and receiving recognized “guest-worker” status would have several advantages both for the workers and for the nation.
First, it would give the “guest workers” protection against exploitation by employers and by others in society who prey on them as vulnerable and legally defenseless.
Second, it would allow such workers to go home and visit their families in their country of origin and then return to their jobs in the United States. When you take the time to talk to illegal immigrants, you find there is a significant minority who do not wish to remain in the United States permanently or bring their families here. These individuals would welcome the opportunity to be “guest workers,” able to send money home to, and visit their families in, their home countries without fear of not being able to get back into the United States.
Third, greatly expanding the program for new “guest workers” would make the job of border enforcement easier. If immigrants have a meaningful, legal pathway to cross the border, there will be less temptation to enter illegally and less opportunity to remain here illegally, and the number of people attempting illegal entry would drop.
I believe a majority of Americans would support such a dual program that would constitute real border enforcement, coupled with a fair and compassionate way to address the crisis of the 12 million illegal immigrants already here.
Now, what about our responsibilities as citizens of the heavenly Kingdom? Christians have a divine mandate to care for those in need and to give a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name (Matthew 10:42). The story of the Good Samaritan also informs our spiritual obligation to reach out to those in need of assistance (Luke 10:30-37). Our government should not criminalize private citizens who give a cup of cold water, a hot meal, a warm bed or medical assistance to those who are in our country illegally. The legislation by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R.-Wis., must be amended to carve out an exemption for charitable and Christian activity toward all people.
Christian churches should be reaching out to meet the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of these “guest workers,” old and new. While the government must insist on the enforcement of the law and a probationary period and fines for those who have broken the law, Christians are mandated to forgive and to act redemptively within their communities toward all people, including illegal immigrants. Churches should start classes on a massive scale to help illegal-immigrants-turned-“guest-workers” learn English and help them acclimate to life in the United States.
Finally, a word to those who are here illegally or who wish to come as legal immigrants in the future. We are a nation of immigrants. Unless you are Native American, we all are immigrants, or the descendents of immigrants, and while all of our immigrant ancestors were proud of their heritage in their country of origin, they came to this country to become Americans. In reality, we are a nation of settlers, who came to “settle” in a new country. While society has days upon which Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, and Anglo-Americans pay homage to their ancestors, these groups put their emphasis on the American part of the hyphenated term. If you are coming here to start a new life in a new country, the United States, rather than just coming here for a sojourn as a “guest worker” planning to return home someday, let’s display more American flags and a lot fewer flags of your country of origin. In other words, if you came here to start a new life in a new country, then put the emphasis on the American half of Hispanic-American, for example, and you are welcome.
Richard Land is president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.