Immigration Interview with Jenny Hwang (2)

I want to thank Jenny Hwang for taking the time to answer some questions raised by her book, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate. The national questions and debates about immigration aren’t going away anytime soon.  Wouldn’t it be remarkable if Christians were informed theologically and practically about these issues in such a way as to make significant contributions?  After all, what may seem like a debate about politics and ideology to some of us is a matter of much more immediate concern to so many immigrants.

Today we focus on some of the more practical concerns in the immigration debate, including one that may initially seem trite.

How important is the distinction between identifying someone as an “illegal” immigrant and an “undocumented” immigrant?

We prefer to refer to people as “undocumented” rather than “illegal.” We do not deny that it is illegal to enter the United States without a valid visa, nor do we condone any illegal activity. However, while entry without inspection (or over staying a temporary visa) is illegal, this does not define the person’s identity. Many of us have broken a law at one time or another (we can probably confess to having sped down the highway on more than one occasion), but if a single (or even, in the case of our speeding, repeated) act were to define our identity, we would probably all be “illegals.” It is too easy to dehumanize immigrants with such terminology. So, rather than referring to people as illegal aliens, we generally opt to refer to people as undocumented immigrants.

The immigration debate seems to have taken a back seat to the health care debate these days. When do expect to see immigration re-enter the national debate and what are key issues you hope to see resolved?

Rep. Luis Gutierrez from Chicago, IL introduced an immigration bill on Tuesday December 15, 2009 called the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, or CIR ASAP Act of 2009. This bill would provide increased border security, an employment verification system, reduce family based visa backlogs, and create a path for earned legal status for undocumented immigrants. The bill would also establish an independent federal commission that will develop employment-based immigration policies as well as increase American worker protections.

Senator Schumer in the Senate has also taken leadership on immigration and is working on a bill to introduce next year. Many faith groups are supporting comprehensive immigration reform which can be outlined as follows:

  • Reforms in our family based immigration system to significantly reduce waiting times for separated families who currently wait many years to be reunited;
  • The creation of more responsive legal avenues for workers and their families who wish to migrate to the U.S. to enter our country and work in a safe, legal, and orderly manner that prevents their exploitation and assures them due process;
  • The option for those individuals and families who are already living in the U.S. and working hard, to apply for permanent legal status and citizenship if they choose to do so, by meeting specific application criteria; and
  • Border protection policies that are consistent with humanitarian values and with the need to treat all individuals with respect, while allowing the authorities to carry out the critical task of enforcing our laws.

What are some practical steps a person could take who wants to become more actively involved in advocating for compassion and justice for immigrants.

I think a good acronym to get people involved in immigration is PLEASE.

P- Prayer is critical to bring before God our concerns and needs about immigration. We can pray for immigrants, especially for families separated by current policies, for Congress and the President, and for the countries from which immigrants come

L- Listening and Learning from our immigrant brothers and sisters. We can build relationships with our immigrant brothers and sisters so that they can help us to understand how this issue affects all of us as the Church. We can also build relationships with pastors and church leaders leading immigrant congregations. There are also many books and other resources to help us understand this issue better, including Welcoming the Stranger as well as Christians at the Border.

E- Education of our local communities and churches is very important on this issue. Churches can ask a pastor of a nearby immigrant congregation to share with their congregation. Churches can also dedicate a Sunday School class, missions conference, or Sunday sermon to looking at immigration in Scripture. World Relief or other ministries that work with immigrants may be helpful in connecting churches and individuals with volunteer opportunities that can facilitate mutual learning

A- Advocacy- It is critical for folks to write, call, and visit your Congressperson to support Comprehensive Immigration Reform. People can email in order to receive bi-monthly emails updating you on immigration news. Folks can also text “JUSTICE” to 69866 to get updates on immigration. These calls and letters will determine whether immigration reform passes in Congress, which in turn will affect the lives of millions of people in the country now. It is also important to speak up for immigrants whenever you hear or read rumors or myths about them.

