“Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right” (Isaiah 10:1–2).
The U.S. immigration system is complex and dysfunctional. There are more than 185 types of visas, each with unique regulations, restrictions, burdens of proof, mathematical formulas, and application procedures and requirements.
The most commonly known visas are employment-based, family-sponsored and those for refugees, asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking and others fleeing persecution.
For individuals trying to immigrate to the United States, the system is difficult, expensive and extremely slow.
Even after figuring out which of the 185 visas apply to one’s particular situation, individuals must pay application fees, submit data related to their financial status or personal lives, and wait sometimes decades for their paperwork to be processed.
While living in Arizona, I heard many heartbreaking stories of family separation. One man in particular recounted how he had spent his life’s savings to apply for his family to immigrate to the United States.
His wife had managed to be one of the few to receive an employment-based visa to work for a hotel chain, and she had been trying to sponsor her husband and two daughters for more than three years.
He shared with me how – desperate for his family to be together and his daughters to have a better life – he had trekked through the desert for nine days.
He looked into my eyes and asked, “If you hadn’t seen your family in more than three years, what would you do?”
The immigration system today is so outdated and slow that it encourages undocumented immigration to bring families together.
This man’s question prompts all of us, as people of faith in particular, to address the brokenness of the U.S. immigration system and advocate for change.
The Myth of the “Line”
The question “Why don’t ‘illegals’ just get in line?” provides an opportunity to educate our communities that there is no line for those without legal status.
Under current law, there is no mechanism for undocumented immigrants to apply for legal status while in the United States, and if they leave they will automatically be barred from returning for three or 10 years.
This is in addition to backlogs as long as 23 years for family-based visas and nine years for employment-based visas.
Our current immigration laws leave hard-working members of our communities in fear of deportation, exploitation and separation from their families, simply because they lack the proper paperwork and have no way out.
It certainly doesn’t fit within the world of justice, mercy and redemption God calls us to seek and build.
That’s why we need immigration reform, and why people of faith are called to work diligently to make that reform a reality.
What is Immigration Reform?
More than 554 national faith-based organizations, local congregations and religious leaders across the United States have come together to answer that question in the InterfaithPlatformonHumaneImmigrationReform.
The platform calls for practical, moral and productive reform that will unite families, create a legal status process for the undocumented, protect workers’ rights, facilitate integration, restore due process protections, change detention policies and ensure humane enforcement of immigration laws.
The practical and moral response to the exploitation of 10.8 million undocumented immigrants is to create a clear process for obtaining lawful permanent residency and eventual citizenship.
The same response to millions of separated families is to increase family-based visas.
These reforms would also be economically productive for the United States – contributing more than $1.5 trillion to the Gross Domestic Product over 10 years, according to an article at the Center for American Progress website.
In contrast, programs that place undue hardship on immigrants and make legal status virtually impossible are counterproductive to inclusion, economic growth and the building of God’s Kingdom.
Barriers to Progress
There have been many recent comprehensive immigration reform bills, including the 2006 and 2011 Comprehensive Immigration Reform Acts and the 2009 Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act.
Each of the recent bills includes legal status for the undocumented, visa reforms and increased border and interior enforcement.
Most also include smaller pieces of legislation, such as AgJOBS, for agricultural workers; the DREAM Act, to give undocumented youth opportunities for legal status and higher education; the Reuniting Families Act, to help separated families; and various visa system reforms.
Key issues remain unsettled in the immigration debate, including proposals to mandate that undocumented immigrants pay high fines and “touchback” to their country of origin before legalizing their status.
Enhanced border and interior enforcement efforts also continue, as do efforts to alter visa proportions to favor highly skilled immigrants over family members.
As people of faith, it is important that we advocate for humane, workable policies that will uphold the dignity of each person and the integrity of all families.
People of faith are uniquely charged to reach out to those on the margins of society, just as Jesus reached out to the Samaritan woman (John 4).
They are also called to stand for the rights of those at risk: “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:8-9).
Immigrants are frequently identified in Scripture among those worthy of special consideration by God’s people.
Deuteronomy 27:19 reminds us, “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan and the widow of justice.”
We must develop deep, reciprocal relationships with immigrants and work together as congregations, neighbors and friends to build more welcoming communities.
We are also called to live by Kingdom principles of justice, working to challenge and change systems that put people at risk.
Our policymakers need to know that people of faith are committed to immigrants’ rights and will hold them accountable for their votes on immigration policies.
As Christians, we are called to bold, courageous action on behalf of immigrants for immigration reform.
Jen Smyers is associate director for Immigration and Refugee Policy with Church World Service. Copyright 2012 American Baptist Home Mission Societies. Used by permission. Download a copy of TheChurchandtheChallengeofImmigrationReform today.