SoeWelc 09-02-035

Welcoming the Stranger

Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate


Matthew Soerens & Jenny Hwang

InterVarsity Press, 2009, 240 pp., ISBN 978-0-8308-3359-7



Matthew Soerens is an immigration and citizenship counselor at World Relief in Wheaton, IL.  Jenny Hwang is director of advocacy and policy of the Refugee and Immigration Program of World Relief, located in Baltimore.  World Relief serves refugees and immigrants throughout the United States and the world.  Soerens and Hwang bring a compassionate Christian perspective to the complicated and highly divisive immigration conversation. 


1.  The Immigration Dilemma

About 11 to 12 million people are living in the U.S. with no valid immigration status. (12)  This book attempts to step back from the rhetoric and combine a basic understanding of how immigration works in the U.S. with a biblical worldview. (14)  Who should we let in, what do we do with those who are here that weren't officially allowed in, and what effect will our policies have on those here and struggling to get by? (16) 


"We prefer to refer to people as 'undocumented' rather than 'illegal.'"  "It is too easy to dehumanize such immigrants …."  (22,23)  As followers of Christ, we are called to love and serve our foreign-born neighbors. (25)


2.  Aliens Among You - Who are Undocumented Immigrants?

The crime rate among immigrants is actually lower than among native-born U.S. citizens.  (28)  Most foreign-born people in the U.S. have legal status.  About 35% of the estimated 37 million are naturalized U.S. citizens and 33% are lawful permanent residents.  About 2% have temporary resident status and about 31% have no legal status, either entering without permission or overstaying a temporary visa. (29)


Many come to find a job to support their families; some come to reunite with family.  Others are seeking freedom.  (20) 


"While the perception persists that undocumented immigrants are paid 'under the table,' in cash, with their income unreported and untaxed--and indeed some are--the majority of undocumented immigrants…do have Social Security, Medicare and income taxes deducted from their payroll--though, under current law, they are ineligible for any Social Security or Medicare benefits and for almost all federal- or state- government benefits funded through their income taxes." (34)  "…immigrants often pay more in taxes than they take in services, and … they contribute overall to the U.S. economy." (35)


While many enter illegally, between 40 and 50% of the undocumented immigrants enter legally on a valid visa and then overstay or otherwise violate the terms of that visa.  About 56% come from Mexico.  There are also millions from Asia, Europe, Canada and Africa.  (37)


At least one third of undocumented families has one or more household members who are U.S. citizens. (39)  Children, regardless of immigration status, are allowed to attend public schools.  However, no undocumented immigrant can legally receive any cash benefits from the government. (42) 


Almost all immigrants come to the United States to work.  The employment rate for adult male undocumented immigrants is an estimated 96%. (42)


3.  Nation of Immigrants - A Historical Perspective on Immigration to the United States

We are a nation of immigrants.  More than 99% of our population--all except Native Americans--has immigrant history. (46)


Most Americans hold a dualistic opinion about immigration, reveling in our past, but rejecting much of the immigrant present. (47) 


Of course, many of the earliest immigrants, an estimated 645,000 Africans were forced to work as slaves.  Involuntary migration is now termed human trafficking and it continues to be a problem today. (50) 


The first great wave of immigration consisted of Europeans from 1820-1860.  There was anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant hysteria at that time.  The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the Mexican-American War made 100,000 Mexicans U.S. citizens in one day.  Many people of Mexican descent have lived in the same place for centuries.  About 70% of Hispanics in the U.S. are U.S. citizens, mostly by birth.


Chinese immigration was big from 1848 - 1890.  Another European Wave followed from 1880-1920.  Many of these were from southern and eastern Europe, Italians, Poles, and Jews fleeing Russia.  About 23 million immigrants arrived during this time.  Foreign born population was the greatest at about 13 to 15%.  (55)


The Immigration Act of 1924 more tightly restricted immigration and set quotas based on nationality. (57)  It also introduced the requirement of prior State Department permission to enter (visa). Prior to that time our ancestors entered legally without a visa.  The rules are changed.  (48) 


From 1942-1964 the number of immigrants from Mexico continued to increase, particularly to meet the need for migrant workers.


