“God helped us to arrive here safely” said the exhausted Honduran mother of two in the refugee camp, El Barretal, on the outskirts of Tijuana. Many of the families who travelled with the recent Caravans identify as Christians. Yet, a recent survey showed that 57% of white evangelicals perceive immigrants as a threat to American society. Through the lens of scripture, these Central American Christians and U.S. Christians are members of the same Body of Christ – a Body that apparently has an auto-immune disease. Is that necessarily true? What is the actual and potential contribution of the Church to the struggle for immigrant justice and immigration reform?
According to a survey by the Pew Research Center in June of 2007, 63% of Americans (including nearly identical numbers of Republicans, Democrats and independents) believed that undocumented immigrants in this country should have a path to legal citizenship if they pay fines, pass background checks and have jobs. However, the 2007 bipartisan legislation proposed by Senators John McCain and Ted Kennedy which would have accomplished that goal failed to pass Congress. Attempts in the Fall of 2007 to pass the Dream Act (providing legal status for some immigrants brought to this country as minors) also failed in spite of broad public support — still 78% in public surveys as of 2017. Why is Congress so incapable of passing legislation for immigration reform in the face of so much support? The answer is simple; the percentage of calls to legislators for and against do not match the surveys. The vast majority of calls to legislators express negative views about both comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act. The average American may support changes towards an effective, just and humane immigration system but they do not believe that it will affect them personally and as a result; they do not care enough about the issue to call. Immigrant allies do not lack passion; however, they know that they are in the minority and often feel too hopeless to call. On the other hand, the minority of Americans who feel threatened by immigration feel passionately about the issue and call repeatedly.
There are a group of broad-based bipartisan institutions in our society whose mandate is passionate concern for all people; if churches do not show active concern for people beyond their walls, they are not following the Jesus who gave his life for the sinner and the stranger. A minimum of 92 scripture verses call for hospitality to strangers. The Church includes immigrants and non-immigrants who are commanded to see one another as members of the same Body. The Church is also mandated to maintain hope even in hopeless situations. Clearly, the Church could create the exchange of passion and hope needed to provoke and sustain advocacy.
When the Church has followed this mandate and taken this role, it has resulted in increased and strengthened advocacy. The Evangelical Immigration Table (the broadest coalition of Evangelicals for a social justice issue since abolition) began in 2011. In June of 2012, the Evangelical Immigration Table went public, holding a press conference in the Rayburn building of the Senate. Two days later, after Dreamers had organized sit-ins at Congressional Offices, President Obama signed an Executive Order declaring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). In a call from the White House to Evangelical Immigration Table leaders, the President affirmed that the role of the EIT was essential in providing bipartisan support for his decision.
Bibles, Badges and Business for Immigration Reform, incorporating EIT members in a coalition of conservative church leaders, law enforcement and business leadership, was created at the beginning of 2013. In 2013, the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration reform bill (crafted by the “Gang of 8”, four democrats and four republicans.) However, even though advocates counted enough potential “yes” votes to pass the bill in the House, the Speaker of the House decided not to bring it to the floor for a vote and it failed.
Since the advent of Donald Trump, support for immigration reform among evangelicals has dropped significantly. The Church is not immune from the social trends that impact the rest of the country. However, ecumenical movements supporting immigration still have real power to change hearts and minds, particularly when they build bridges between immigrant and non-immigrant believers. Matthew 25/Mateo 25 began in December of 2016 as a bipartisan Christian network to protect and defend the vulnerable in the name and Spirit of Jesus. Matthew 25 builds intentional partnership between primarily immigrant and non-immigrant congregations, educating, accompanying immigrant families facing detention/deportation and advocating for just legislation. Matthew 25/Mateo 25 is building a model in Southern California and is beginning to spread across the country. Efforts by Christians were instrumental in stopping the administration from continuing to separate children from parents at the US/Mexico border.
The wave of anti-immigrant hostility is huge and dark. Regardless, Christian faith calls us to believe that a light shines in the darkness which cannot be overcome. Faith also calls us to shine that light as effectively as possible. We are called to be the Body of Christ, across borders and boundaries. Thankfully, there are Christians across a broad spectrum of differences responding to that call.
 “Mixed Views on Immigration Bill”, Pew Research Center, June 7, 2007. http://www.people-press.org/2007/06/07/mixed-views-on-immigration-bill/. Multiple polls since then have consistently reflected that a majority of those polled support that position, with recent polls coming in at 78% to 90% depending on the wording of the question.