S- Service- There are many ways for a church to serve the immigrants in their community. Churches can provide English classes, mentorships/friendship partners to help newly arriving immigrants adjust to a new culture, space for an immigrant congregation to meet, and legal services, with proper training and governmental recognition.

E- Evangelism- As we serve and welcome immigrants into our churches, we have the opportunity to share with them the transformational message of the gospel

Immigration Interview with Jenny Hwang (1)

As mentioned on Thursday, today I’m posting the first part of an interview with Jenny Hwang who, along with Matthew Soerens, authored Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate.  I read a lot of books this year, but this is the one I’ve most recommended.  Hwang works for World Relief in Maryland as the director of advocacy and policy for the Refugee and Immigration Program.  She is an able guide through the murky waters of American immigration policy, both past and present.

Today we begin with some of the bigger issues this book provoked for me.  On Wednesday I’ll post Hwang’s responses to three very practical questions, including ways each of us can be involved in this arena.

In your book you cut through a lot of the confusion regarding the history of immigration and immigration policy in the United States. What are a couple of the greatest misconceptions about immigration you’ve encountered?

One of the most common misconceptions about immigrants is that they are all Latino or Mexican immigrants who are crossing the border illegally. Of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today, there is a substantial number of undocumented immigrants who are Irish, Korean, Ukrainian, or Nigerian, among others. Also, there is a misconception that all undocumented immigrants have cross the border illegally which is not true- about half of undocumented immigrants did cross the border illegally but about half actually entered the U.S. legally on a visa but over-stayed their visa, oftentimes to continue work in a job or to be with family. Many undocumented immigrants, when you talk with them on a one-on-one basis, did try to come the legal way to the U.S. but oftentimes there was no “line” for them to get into since there is such a limited number of visas available; for example, there are currently only 10,000 visas available for low-skilled permanent immigrants to enter the U.S.

The majority of immigrants also pay taxes. The Social Security Administration estimates that 3 out of 4 undocumented immigrants have payroll, Social Security, and Medicare taxes deducted from their paychecks, contributing $6 to $7 billion dollars a year in withholdings. Undocumented immigrants, however, are ineligible to receive any federal benefits, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. Even legal immigrants are ineligible for many public benefits until at least 5 years after their admission.

Many immigrants are often fellow believers in Christ who share the same values that the broader American people have. They are hard-workers, very family oriented, hospitable, generous, and welcoming. So for Christians, when we think about the immigration issue, we should think of the issue as one that is directly affecting the body of Christ.

Your book argues that immigration is a theological issue, one that connects with Christianity at a fundamental level. What do you say to Christians who haven’t seen the immigration debate in theological terms?

When you read the Bible you find it is a book about migration. Almost every major Biblical character has some sort of migration experience, from Abraham who was told to leave his homeland, to the Israelites in Egypt who were refugees fleeing Pharaoh, to Ruth, the Moabite woman who with her mother-in-law migrated to Israel from Moab, and King David who fled at times in his life from King Saul, to Jesus who as an infant fled to Egypt following King Herod’s decree that all infants under 2 years of age were to be killed.

God also throughout the Bible has a special concern for the immigrant. Ger, the Hebrew word closest to “immigrant” in English, appears 92 times in the Old Testament and is often noted as a people group who are vulnerable along with widows and orphans (Deuteronomy 24:19-21; 14:28-29). In the Old Testament, God explicitly and repeatedly commands the Israelites to provide the immigrants in their society with rights, benefits, and responsibilities equal to the native-born. Exodus 12:49 states “The same law applies to the native-born and to the alien [ger] living among you.” Leviticus 19:33-24 states “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The 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.”

While we do not necessarily have to adopt the Old Testament Law, it tells us about God’s character: God loves the immigrant, as He does the orphan and the widow, and He commands His people to love them also, remembering their own history. The Law was designed to draw the attention of other nations as a model of wisdom and justice (Deuteronomy 4:5-8).

