The Church and the Reality of the Immigration Crisis for the Strangers Who Come to US

I previously wrote about how the current immigration crisis in the US involves the Church on both sides of the border. Here, I will share the experience of John Garland, a San Antonio, TX pastor who juggles cooperation with the government authorities and Christ’s call to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, and minister to those in need.

From Garland’s perspective, the Church (capital C””) is at the center of the immigration crisis. The Church is involved on both sides of the border, as most of the people attempting to enter the US are Christians. Meanwhile, the Church on this side of the border is torn about how to respond.

In the previous article, I discuss the three issues that characterize the public focus on immigration, and I address each of those narratives from a biblical, Christian perspective. In this article, I want to put a human face on the immigration crisis, as told by Garland, and invite the Church on this side of the border to wrestle with the immigration crisis from a biblical position.

Matt Soerens, who works with World Relief, reports that only twelve percent (12%) of evangelicals polled by World Relief have developed a view on immigration that is informed by Scripture. That figure is not speculation. It is the self-assessment of evangelicals who were polled on the subject.

For people of the Word of God, this is disheartening news. It suggests most that most Evangelical Christians’ views on immigration are shaped by the news media and politics, not by Scripture.

For this reason, I believe that Evangelicals have a critical need to ground their views on immigration in God’s Word, as Paul urges:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

In my previous article, I provided some quick Scriptural responses to the three concerns that characterize the public narratives (focusing on the law, lack of resources and resistance to change). I have already written extensively on immigration through a Scriptural lens, therefore, I am not going to try to restate or expand much on what I have already written.

Rather, I want to implore the church from the heart as I filter the immigration crisis through the eyes of John Garland on the front lines. I want to dig deeper into the Christian principle of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s without failing to render unto God what is God’s.

I want to parse out what it means to give our priority attention to the weightier matters of the law, unlike the Pharisees who tithed their dill, comin and mint, but neglected to do justice and love mercy.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

This is the word of God through the prophet Micah (Micah 6:8)

Being situated in San Antonio, John Garland has experience with people who cross the border seeking asylum. He also has experience with people crossing the border surreptitiously in remote places. He has experience with human and drug traffickers and their victims. He is intimately familiar with all aspects of the immigration crisis.

Garland acknowledges that the people seeking to cross the border fall into a spectrum. On one side are people trafficking people and drugs. Fortunately, they are few, says Garland, but they are “truly horrifying people”. They do not flinch at threatening harm to children and carrying out those threats to get what they want.

Garland is quick to acknowledge that we should do everything in our power to stop human and drug traffickers. They are the worst of the worst people in the immigration crisis.

On the far other end of the spectrum are refugees. They are people recognized, given support, and welcomed by the government. The other side of the spectrum also includes people with green cards and people granted citizenship.

The real immigration crisis includes all the people in the middle.

In the middle are the people who are trafficked. In the middle are the people who are refugee but do not qualify for asylum. In the middle of the spectrum, people fall on both sides of the law (legal and illegal).

The law changes like the front lines of a war as political powers shift the rules back and forth using executive power. In this shifting landscape, Garland says the playing field is tilted against the players:

“The immigration spectrum is on a slant. It’s really easy for people to slide down to the other side of the law, and it’s really, really difficult for them to progress up the spectrum to being here legally.”

I spoke recently with a young woman whose parents were living on the US side of the border before 9/11. As the US tightened up and closed its borders, they were caught in an impossible situation with a newborn (the woman who spoke to me) and nothing to return to. They stayed, hoping for some relief.

She grew up as an undocumented child, and it shaped her life. She was always afraid of being discovered. She learned to be a model person in every way so she wouldn’t call negative attention to herself.

She knew from an early age that she would never qualify for student aid or other governmental help. She knew that her success depended solely on her own efforts. She graduated high school in three years at the top of her class. She graduated college in three years at the top of her class. She is now in law school.

Her parents are also “model citizens”. Her father owns several businesses. He is a community leader and a mentor. He pays taxes, pays taxes for his employees, and pays into the Social Security system, but he will never benefit, or be eligible to benefit, from any of the payments he makes.

The young woman I spoke to is a “Dreamer”. The DACA program would her to remain here because she was born here, but DACA is currently no longer in effect. President Trump terminated it. His action was temporarily suspended, but the Supreme Court eventually upheld his executive order.

This young woman is an exceptional person. I met her when she volunteered at a legal aid clinic I run. She dreams of helping people, but she is “illegal” once again.

John Garland underscores a major issue in the current immigration crisis: once a person is on the wrong side of the line, there is no law available to them to allow them to cross over to the lawful side. The only remedy is deportation, and “illegals” are ineligible for lawful reentry. Period.

The young woman I spoke with was born in a foreign land, but her parents brought her to the US as a newborn. She has known nothing other than her life in the US. She has no family, no friends, no connections, and no knowledge of life in the country of her origin. Everything she has ever known is here.

As for asylum seekers, they are a different category. People can legally cross the border to ask for asylum. They are given papers that say it is legal for them to be here while they ask for asylum, but there are many restrictions.

People seeking asylum cannot rent; they cannot drive; they cannot open a bank account; they cannot work legally. “[Asylum seekers] cannot do anything but be here”, says Garland, while they work through the process. According to Garland, who works with asylum seekers,

“[these rules] puts single women in horrifically vulnerable places and children and families in really difficult places.”

