How do the recent bipartisan immigration proposals coming out of Washington, D.C., line up with a biblical approach to immigration reform? There is good reason for Christians to be cautiously hopeful.
On Jan. 28, a group of eight Republican and Democrat senators unveiled their bipartisan agreement to shape the next steps of immigration reform. They called for a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented residents of the United States. Under the proposal, citizenship is contingent on a series of regulations related to employment and background checks of the residents, and it is also contingent on border enforcement.
The next day, President Barack Obama hailed this bipartisan movement as consistent with his own immigration proposal from 2011 and praised the senators for their efforts to find a solution to a national challenge. Though the president’s preference is to untie a path to citizenship from border control, he stands behind the senators’ agreement. A bipartisan group from the House of Representatives is expected to release its own immigration reform proposal in the next two weeks before Obama’s State of the Union address. This proposal is likely to parallel the senators’ proposal in most ways.
Two years ago evangelical Christian leaders on the left and right gathered to shape their own call for bipartisan immigration reform. After much discussion they came to agreement on six principles that they said all Christians should be able to support. In their view, a biblical understanding of immigration reform:
•respects the God-given dignity of every person,
•protects the unity of the immediate family,
•respects the rule of law,
•guarantees secure national borders,
•ensures fairness to taxpayers, and
•establishes a path toward legal status and/or citizenship for those who qualify and who wish to become permanent residents.
It is helpful to hold up the Senate agreement to these principles. On the face of it the proposed reforms track well with these principles. Border patrol and a path toward legal status are two of the most well-developed elements of the senators’ plan. Fairness to taxpayers is built into the plan because undocumented residents will be paying any owed back taxes and will be limited in their eligibility for government benefits. Furthermore, with respect to acknowledging the God-given dignity of others, we have made a big step in that the tone of the discussion has changed for the better. Referring to people as undocumented rather than illegal makes a difference. The way we talk about each other matters because it sets a framework for the policy that follows.
Still, there are some significant issues to which people of faith must continue to be attentive. Several pieces of the plan seem to be weighted toward benefiting the United States rather than doing justice to our brothers and sisters who struggle in other parts of the world.
Visas are going to be expanded for immigrants with science and technology skills and restrictions will be lifted for those who meet our agricultural needs. On the one hand, this makes sense. Lift restrictions where we have needs. But if we are relying on cheap labor to keep our food prices down, we have to challenge ourselves to consider what justice and dignity mean to the 500,000 immigrant children who work on our farms.
We must also be more attentive to the elements rule of law and protecting the family. At the moment, the United States uses a penal detention system that is expensive and broken. Last year alone we detained 400,000 immigrants in centers that were overcrowded and lacked sufficient health-care attention. Some centers were so bad that they violated both U.S. and international law. Families have suffered from our detention policies. Because we have deportation as our focus, parents often lose the ability to arrange for custody or care of the children they are separated from.
This is the first major bipartisan immigration reform movement we have seen in almost 20 years. Christians should applaud the effort that our representatives are engaged in. We have made an important first step. However, the devil is always in the details. We must remain watchful as policy continues to develop.
—Julia K. Stronks has practiced law and is the Edward B. Lindaman Chair and Professor of Political Science at Whitworth University.