Our current immigration system is broken beyond repair, and we desperately need comprehensive reform at the federal level.
Like millions of others, this is not an abstract issue for me. My mother is an immigrant and only recently became a naturalized citizen after a long and complicated process. I’m now blessed to live as part of an intentional community in an immigrant and refugee neighborhood outside of Chicago. Our neighbors—many whom have become like family—come from all around the world and have overcome great adversity to be here, whether legally or not.
Currently, around 11 million people live in the shadows without legal status in the United States. Being undocumented means living in a constant state of fear and being vulnerable to abuse and exploitation (as without legal status, they have few rights or options here, whether at work or at home). There are numerous stories I could share here, but the bottom line is this: A lot of good people—both citizens and immigrants—are struggling because of the broken status quo, and pressure has reached the boiling point, especially in border states, such as Arizona and California.
This problem won’t be easy to fix, but it’s certainly possible.
Comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) needs to strike the right balance between upholding our laws while protecting the rights of our immigrant neighbors. Good reform will include three basic tenets:
- More focused and consistent immigration enforcement, through improved border security and making it harder to forge social security cards and numbers.
- A modernized visa system that meets the changing job demands of our market economy and makes it easier to immigrate legally.
- A path to legal status for undocumented immigrants who are already here and have been contributing to the well-being of our communities and economy. We can’t keep 11 million people living in the shadows, and it would be both morally wrong and financially unfeasible to try to deport everyone.
CIR has been a politically toxic subject for years now. But in less than a month, it’s skyrocketed from a third-rail issue to a bipartisan priority. President Obama and congressional leaders from both political parties have indicated that Washington may begin working out the details of an immigration reform proposal soon after the presidential inauguration in January.
This good news is long overdue.
The most significant reason for this remarkable shift was the result of the 2012 presidential election. Governor Mitt Romney, who endorsed a policy of “self-deportation” in the Republican primary campaign and hailed Arizona’s controversial approach to immigration as “a model” for the nation, received a mere 27 percent of the Latino vote. In some swing states, such as Colorado and Nevada, he fared even poorer, earning 10 percent and 17 percent of the vote respectively.
In contrast, former President George W. Bush, who attempted valiantly but unsuccessfully to pass comprehensive immigration reform in his second term, earned a full 44 percent of the Latino vote nationally. Asian voters—once a reliably Republican constituency—voted for Romney at an even lower rate than Latinos. According to a survey conducted by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, more than 80 percent of Asian voters said the candidates’ positions on immigration influenced their vote.
Faced with the stark reality that the above voting demographics are growing, many Republicans are finally realizing they desperately need to “evolve” on immigration or risk going the way of the Whigs.
However, this isn’t just a special-interest issue for minorities. It’s also a moral concern and a justice issue for all Americans. We are, after all, a nation of immigrants. As such, traditionally conservative faith leaders, along with business leaders and law enforcement, have been playing a significant role in pressuring politicians to do the right thing and support CIR. To date, more than 150 prominent evangelical leaders have endorsed the Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform. Signatories to that statement include Sojourners president Jim Wallis, Wheaton College president Phil Ryken, Focus on the Family president Jim Daly, prominent Southern Baptist Convention spokesperson Richard Land and many other leaders from across the political spectrum.
Younger people are another passionate constituency propelling the push for CIR forward. Polls have consistently found that those of us between the ages of 18 and 29 are very supportive of allowing undocumented immigrants to earn American citizenship. The age cohort most opposed to this is the 65-and-older crowd. Millennials are also more likely than those of older generations to personally know undocumented immigrants, and these relationships are decisive in shaping our views.
At the intersection of these two key supportive constituencies—evangelical Christians and young people—is a growing movement that is actively organizing and advocating for comprehensive reform that is consistent with biblical values of justice, compassion and hospitality. The G92 movement—which takes its name from the 92 references to the Hebrew word “ger” (the immigrant) in the Old Testament—began at Cedarville University in Ohio in October 2011, where more than 1,000 students from across the country gathered to look at immigration from a distinctly biblical perspective. Subsequent conferences have been hosted at Samford University in Alabama and Concordia University in Oregon, with more events planned for the coming months.
Beyond simply becoming aware, young Christians are also taking action to challenge their peers and their legislators to think more biblically about both immigrants and immigration policies. Many of us are mobilizing to meet tangible needs in immigrant communities, helping to teach English and much more. Young evangelicals are also lobbying our elected officials: writing letters, making telephone calls and visiting their offices in person.
It still remains to be seen whether immigration reform will happen in 2013. Despite numerous promises, politics can be fickle, and the apparent broad interest in reform could dissipate once Congress begins to debate the actual details. If “the devil is in the details,” though, the Church in particular should remain committed to praying for and advocating before our political leaders, that they may find the courage to do the right thing. We young Christians are well positioned to help lead that charge.
*Thanks to my good friend and neighbor Matthew Soerens, coauthor of Welcoming the Stranger (IVP, 2009), for help with this article.
Ben Lowe is on staff with the Evangelical Environmental Network and also serves as the National Spokesperson of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. A dedicated activist and organizer, Ben was born and raised a missionary kid in Southeast Asia, where he experienced firsthand the impacts of poverty and pollution. He now lives in a refugee and immigrant neighborhood in the Chicagoland area where he ran for U.S. Congress in 2010. Ben is the author of Green Revolution: Coming Together to Care for Creation (IVP 2009) and previously served as National Coordinator for the student creation care network, Renewal.