As we think about immigrants today, it’s important to acknowledge that immigrants are a part of the body of Christ. Immigrant congregations are growing faster than any other category of evangelical churches. There is one Church – one Body, one Spirit, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Ephesians 4:4-6). Each part of the Body is indispensable (1 Corinthians 12:14-25) – so our immigrant brothers and sisters need us, and we need them. Many immigrants are suffering under the current system, living in fear of being separated from their families. In 1 Corinthians 12:26 we’re told that when one part of the body suffers we all suffer together.

While many view immigration as a threat, for the Church it is a great missional opportunity. Many immigrants arrive in the U.S. and bring a vibrant evangelical faith with them, revitalizing our churches. Others arrive in U.S. having never heard or accepted the gospel, so we have the privilege to share it with them. We are commanded to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20); through immigration, the nations arrive at our doorstep. Our response to immigrants and to questions of immigration policy—whether “welcome!” or “go home!”–will define how immigrants respond to the gospel we preach.

Author Interview: Welcoming the Stranger

I first mentioned Welcoming the Stranger back in September as I was just starting the book about the immigration debate.  Rather than post a review in which I’d cajole you to read the book at your earliest convenience, I asked if one of the authors would be willing to engage a few questions which could be posted here.  Jenny Hwang graciously agreed and I’ll be posting our interview in two parts next week.  I’m mentioning this now so you can set aside a few minutes of your Christmas week to consider some significant questions about immigration, questions that will undoubtedly only become more prevalent in the coming months.

It occurs to me that Christmastime is a great time to thoughtfully engage the issues surrounding our nation’s immigration debate and policies.  Consider the Magi: central characters in the Christmas story whose visit provoked one of lesser-known chapters of the first Christmas.

When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.  -Matthew 2:13-15

Most of us know the story of Jesus’ birth quite well.  The story that follows- a family displaced by circumstances beyond their control- is less known but regularly experienced by many around the world, including the USA.

I hope you’ll stop by the blog next week for a chance to engage with Jenny Hwang on ideas and issues that matter all of the time, perhaps more poignantly so during Christmas.

immigration? no. torture? yes. christian? for sure.

This morning I finished the very excellent book by Matthew Soerens and Jenny Hwang, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion, and Truth in the Immigration Debate. I’ll post a more thorough review later, but the following paragraph in the second to last chapter caught my eye and is worth sharing here.

Indeed, there does seem to be a disconnect between the pulpit and the pews on the immigration question: while many prominent evangelicals have endorsed a more generous immigration policy, and very few have vocally opposed such a policy, an April 2006 study found that 63 percent of white evangelicals see immigrants as a threat to U.S. customs and values, and 64 percent consider immigrants a burden on society– higher percentages than any other group surveyed, whether religious or secular.

The study they reference, “Attitudes Toward Immigration: In the Pulpit and the Pew”, comes from the Pew Research Center.  Here are two summary tables from the study that fill in some of the details.  Click the image for a larger view.

attitudes-toward-immigration-in-the-pulpit-and-the-pewattitudes-toward-immigration-in-the-pulpit-and-the-pew_2What do you make of these numbers?  I’m curious how those of us who fall within the “white evangelical protestant” category might explain our pessimistic view of recent immigrants.  This study reminds me of another recent Pew study regarding how religion impacts a person’s view of torture.  This study found that white evangelicals more than any other group thought the use of torture could be justified.

What is it about us white evangelical folk that leads to such views?  In my more cynical moments I think we have been spiritually formed less by the Bible, Christian tradition, and the Holy Spirit than by a certain political ideology.

The Pew immigration study does conclude with one sign of life.  “[W]ithin each of the three largest religious groups in the U.S., the most religiously committed Americans tend to hold views that are more favorable toward immigrants.”  It appears that those most closely associated with their faith tradition are more likely to form beliefs and perspectives that counter the prevailing opinion.  The faith of these folks actually appears to make a difference in how they think and act.  Now there’s a novel thought!