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Immigration reform: why the church matters

Truly we are living at a unique moment in history, with unprecedented challenges and opportunities. The nation is faced with economic travails and high unemployment. Its citizens are fatigued by legislative gridlock and broken political promises.

Yet President Obama has promised to tackle immigration reform in 2010, despite a heavy legislative agenda. Conventional wisdom says that immigration reform is too complex and controversial to be successfully addressed in this political environment. Despite the pundits’ grim forecast, there is a glimmer of hope in a growing movement of people of faith who are calling for compassionate and just treatment of immigrants in our midst. It is precisely the active role of Christians, in a broader chorus of faithful voices, that is driving the moral imperative to pass immigration reform legislation this year.

After two failed attempts at reform in the last decade, the nation has been living with the consequences of a broken immigration system. There are currently 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of our society, in fear of deportation and separation from their families and loved ones. Although border security has increased and improved in the last 10 years, the federal government has routinely ignored the entry and existence of unauthorized workers in order to allow the private sector to benefit from their cheap labor. The sign at the border says “Keep Out,” while a sign in the workplace cries out “Help Wanted.”

Allison Johnson

Many within the faith community have been advocating that immigration laws be oriented toward love and care for the stranger in our midst.

Immigrant workers without proper documentation have virtually no way to “become legal,” although many of them long for the opportunity and privilege of citizenship. The fundamental question surrounding the immigration debate this time around is not if we should fix the system, but how we should fix it.

What can the faith community do?

People of faith have an important role to play in this discourse. The faith community, regardless of the personal position of individuals, must remind lawmakers and fellow citizens that the debate is not just simply about law and order, but about who we are as a country and as individuals created in the image of God.

Many within the faith community have been consistently and publicly advocating that immigration laws must be fixed to better reflect the heart of God, which is oriented toward love and care for the stranger in our midst. The Lutheran church has a long history of supporting generous immigration policies and settling immigrants and refugees in the United States.

In November 2009, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America social policy resolution for immigration reform was approved to reflect the increasing challenges immigrants face in a post-9/11 world and the inhumane treatment endured by the most vulnerable. The resolution presents a clear idea of what aspects of immigration reform should be benchmarks for people of faith: prioritizing family unity, protecting the nation’s borders while ensuring human rights, and addressing root causes of migration in countries around the world.

In direct service, advocacy, and relationship, the church in the United States is demonstrating its capacity and commitment not only to help the immigrant, but also to call the immigrant our brother, sister, and friend. The political hot button issue of immigration reform has brought the faith community together in significant ways. Interfaith collaboration was paramount to the immediate and continued response after the Postville, Iowa, immigration raid of May 2008, where hundreds of employees of Agriprocessors, Inc., were arrested, detained, and deported for lack of documentation. Indeed it was the religious institutions of Postville that had the capacity to provide relief after nearly one-third of the town’s population was affected directly by the raid. Churches and church-related agencies fill in the gaps by providing English as a Second Language courses in their buildings, offering worship space for non-English speaking congregations to gather, and resettling refugee families into their communities by providing furniture, employment, and spiritual companionship in a time of transition.

But churches can’t do everything. Many service providers and ministers are calling attention to the broader, systemic injustice of a broken immigration system that does not suit the needs of our communities or our country.

Immigration is shaping and changing our communities and the face of the church. As we head forward into a period of legislative debate on the merits and tactics of immigration reform, let us remember that we are first and foremost talking about people’s lives and that our conversations about this challenging issue must be guided by love and respect. For those of us who define ourselves as followers of Christ, we must remember that our primary citizenship does not belong to the United States, but to the borderless kingdom of God.

Allison Johnson is campaign coordinator of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (www.faithandimmigration.org) and a native Minnesota Lutheran, currently living in Washington, D.C.

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