"Just like the American public at large, American churches have espoused differing and ever-changing opinions on immigration.  Protestant Christians were among those most opposed to the waves of Irish and German immigrants … because they saw their Roman Catholic faith as a threat." 


Our current immigration system still modeled after the 1965 law that outlined a series of preferences based primarily on family relationships and job skills was. 


4.  Immigrating the Legal Way - Our Immigration System Today

The three basic legal statuses for foreigners are legal nonimmigrant (temporary), Lawful Permanent Resident, or U.S. citizen.  (66)  45% percent of the undocumented came on a valid visitor visa and overstayed. (67)


"It is nearly impossible for many of the world's poor to obtain even a visitor visa, because the potential for economic advancement is so strong by staying in the United States that consular officials consider them too high a risk." (67)


Everyone born in the United States is a citizen by birth, regardless of the status of their parents. (69) 


There are four processes by which a person can gain a green card (become a Lawful Permanent Resident):

      Employment (for people with unique skills and education who meet a particular labor shortage),

      Family (for reuniting those with family here.  Wait time is about 6 to 11 years; the backlog of applications is about 6 million; and the filing cost is $930.),

      Diversity lottery (about 50,000 are issued randomly.  Odds are about 1 in 182.), or

      Fear of persecution in their home country (There are currently nearly 10 million refugees in the world of which about 55,000 are resettled here annually.) 


For many who are already here, none of these are workable options, partly because they would have to leave the country during the process, move somewhere they can't earn a living, and wait. (70-79)


5.  Thinking Biblically about Immigration

Immigrants and refugees play many important roles in biblical history, including Abraham and Joseph, for example.


"There are likely more involuntary immigrants--people forced by violence, coercion or deception into crossing borders--today than there were at the height of the transatlantic slave trade." (84) 


"Furthermore, Scripture suggests that all of us, as followers of Christ, whatever our nationality, have become aliens in this world….  Our citizenship is in heaven.  We are "aliens and strangers" in the world…."  "God used migration throughout Scripture to accomplish his purposes and bring his people to a greater understanding of his will for creation." (86)  "At the same time, immigrants are recognized as being particularly vulnerable, and God therefore commands the Israelites to take special concern for them." (87)  Our concerns should inform our positions as we consider immigration policy. (88)


"Perhaps the simplest reason that we, as Christians, should care for the immigrant is that she or he is our neighbor--both figuratively and, increasingly, for many Americans, literally." (91)


6. Concerns about Immigration

"We should likewise be concerned about all those in need of work, whether born in the United States or born elsewhere.  Our responsibility does not stop at our national boundary." (95)


Corporations complain about the need for laborers.  Without immigrants many of our jobs will move to another state or country.  (96)


One concern is that we may be admitting terrorists.  It is certainly within the rights of a country to keep out those who would do them harm.  However, most immigrants are not terrorists and criminals.  A wise response is to carefully monitor the criminal records of those admitted.


"If there were a reasonable legal procedure that immigrants could follow to enter the country, most…would not risk their lives to enter illegally through a desert.  Border enforcement agents could them monitor more effectively.  "As long as the pull of employment in the United States matches the push of economic hardship in other countries, migration will not stop…."  (98) 


Some are concerned about pollution of our culture, the increasing prevalence of other languages, and the change in cultural and ethnic makeup of the U.S.  The New Testament does not support barriers based on ethnicity or culture.  God does not show favoritism.  (100)


"The issue of immigration confronts our deepest fears of who we are and who we should be.  As Christians, we can choose to respond in fear, or we can choose to embrace our identity in Christ and allow our citizenship in heaven (Eph 2:18-20,22) to affect how we view and treat others." (101)


We must ask not only what the law requires and whether it is being followed but also whether the law is just. (109)  Where not, it is appropriate to push for change.