Asylum seekers can remain in the US legally, “but they are in this strange gray zone. They have no support. No one is given support to help them.” Churches, other organizations, or and people who provide help are given no reimbursement and have no incentive to help them at all.

To the contrary, Garland says there are many barriers added on. Some people are required to wear GPS monitors for their ankles. They are required to check in with ICE periodically. They are threatened with deportation if they do anything wrong.

Though Garland didn’t say it, his description of the treatment of asylum seekers is equivalent to the way we treat people who are criminals. But they are NOT criminals. The law allows asylum seekers to enter the country and seek asylum.

In addition to that, qualifying as an asylum seeker is difficult. Anyone can ask for asylum, but not everyone is granted asylum status. Asylum seekers must pass a three-hour interview with an ICE officer who will determine whether she has a credible fear of returning to her country. The percentage of people who are deemed credible and granted asylum is very low.

An asylum seeker must convince an ICE interviewer that she will die if she is required to return to her home country. If an asylum seeker is not convincing enough, she is deported immediately, on the spot.

Even if the asylum seeker convinces the interviewer that her fear is credible, she still must prove it with sufficient evidence to obtain asylum status, and she must do it as a first time entrant into a foreign country, in a foreign and unfamiliar system, navigating foreign laws in a foreign tongue with no help, no support and no assistance provided.

A typical asylum seeker, basically, rolls the dice with an interview. They don’t know the law. They don’t know the language. The person who might be their ticket to freedom may just as likely (or more likely) be their deportation sentence.

Many people who should be granted asylum are unable to navigate the gauntlet successfully. Garland says there is an appeal process, but it is all but inaccessible:

“You have to have a minimum of $5000 to pay a lawyer and seven months to argue the legal case while you are legally not allowed to work, or rent, or any of [the other] things.”

Most people who are part of the immigration crisis in the US, however, are not on the extreme ends of the spectrum. They are people in the middle, like the young woman I know. 

There are millions of people in the US without documents. They are on the wrong side of the law, Garland says, “But they are doing everything they possibly can to follow the law.” They pay car insurance. They follow the speed limit. They pay rent. They pay taxes. They keep their heads down and try to stay out of trouble so as not to call attention to themselves.

Garland observes, just as the young woman told me, that undocumented people are not benefitting in the many ways citizens benefit from being in the US. To the contrary, they endure many unique burdens, not the least of which is the constant and unrelenting fear of deportation that could be triggered at any time.

Many people I know have the false understanding that undocumented people in the US are eligible for all the government benefits that citizens enjoy, but that is not at all the case. There may be some exceptions (like DACA), but they are few.

That fear of being found out motivates most undocumented people to keep their heads down and their noses clean. The last thing they want is to call attention to themselves. For this reason, they are especially vulnerable.

Undocumented people in the US are often preyed on by criminals. Many undocumented people are afraid to report a crime when they are victims because of the fear of being found out. Undocumented people are also susceptible to being taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers, landlords, pay day loan sharks and others for the same reason.

Many of them simply give up, often abandoning spouses and children, and go back to where they came from. I have counseled many women whose husbands left because they could not handle the indignities, the offenses against them, the perpetual poverty and fear of discovery.

The women often stay, however, because they know their children will have a better life than they can ever hope to have. Though their children have many obstacles and difficulties to overcome, they have more hope in the US than they would have in the corrupt communities they left behind that are controlled by gangs, cartels, and traffickers.

The women have it especially bad in the male-dominated, abusive culture that has seeped in to much of Central America. If you are not aware of how bad it is, listen to Gracie Travis-Murphree’s brief talk at the Administer Justice Restore Conference a few years ago. Or better yet, read her book, Journey to Justice: Finding God and Destiny in Darkness.

US immigration law is a daunting labyrinth for asylum seekers. It is unforgiving. The immigration law in this nation proudly touted to be founded on a profession of faith does not welcome strangers. Like the Pharisees who tithed their dill and mint, but neglected the justice and mercy of God (Matt. 23:23) (or justice and God’s love according to Luke 11:42), we have a legal immigration system that neglects the weightier matters of the law.

I will leave you with a story John Garland told of a woman whose son was being forced into gang life. She fled the community that put up with that form of evil. She traveled jungle and desert with her young son. On the way, while trying to catch a train to ease their journey, her son slipped, fell out and was run over by the train.

He lost his leg, but he survived. They made it to the border weary and traumatized, but they had not idea that they were not out of the fire. They were deemed “illegal”. Both mother and son, still recovering from losing his leg, were imprisoned while they awaited their fate at the hands of a merciless immigration system.

Ask yourself: were they criminals? Is this how Jesus would greet them? Can you support an immigration system that metes out justice this way?

We are a religious nation, though that is changing. Many people who now reject religion, do so on the basis of how they see churchgoers acting and talking. That isn’t a good excuse. Though every man be a liar, still God is true! Woe, though, to the people who cause others to stumble!

I know this sounds harsh, but Jesus didn’t mince words on these issues. People I love have mixed feelings on the issue of immigration, but God’s heart and character requires us to do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with Him. (Micah 6:8)

The public narratives play to peoples’ fears, We have modern Pharisees who preach the Law with no grace. Jesus responded to the Pharisees in his day by saying:

“Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13)

To withdraw from sinners is a form of sacrifice that God does not require. God came for the sick, the strangers, the hungry, the destitute and the desperate. Jesus told the disciples to let the children come to Him. I believe He is saying today to the Christians in the United States of America to let the strangers come. If they can’t come to us, who will they go to?

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