Matthew Soerens, World Relief Immigration Counselor

The Issue

World Relief’s mission is to empower the local church to serve the most vulnerable.

Here in suburban Chicagoland, we – and many of our church partners – have found that a good number of immigrants fall into that category of “most vulnerable.”  Refugees and other immigrants face many unique challenges: language confusion, cultural barriers, the haunting memories of the circumstances that led them away from their country of origin, and very often separation from family members left behind.

There is much that we as God’s people, working together through local churches, can offer to these newcomers by meeting physical needs and reflecting Christ’s love. 

While there is much that we do on a personal level, we also often encounter structural problems that inhibit our new friends from integrating and flourishing in their new countries, and we believe that we have a responsibility in these circumstances to advocate for changes to laws.

As an immigration counselor at World Relief, I hear stories nearly every day of families who have been separated by what I have come to believe is a broken immigration legal system.  Immigrants who have received their green cards usually wait more than five years to be allowed to bring minor children or spouses to the United States, a desperately long time to wait for a family.  The wait times for other family relationships can be even longer – up to eighteen years for adult children of US citizens and twenty-two years for siblings of US citizens.

Others have entered the country or overstayed a temporary visa unlawfully.  While we do not condone their unlawful action, it is easy to understand why so many feel forced to make that decision, given the economic desperation from which most of these immigrants came, and the unavailability of visas for them to have entered lawfully. 

Our legal system is tragically broken. Our economy, even in the current downturn, relies heavily on foreign-born workers, particularly for “low-skilled” jobs like agriculture, construction, and hospitality industries, but we have not created adequate legal mechanisms for individuals to enter to fill these jobs.

As a result, individuals enter unlawfully or overstay a visa not intended for a permanent stay, and then live their lives in the United States in the shadows, working hard but always afraid of apprehension and deportation.  The issue becomes further complicated by the fact that so many of those without status in the United States have U.S. citizen children or spouses, so their deportation means dividing a family and, sometimes, leaving the U.S. citizen family members dependent upon public aid and charity.  

So What Do We Do?

The question of what to do with these individuals who have broken the law is one that World Relief has wrestled with over the years.  While there is a great deal of rhetoric on all sides of the debate, we believe our call as Christ-followers is to consider this complex issue through the lens of the Bible.  Scripture guides us repeatedly: God loves and looks out for immigrants, along with other vulnerable groups like orphans and widows, and He commands us to welcome immigrants, treat them justly, and love them as ourselves (Lev 19:33-34, Deut 10:18, Deut 24:14-15, Ps 146:9, Ezek 22:7, Mal 3:5, Mt 22:35-40). 

But, of course, scripture also tells us to submit to the governing authorities, which God has established for us (Romans 13:1-4).  That tension is further complicated by the reality that many of these undocumented immigrants are our brothers and sisters – members of our communities and churches – and as we hear their stories, it becomes increasingly more difficult to dismiss them as “aliens.”  They are human beings made in God’s image, with families and faith, just like us.  Biblically, we are inter-dependent parts of one body (1 Corinthians 12:26).  

Our nation desperately needs a comprehensive reform of our immigration laws. 

To be Effective, Reform Must Concurrently Do 4 Basic Things:

  1. Secure the border and create enforceable employment authorization documents so that it becomes much more difficult to enter or work unlawfully in the United States. This eliminates the incentive to migrate.
  2. Create lawful mechanisms for legal entry that match the supply of work in the United States, both for high-skilled and low-skilled jobs.  No one would choose to make a dangerous illegal entry across a desert if they had the option of undergoing a background check, paying a reasonable visa fee, and entering through the front door. Although the news we hear says differently, a relatively small number fear background checks or attempt to smuggle in contraband. Most are well-meaning workers looking to support their families.
  3. Increase the number of visas available for family reunification so that the backlogs in the current system are significantly reduced and families can “live together in unity” (Ps 133:1)
  4. Create the possibility for those currently here unlawfully to pay a reasonable fine, register with the government, pay any back taxes owed, and get on a path to citizenship and integration (presuming they can clear a criminal background check).  By creating a mechanism for undocumented immigrants to pay a consequence but not resorting to the harsh response of deportation, we can uphold the biblical value of reconciliation. 

World Relief has been advocating for reform based on these principles for several years, and many of the evangelical churches, denominations, and leaders whom we work with have come to the same conclusion. 

Our parent organization, the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents most major evangelical denominations in the United States, passed a resolution in October 2009 calling for Comprehensive Immigration Reform that meets these principles.  

Naturally, with an issue as complex and controversial as immigration, there will be some degree of disagreement.  We find that much of the initial disagreement is moderated when people understand the issue better, sorting through the rhetoric that those on both side of the debate tend to use. 

World Relief Resource

As a tool for education, Jenny Hwang, World Relief’s Policy & Advocacy Director, and I have co-written a book, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009).

We hope it’s a helpful tool for many believers struggling with this complicated issue. All of the authors’ proceeds go back to the work of World Relief.  

Upcoming Events

  1. Missions on Your Doorstep Annual Conference provides workshops and discussion on immigration
  2. February 22, 2010 – World Relief and Community Christian Church in Naperville are partnering together for an immigration educational event. Stayed tuned for more details!

Advocacy: Get Involved!

World Relief is actively advocating with our legislators, asking them to support compassionate and sensible solutions to our nation’s immigration problems.  A simple call to a Member of Congress from a constituent in their district can really make a big difference, especially when there are many calls coming in! 

  • Click here to learn how to add your voice to this cause and to learn who your U.S. Representative is!
  • Email to be added to our monthly advocacy update
  • Text the word “Justice” to 69866 to get occasional text message updates about immigration reform advocacy.  

What Next?

Most likely, immigration reform proposals will be introduced in the Congress within the next month or two, and probably voted up or down before the end of April.  When those debates take place, please lend your voice to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves” (Pr 31:8) and to join World Relief in asking our legislators to support Comprehensive Immigration Reform.

Most of all, we would ask you to pray.

  • For legislators, who need wisdom and courage as they re-work our laws
  • For churches and their congregations as they struggle with this complex issue
  • For the immigrants in our community, that God would meet their needs and that they would know His love and protection