"Stronger border security measures, however, are not inconsistent with a more generous immigration policy; they in fact reinforce one another."  Enforcement officials can better focus on intercepting those who intend us harm. (110)  The authors insist that more generous immigration policies should be pursued.  Laws should be changed so that many of those who today come illegally would be able to enter legally.  (111)  For many undocumented immigrants there is no restorative measure available.  (112) 


"Justice is not just a temporary alleviation of difficult circumstances, but it requires both a deliverance from the unjust situation at hand and a change in the structures that perpetuate injustice." (113) 


7.  The Value of Immigration to the United States

There are competing stories.  The immigrant who earns more than he could at home benefits.  The employer benefits by paying lower wages than Americans earn.  The consumer benefits when he buys the product.  On the other hand, jobs done by Americans may be done by Mexicans who bring their language and culture and attend the public schools.  (116)  Economic concerns are the most common. 


Over our history the long-term economic impact of immigration has been generally positive.  Additional laborers may be needed as industries grow, retirees increase, and native workers become more educated. 


The authors argue that the net benefit is positive: immigrants put more into the economic system through taxes than they take out in services.  (120)  Without low cost labor more operations will move out of the country.  And their presence creates new markets and new customers.  Even within professions, immigrants provide new business opportunities, as for example, through ethnic restaurants.  Further the entrepreneurial spirit and hard work ethic often creates new businesses and companies.  Google was founded by an immigrant.  In 2000, 17 % of science and engineering workers with bachelor's degrees, 29% with masters degrees and 38% with doctoral degrees were foreign born.  "The contributions of immigrants to the advancement of science and technology in the United State are unmistakable." (127)


The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates 192 million migrants in the world, or about 3% of the world's population.  An increasing number are concentrating in the more developed regions.  (131)  About 12.5% of U.S. population is foreign born. (132)  About 56% of undocumented and 31% of total foreign-born population are from Mexico.  (132)  Some of these are displaced farmers who cannot compete with subsidized U.S. farm products sold without tariffs after NAFTA. 


"Immigrants add to the diversity of the United States, and God works within cultural differences to bring people to understand who he is." (133)  "Immigrants embody the ideals that have made this country great and remind us that the American dream can still be reached." (135)


While there ought to be reasonable limitations on who is allowed to enter, the economic needs of our country and the guidelines of our faith lead us to a more generous, welcoming immigration policy. (137)


8. The Politics and Policies of Immigration Reform

"Immigration is not simply a border security problem but a systemic problem that needs to be tackled holistically to be effectively resolved." (144)  "To erect a wall…would send the wrong message to our neighbors….  A wall would funnel money toward a nineteenth-century solution to a twenty-first-century problem." (145)


Family reunification should continue to be at the core of the U.S. immigration system. (155)  Families are the cornerstone and a fundamental value of our society. 


9.  The Church and Immigration Today

"Welcoming the stranger has unlocked a historic ministry opportunity for the church."  "Ministry to immigrants is a key part of many church ministries and a missional aspect of how they interpret the gospel." (160)  In giving, we also receive, and are ourselves transformed through that relationship.  (161) 

Immigrants themselves are forming their own churches to minister to others in their communities. (164)  The fastest growing evangelical churches are independent immigrant churches (165, according to Todd Johnson) 


"Churches often try their best to integrate immigrants but realize that those here without legal status are stuck in a system where, under current law, no process of restitution exists to let them admit their wrong and become fully restored members of their communities.  Churches instead can offer spiritual and moral support to immigrant individuals and families to help them feel welcome in society." (166)


"While many evangelical leaders have spoken up--serving as a prophetic, biblical voice on the issue--they sometimes face strong opposition from ordinary, church-going evangelicals, and this clash has made other leaders wary to take a stronger stand in this debate." (173-74)  "Ultimately, the church must be the place of reconciliation in a broken world." (174)


10.  A Christian Response to the Immigration Dilemma

The authors list prayer, volunteering, financially supporting ministries that serve, educating others, and advocating.  Beyond that Christians can address poverty, unemployment, conflict and environmental degradation in other parts of the world because immigration is often the consequence of difficult and sometimes unlivable conditions elsewhere. (176, 184) 


"Above all, we believe Scripture makes clear that immigrants are to be specifically included in the call to love our neighbors as ourselves.  This love must be personal, and that means getting to know our immigrant neighbors." (186) 


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