Throughout college, the extent of my interaction with immigrants came from my job as a waitress. I enjoyed the company of our mostly Hispanic cooks and busboys, and when I heard that some of them were illegal immigrants, I thought my employer was generously giving them a chance. Then a family was deported, and that was the end of it.

Since graduating from college I have gotten a much different taste of immigration in the US. In my work with World Relief, I interact regularly with immigrant clients, so the current debate on immigration reform is one that I have followed closely, recognizing it as something that could drastically change the face of our nation and affect thousands of families within the US.

So far, the debate in Congress has focused on rhetoric rather than resolution. The discussion is between a focus on punitive immigration reform, which emphasizes tightened border security, retribution and deportation of those who have illegally entered the US, and limited immigration and comprehensive immigration reform which emphasizes strengthened border security, a path to legalization for responsible members of society who have entered illegally in the past and a guest worker program for future immigrants in jobs that citizens cannot or will not fill.

The House has applied more punitive immigration reform to protect our borders, federal budget and jobs from illegal immigrants. It desires to crack down on illegal immigrants within the US, making them—and whoever helps them—felons to prevent further illegal immigration.

However, this reform fails to recognize the illegal immigrants who are making a positive contribution to society. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which focuses on comprehensive immigration reform, has proposed a reasonable process of working toward citizenship, one that literally allows immigrants to “pay their debt to society” by working and paying back-taxes. The process is not an easy one, and it eliminates “drags” on society by carefully screening criminal records and job history. Immigrants who may have a negative impact on our country will not have an opportunity to pursue citizenship.

I think there is a skewed perspective that illegal immigrants have a more negative impact upon our nation than they actually do. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, the federal net cost of illegal immigration is figured to be about $10 billion per year. Let me offer a little bit of perspective: This year the White House requested 72 billion dollars for the Iraq war—costing tax payers, legal and illegal populations alike, nearly double the amount of taxes generated by illegal immigration. Those very tax payers include more than half of the undocumented immigrant population.

Contrary to common belief, the main reason illegal immigrants create a fiscal deficit is not due to legal status or use of social services. Rather, it is their low education levels, which result in low incomes and low tax payments.

In general, receipt of cash assistance programs and Medicaid by illegal immigrants tends to be very low compared with other US households. Only the use of food assistance programs is significantly higher than that of the rest of the population.

Increasing border control to stem the amount of undocumented immigration is a positive aspect of immigration reform, but cannot be our only resource. There will always be ways to sneak over walls or through fences, and although increased border protection may decrease this, it will not completely end it. The amount of funds required to close our borders would be unreasonable.

Deportation is also not an economically feasible option. It requires money for tracking, apprehending and sending home over 11,000,000 illegal immigrants. It also opens up a whole new issue of dealing with all of those little US citizens in limbo with their fugitive parents.

The reasons Mexicans, Haitians and our other neighbors are coming to America are to taste freedom from oppression, freedom from poverty and to have opportunities for their children. I am amazed by the refugee and immigrant parents that I have worked with. While they will most likely never realize their dreams in this land of opportunity, they persist with the hope that their children will have the life that they could not provide in their home country—and many of them do! Those same families are being torn apart by our current legislation which, due to backlog, can prevent family reunification for as long as 20 years.

Plans to build a 700 mile wall along our southern border are not only an unnecessary expense, but send a damaging message to our neighbors in Mexico and to the rest of the world. If we can’t get along with our next door neighbors, what are the implications? If we cut basic rights from immigrants, we dehumanize them. And by dehumanizing one group, we come one step closer to dehumanizing other groups as well.

Jesse Jackson has made a great point in this debate—if we want to calm the flow of immigration into our country, the answer is to pour resources into the development and aid of those countries, offering hope and a reason to stay home. There will always be shovels to dig under our fences, or trucks to sneak people through. The way to secure our borders is to secure the countries around us first.

Christians have been torn on this issue, as key leaders in the Roman Catholic Church and evangelical organizations such as World Relief have taken a stand for comprehensive immigration reform that emphasizes basic rights for immigrants everywhere and support a responsible guest worker program, reforms in the family-based immigration system to reduce waiting times for separated families, earned citizenship for individuals already living and contributing in the US and humanitarian border protection policies. Meanwhile, the evangelical speaker of the house, Dennis Hastert, represents the perspective of many other Christians by strongly backing border control and protection, and the elimination of illegal immigrants, both current and future.

It is important that we explore God’s word on this matter and consider Jesus’ words: “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me” (Matthew 25:40). In our society today, it is the immigrant population, both legal and illegal, that falls into this category. We are called to love our neighbors, and providing basic civil and humanitarian rights to the aliens within our borders is one practical way to do that. I go to work every day to fulfill God’s command, which says, “[t]he alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34). As believers, we are responsible to represent Christ’s love, which will happen not by closing our borders and hiding from the world, but by extending compassion to all members of our global community.